Brief History - Since 1933
In 1933 my grandfather, Rev. A.R. Leak had a vision of opening his own funeral business after having realized that black people could not afford to bury their loved ones in a respectable manner. With the help of God, $500.00 that he earned as bathroom attendant at The Chicago’s World Fair and a $500.00 loan from my grandmother Dorothy, the A.R. Leak Funeral Home opened its doors at 4448 S. State Street in Chicago, IL. Now 79 years later we have two locations in Chicago and Country Club Hills, IL where we serve over 2000 families per year. My father Spencer Leak, Sr. is now our owner and president, and I represent the 3rd generation of our business as vice president. At this time we have been approved for financing to open our 3rd funeral home as we are aggressively looking for a location on the west side of Chicago.
Our funeral business is also very well known for its involvement with the Civil Rights movement. My grandfather was great friends with Dr. King having provided limousine service for him during his time in Chicago. My father often picked him up from the airport and for his famous speech at Soldier Field in Chicago concerning the housing crisis; it was my father who drove him there.
My grandfather also led the march to desegregate Chicago’s Oakwood Cemetery. It is my understanding that in the early 1960’s, a mother came to our firm wanting her daughter buried in the all-white cemetery even though it sat in the middle of what had become a mostly black neighborhood. On the day of the burial the cemetery rejected the remains; however two weeks later my grandfather along with The NAACP, The Rev. Clay Evans and other well-known ministers, organized the march leading hundreds from the front door of our funeral home to the gate of the cemetery. It was on that day that Oakwood Cemetery opened its gates to blacks. Oakwood Cemetery is now home to the resting places of many famous African Americans including Jesse Owens and Chicago’s first black mayor, The Honorable Harold Washington.
Since 1933, it has been the history of the Leak and Sons Funeral Home to give back to the community. We are known in the community as the funeral home that will “work with you”. My father’s instructions to our staff, is that we are never to turn away any family due to a lack of funds. He says this because it is his belief as well as mine that our business was founded by God and only co-founded by my grandfather. He goes on to say that any family that comes to us is a gift from God so if we were to turn away a family, we would be turning away one of Gods gifts. On a regular basis we lower our prices and even give funerals for free to those who have come across an unexpected loss and cannot afford a dignified service for their loved one.
Our business also gives back by donating to local churches. I have been told by many older pastors in the city that had it not been for my grandfather not only loaning their church money, but actually signing his name on the mortgage, they might not have been able to start their churches. If you were to talk to many pastors in the city you may find that they started their church right in the chapel of our funeral home.
Whether it be donating money for food, placing a family in a motel for the night paying utilities, rent etc. we have done it all. Just recently my parents noticed a family walking in the cold. After stopping and talking with them, they found out that they were homeless. That night they bought food and diapers for the children and placed them in a motel, however, they are now in their own apartment and Marcus, the father, now works for us.
Our business is also well known for training future funeral directors and embalmers. We often accept students from local Mortuary Science Schools allowing them to get the training they need to fulfill their requirements for graduation. Many Chicago funeral home owners in business today got there training through A. R. Leak and Sons Funeral Homes. W. W. Holt, Slaughter and Sons, Barker Funeral Home, Paradise Gardens and Evans Funeral Home all got their start through us.
There are many ways that our customer service stands out. Having well knowledged staff to answer the initial calls is one way. Always having staff looking neat and professional is another. Having late model and clean rolling stock. Providing a facility with proper lighting so that it doesn’t look dark and dreary. Presenting our clients family members in a way for viewing that eases the pain of the loss they suffered. These are all items that one would expect in the funeral industry. However, what we get many compliments on is the fact that my father and I try to make an appearance at every funeral that our firm conducts. On any given Saturday we can have as many as 20 funerals. In the morning we will talk and get our strategy together for the day. One of us will either walk a family into the funeral, greet the family during the wake, close the casket, open the casket, walk the family out, meet them at the cemetery or have some chicken and greens with them at the repast. Our families find it refreshing and comforting knowing that the owners of the funeral home took the time to personally come and pay their respects.
Greatest Obstacles and Challenges
Having been in business for almost 80 years, our funeral business has had its ups and downs. I mentioned before about all of the loans to different churches and others that my grandfather made. Well those loans as well as his age caught up to him in the middle and late 1980’s. Our business went from being remembered as the funeral home that buried Sam Cooke and being the number one funeral home in Chicago to becoming very close to being out of business. I remember a friend’s sister passed away and I asked her why her family didn’t use us. She went on to say that her mother had heard that we would be closing any day.
My grandfather died in1993. I remember greeting over 1000 friends at the casket during the visitation and all of his friends asking where was my father. During my grandfather’s visitation my father was not there because he was at the bank asking them not to foreclose on us until after the funeral so that it would not be a part of the television news. Because our limousines and hearses were in such bad shape having all been vandalized two weeks before his death, another local funeral director donated his hearse for my grandfather to take his final ride to the cemetery. Our business, yes, was indeed on the verge of closing.
But like I mentioned before. Our business was founded by God. And in all those years of being in business. All those years of personal and compassionate service. All those years of free funerals. With all of those years of giving donations and doing good deeds, God gave us something. Even though my grandfather died leaving my father millions in debt, he died leaving us with something that was priceless. That priceless something was the name of Leak.
My father took the name of Leak, the name that God had given to my grandfather and to him and used that name to bring our business back to the institution that it once was. We are now once again one of the top and most well respected funeral businesses in Chicago, as well as the country.
Another obstacle took place March 11th 2008. Our business caught fire. Seven remains were burned. In my lifetime I have only seen my father cry twice. Once when his mother, my grandmother, passed away and then once again on this day. We thought that our business once again might have to close. Not because of damage to our building because only a very small room caught fire. Our building is almost a city block long. We thought it would close because of bad publicity. But once again, God stepped in and directed our paths. We found ourselves being comforted by those families who’s loved ones were affected by the fire and we were praised by the community because of the dignified way in which we handled the situation. And in 2008 we serviced over 2000 families which tuned out to be our best year up to that point. Since 2008 the number of families that we serve has increased every year. Out of this incident, my brother came up with a saying that we take with us wherever we go: “The Setback Was the Set Up For the Come Back”.
A third obstacle is that the funeral industry is rapidly changing. The internet, as well as the increasing cremation rate is causing many funeral service firms to have to re-boot. It is now become my responsibility to keep our business up to date with all of the different modes of technology as well as educate our clients about the many methods of cremation. Many clients are now becoming aware that you can have a complete funeral by renting a casket and then cremating. By offering this method, the family is getting a traditional funeral as well as satisfying those whose choice might have been cremation because they may not have known otherwise.
Most Important Company Contribution
While growing up, my younger brothers and I did not see that much of my father. While other friends were playing ball with their dads or going to the movies with their families, we spent most of our time with our mother. I mention this because to answer the question, the greatest contribution that we have given to our business is time and dedication. Before cell phones and pagers and email, the only way to get business was to wait for the phone to ring at the funeral home. When we wanted to see our dad, mom would take us to the funeral home to spend time there. (Once my parents had my birthday party at the funeral home so my father could attend.) That time turned into part time jobs for us. Answering the phones and washing limos etc. And even though modern technology has come about, my father is still old school and will not leave the funeral home that often. He does not have a cell phone or an email address. My parents have not been on a vacation in almost 25 years and to this day my father, brothers and I have never been to a White Sox game together. And now my wife and children understand that I am almost just like him, spending most of my time between one of our locations, but unlike my parents we do go on vacation. Were we ever upset with him about his dedication? No. Had it not been for his dedication and devotion to our business, we would not be in business today.
Outstanding Business Efforts That Should Be Noticed
Our business has been called an institution, having helped so many over the years. Countless numbers of people are buried in Chicago with honor and dignity and respect because of the efforts of my grandfather and father. It is my wish to continue the legacy that they both through God created and continued for me and now my children who represent the 4th generation of our business. I would also like to thank our staff for staying with us through those ups and downs over the years. We could not have done it without them.
At the funeral of John Johnson, the founder of Ebony and Jet Magazines, Cerrilo Mc Sween, a well-known civil rights leader and businessman said that “John Johnson was a millionaire who gave away millions”. My father, Spencer Leak, Sr. is not a millionaire because he has given away millions.
I enter this contest today wanting the years of dedication that my father has given to our business and our community, to be noticed on a broader scale. I want entrepreneurs, young and old to know that when your business is going through turbulent times, it does not have to mean that it’s the end. It could very well mean that it’s time for a new beginning. Take your God given talents, whatever they may be and continue to build that name, that legacy, for you, your children, your children’s children and generations to come.
In closing, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Black Enterprise for giving African American businesses like ours a chance to showcase our services. It would be an honor to win or even be considered for this most prestigious award. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Welcome to Chicago!
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Leak & Sons Funeral Homes
7838 S.Cottage Grove Chicago, IL 60619
18400 S. Pulaski Rd Country Club Hills, IL 60478