Milk urn resurfaces
from D.C. cemetery
by Matthew S. Bajko
An urn containing various memorabilia related to the late gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, including a lock of hair from his famous ponytail, has resurfaced after being locked away in a Washington, D.C. cemetery's vault for 22 years.
The urn and its contents are now in the possession of the California Museum in Sacramento and will become part of an exhibition about the pioneering politician set to open to the public in December when Milk is officially inducted into the state's Hall of Fame. In 1977 Milk became the country's first out lawmaker to be elected to office in a major U.S. city by winning a seat on the Board of Supervisors.
Milk's openly gay nephew Stuart Milk had the urn sent to the history institution after being contacted last month about it. He had already been working with Amanda Meeker, the deputy director for the museum, on the display about his uncle, which will be the first time Milk's possessions have been displayed outside of San Francisco.
"Sometimes I think Harvey, from above, continues to orchestrate these things. I can hear him saying, 'What could be more dramatic than having my urn?' The lock of hair is supposed to be part of his ponytail," said Stuart Milk.
Meeker opened the urn Monday, October 5 and found several objects encased in a plastic, see-through satchel. Along with the hair cutting were an audiocassette dated June 10, 1978 titled, "Harvey Milk speech in Dallas;" a letter in an envelope addressed to Scott Smith, his former lover; a sheet of his supervisorial letterhead; and a film negative of what appears to be Harvey Milk in some room. Once the exhibit closes in October 2010 the items will be returned to Milk's family for safekeeping.
"Basically, it is a time capsule," said Meeker, who has yet to open the bag. "I think, certainly, we are very excited to be able to show that. The fact this is brand new, and no one has seen it and most people didn't know at this point what was in there, certainly adds a level of excitement and intrigue."
Long lost urn
The story of the urn has been shrouded in urban legend for two decades after news accounts in the late 1980s erroneously reported that it contained some of Milk's ashes, and therefore, he had never been properly buried. The truth was far less sensational.
After Milk's assassination in 1978 by former board colleague Dan White, his family and friends scattered his ashes in San Francisco Bay. But Smith kept the box that contained Milk's remains, said several of his friends.
When in 1987 Smith, openly gay Air Force Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, and AIDS activist Ken McPherson decided there should be a memorial for Milk in Congressional Cemetery in the nation's capital, they collected several personal items to be sealed within the urn. One of the objects was a rainbow flag that they first used to wipe inside the box that had contained Milk's ashes; Matlovich then folded the flag into a triangle and secured it with a "Harvey Milk for Supervisor" campaign button.
During the October 1987 March on Washington to demand LGBT rights, the trio held a ceremony at the privately owned burial place along the Anacostia River and announced they had bought two plots in the cemetery where they intended to build a national memorial for Milk. But a story in the Bay Area Reporter two years later said the effort had run into problems raising enough money to construct the project and that the urn was locked away in a safe at the cemetery.
The project continued to languish, beset by difficulties in raising money as well as hindered by a leadership scandal at the cemetery. In 2000 a grand jury indicted John Hanley, the cemetery's former director, for embezzling more than $175,000 from dozens of cemetery clients and donors over a 10-year period, according to a story in the Washington Post .
Stuart Milk recalls being contacted around the same time about plans to resurrect the memorial idea for his uncle but then nothing came of the revived push. At the time he said he didn't fully realize what the urn contained and never bothered to seek it out at the cemetery to examine it.
"I didn't know this was given to the cemetery by the estate of Harvey Milk until a month ago. If I had known that 10 years ago that this was something that did not belong to any of these people involved in it ...," said Stuart Milk. "If it had ashes it would be totally different. It was clear to me none of Harvey's remains were in it. I was told it was a private project."
Contacted this week by the B.A.R. McPherson, the lone survivor of the initial backers of the Milk memorial, declined to discuss in-depth the problems the project encountered for this article. He would only say that the decades-long saga has been personally difficult.
"I am extremely disappointed Congressional Cemetery didn't fulfill their promise, and I fully support what Stuart is doing with it," said McPherson.
In the spring of 2008 the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery hired Cindy Hays as the new executive director for the cemetery. One day she happened to be in the vault and found Milk's urn.
"When I got here I was in the vault one day and said, 'Oh, my gosh. who is this?' The chairman of the board said it is Harvey Milk. I said, 'No, Harvey is at sea,'" recalled Hays.
Looking through the board's meeting minutes, Hays learned that in June 2006 the board at the time had authorized its manager to contact the owners of the urn. That July's meeting minutes reported that the manager had found someone and the urn would be returned. But for some reason the urn remained.
"It was very important for us not to be keeping artifacts that did not belong to us. And so I started the process probably last August, in 2008, to find somebody to talk to me about the urn so we could return the urn," said Hays. "It is important Harvey Milk not be living in our closet."
She also found old newspaper articles saying the project sponsors had bought 12 plots for the Milk memorial and that Milk would be buried next to J. Edgar Hoover, the former FBI director said to have led a closeted life. Matlovich is buried in a plot close to Hoover's gravesite.
Yet the cemetery only knew of two plots that had been purchased by Never Forget, the organization formed to develop the Milk memorial. Hays scoured through 500 pages of cemetery records in order to locate Milk's plots.
"I was trying to find Harvey Milk in the section that Matlovich is in and he wasn't there. There are no 12 places together that are empty; there are no six places together that are empty. It was terribly perplexing," said Hays. "I reached one of the old managers who said Milk's plot was on the other side of the cemetery. Milk's site for the estate was four blocks away from J. Edgar Hoover."
Eventually Hays contacted the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco early this summer. The society's executive director, Paul Boneberg, said he has known McPherson for years and was well aware of the plans for a Milk memorial as he attended the 1987 ceremony at the cemetery. The society initially sought to transfer the urn to its archives as well as $4,500 the cemetery had kept on behalf of the project sponsors.
"The urn was deposited by known people so we contacted those people and Congressional Cemetery knew who those people were. We were trying to simply get the urn out of Congressional Cemetery somewhere," said Boneberg. "I think it has been successful. We would support anything Stuart or the Milk family would want to do with the use of the urn or any refunded deposit from that project."
In addition to McPherson, Boneberg also contacted Dan Nicoletta, a close friend of Milk's who has helped spearhead local memorial efforts in the city. When the discussions turned to ownership of the burial plots and cemetery officials said they would need a Milk heir to sign the paperwork, Boneberg said they contacted Stuart Milk.
"Part of what occurred here is Congressional Cemetery had enormous problems decades ago. Those problems made it impossible for this project to proceed," said Boneberg. "That caused confusion and we needed some folks to come forward and cut through the confusion and Stuart seemed like the right person."
"Congressional Cemetery let these people down. It left the community to find a way to get these items returned," added Boneberg. "I am glad we are able to make that happen after all these decades. I think Scott and others would want it out of there."
Stuart Milk said that initially he was "a little concerned" that it took several months of negotiations before he and his family were brought into the discussions about what to do with the urn. He decided it would be best to have the Sacramento museum's forensic archivist examine the contents of the urn to authenticate them and incorporate them into the exhibit about his uncle.
"Knowing my uncle, I think he would much prefer these items be shown," said Stuart Milk, adding that he owns a letter in which Harvey Milk writes about the importance of keeping personal heirlooms within the family.
He said he also questioned the logic of having a memorial for his uncle at a privately owned cemetery in the shadows of RFK Stadium that few people visit.
"It is owned by the Episcopal Church, and although I believe it is nondenominational, I also thought Harvey, although he was very non-organizational religious, he definitely identified himself as being Jewish. If someone were to pick a cemetery it should be a Jewish cemetery," said Stuart Milk, who is in the process of forming a Harvey Milk Foundation and would like to see a public memorial built somewhere in San Francisco.
"I don't think Congressional Cemetery is the right place, but I think San Francisco is the right place for that. It is something I would like to see done in my lifetime," said Stuart Milk. "Something that is not just a subway entrance. Living buildings are wonderful living monuments but you wouldn't have people leaving memorials there."