The families file in to Leak & Sons Funeral Home, grieving lost loved ones, most of them young black men, and begging for help to foot funeral and burial costs.
After 17 people were killed last weekend — Chicago is seeing more killings this year than the city has seen in more than a decade — family after family streamed through the doors of the funeral home on South Cottage Grove.
For years, when poverty and death collide, Spencer Leak has been a mortician they turn to. His Chatham funeral parlor has played that role since his father, the late Rev. Andrew “A.R.” Leak, opened the place in 1959.
“It’s always difficult to sit across from a mother who has lost a child, a young man, for the most part to street violence,” says Leak, 78. “I have to arrange a funeral and, at the same time, try to comfort a family in dealing with this death.
Four of the victims last weekend were under 17 — 14 of them black, two Hispanic, one white. That brought the total number of people killed under 18 so far this year to 78.
“The families want to know: Why?” Leak says. “What I try to do is have prayer with them. You want them to know, despite the lack of years this young man lived, his life was still valuable. He had assets unique to him that should be celebrated.”
Leak’s parents were part of the Great Migration, his father following relatives heading north from Little Rock, Ark., in the late 1920s. At first, Andrew Leak sold insurance. Seeing brisk business in burial policies, he opened Unity Funeral Home, his first, in 1933.
Leak’s father married the daughter of a sharecropper from Alabama, Dottie Steger. Together, they ran the business and had three sons. Spencer Leak, the youngest, entered the Army after high school, then came back to work for his father.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the young Leak chauffeured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. around in the Leaks’ limousine — a favor to Chicago Urban League leader Edwin C. “Bill” Berry, whose namesake award Leak will receive at the organization’s centennial celebration on Nov. 19.
In 1964, Leak joined his father and 10,000 others in a march on Oak Woods Cemetery, located in the middle of the city’s then-Black Belt on the South Side, which refused to bury or cremate blacks. Three days later, Oak Woods was integrated.
When the city cleared miles of land in the Black Belt to build the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project, businesses were forced to relocate. A.R. Leak Funeral Home moved to its current location in 1959.
“We hoped we wouldn’t lose the business we had in the previous location, but we opened that Monday, and no one called,” Leak says. “Neither Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Nor the second week, nor the third week.
“We thought we had made a tragic error. Then, a lady came in with a young daughter who passed away. She said, ‘Mr. Leak, I want to bury my daughter. I want to have a funeral. But I have no money, no resources.’
“My father called us together and said, ‘We’re going to give this child a funeral fit for a princess. We’re going to give her the finest casket, limousines.’
“He saw this as a sign we should not, in this new location, turn anyone away, no matter what their resources. It became our policy. And from that point on, our business thrived. A lot of these young victims of violence, their families oftentimes don’t have insurance. We turn no one away.”
While working in the family business, Leak got his master’s degree in criminal justice and held positions in state and Cook County government from the early 1980s through 2000.
Before that, he married Henrietta Salter, whom he’d spotted in the choir at Liberty Baptist Church in 1969. Married for 47 years, they have three sons, including Spencer Leak Jr., who works in the family business.
Andrew Leak died in 1993, Dottie Leak the year before that.
“My dad was a minister,” Leak says. “I am not. But I’ve tried to make this business a ministry. It isn’t unusual for me, in the course of a week, to sit down with at least two mothers who lost children to violence.
“It ebbs and flows with spikes like we saw last weekend. If there is any answer to this senseless violence that permeates our streets, it has to be from God.”