By Diane Bukowski
DETROIT – As Agnes Hitchcock put it. “It was Mary Shoemake herself and the life she lived that made her funeral service so wonderfully inspiring.”
The life-long activist and fighter for the people of Detroit was laid to rest after stirring eulogies at Cantrell Funeral Home Dec. 19. Though Mary appeared quiet and self-effacing during her lifetime, her profound impact on the struggle in this city was clear in the turn-out for the service.
Those who came to celebrate her life included everyone from prominent politicians to the leaders and members of Call ‘em Out, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Keep the Vote No Takeover, UAW Local 6000, Hood Research, the NAACP, and the Voice of Detroit, as well as grass roots Detroiters.
Her beloved aunt Eva Woodford along with other family members and her special friend and fellow activist Erma Thomas listened to the eulogies with pride. (See entire funeral program on Memorials page.)
Helen Moore, leader of Keep the Vote No Takeover and a member of the Council of Elders, stepped out of that role to tell a little-known chapter of Mary’s life when both were state social workers and militant members of UAW Local 6000.
“Long years ago, we worked together,” said Elder Moore. “I was a union steward. Mary and I with the others fought the state together over our building conditions and the racism there, and even though they were writing us up like crazy, we won. At one point, everybody at their desks began to sing spirituals, and Mary was singing louder than anyone. They had a meeting with us later to ask who had cut up the supervisors’ sweaters and coats. No one admitted it, but Mary had a sly grin on her face.”
Moore added, “It’s people like Mary that lead the whole battle just by standing there and keeping the focus, and telling us what to do.”
She said Mary and 31 other activists with Keep the Vote No Takeover have passed since the first state school takeover in 1999.
Agnes Hitchcock, steward of Call ‘em Out, addressed Mary’s family.
“Thank you for giving us the opportunity to see what was so wonderful about Mary,” Hitchcock said. “Mary was unselfish, she never complained, she was always thinking about other people. Even when she was in the nursing home and Jimmy Thornton was visiting her, she got worried about him and called Erma (Thomas) to have her check up on him, and it turned out he had passed away after seeing her. When I told her in the nursing home that the court had just ruled against [Detroit Public Schools czar] Robert Bobb, she just smiled and said, ‘It’s about time.”
Hitchcock said Mary was very proud of the Warrior Award that Call em Out presented to her.
“Our hearts are broken, because Mary fought for the end of the corporate class,” said Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. “Wherever there is resistance, you can always expect assistance from the women of our class like Mary, they are sister soldiers. She understand what the task was, and wherever she is now, I know that Jimmy Thornton, John Brown and our other fighters that went before her are greeting her.”
Pastor Jerome Poole of Messiah Baptist Church brought to mind what everyone remembered Mary for.
“She was a champion for the rights of the poor and oppressed,” he said, and she exemplified the biblical advice, ‘Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly in our God.’
Pastor Poole said he first met Mary when he showed up at the Call em out picket outside the Council of Baptist Pastors meeting.
“We were asking them, ‘Are you bought and bossed and selling out for cash?’ What I remember Mary best for, though, is that white bucket. Mary wasn’t pushy, she was just determined. The first time I came to a meeting and she passed it around, I didn’t have any money. The second time, after she got through with everybody else, she brought the bucket to me and stood there and just looked. When I told her I had only five dollars to get home with, she said, ‘Put it in the bucket.’”
City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson presented the Spirit of Detroit award, signed by all Detroit councilmembers, to Mary’s family.
“Mary was a symbol for around the world,” Watson said. “She was a person who, when you spent time with her, she added value to your life. Beyond calamity lies invincibility if you go out and seize it.”
State Representative Coleman Young, Jr. presented an award from the Michigan House of Representatives. An award was also presented from the U.S. House of Representatives through U.S. Representative John Conyers.
“Mary left her footprint everywhere she fought for human rights and dignity,” said another award from Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett. “She was a precinct delegate for many years in the 14th Congressional District, a community warrior driven to educate the community with the need for social awareness and involvement.”
(Anyone who wants copies of 23 photos taken at Mary’s funeral service emailed to them, please contact Diane Bukowski, firstname.lastname@example.org. –underscore between first and last names.)