- “‘Ours is a Business of Loyalty’:African American Funeral Home Owners in Southern Cities”*
I was five years old when my grandmother Olivia—or “Mother” as we called her—died. During her lifetime, Mother, the daughter of a prominent racially mixed North Carolina educator, and my grandfather Louis, a poor sharecropper, gave birth to twelve children, most of whom would go on to earn graduate degrees. I never knew my grandfather Louis, or the aunt and uncle who died before Mother. Mother was the center of our family and her passing was my first experience with death, and also the process of burying the dead. I still recall vividly the day of Mother’s funeral. I sat there on the hard church pew squeezed in between my older brother and cousins trying to get comfortable in my yellow dress with the white ruffled collar, and the white tights that made my legs itch. I had already mourned for Mother by the time the funeral was held. I would miss her, but was happy to know that her wheelchair would be replaced by wings and she would no longer suffer from the multiple sclerosis that ravaged her body. In my mind, the funeral was not to be a sad occasion—however, the familiar and unfamiliar faces all around suggested otherwise. I recognized many of the faces at the funeral—aunts, [End Page 57] uncles, cousins and a host of extended family members, but there were also faces I did not recognize—the stoic, hard-faced men in their black suites, white shirts, and black ties who seemed to be telling everyone what to do. Quietly, and with great dignity and poise these men orchestrated Mother’s going home ceremony.
Since Mother’s death over forty-five years ago, I have attended many funerals, and watched with great fascination the work of the men (and now women) who engage in the business of death in African American communities. The death of a family member near the time I was searching for a thesis topic for my master’s degree prompted me to explore the business that had fascinated me as a child. I completed this thesis in 1990 which was narrowly focused on my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, which at the time had three African American owned funeral homes. My research led me to Booker T. Washington’s work. His words about the African American funeral business struck me then as quoted in my 1990 thesis, as they still do today, and certainly bear repeating. He states, “It is a curious fact that with the exception of that of caterer there is no business in which Negroes seem to be more numerously engaged or one in which they have been more uniformly successful” (94).
Funeral home operators occupy a unique place in African American communities. They comfort the living while burying the dead. As business owners, they are necessarily concerned with profit, yet their business demands compassion. Relying on the personal accounts of funeral home operators from three Southern states, this work demonstrates the powerful linkages between the personal, political, social, and economic lives of funeral directors and the communities they serve. Furthermore, these accounts offer insight into factors that motivated African American men and their families to engage in the funeral business, and highlight the challenges they faced as black entrepreneurs occupying Southern spaces at the turn of the twentieth century.
The long history of African American involvement in business ventures is fairly well-documented. Historian Juliet Walker notes, “Antebellum blacks, primarily slaves, in addition to being business owners, also participated as managers (intrapreneurs) in urban, industrial, and agricultural enterprises in the South’s business community” (xxv). As descendants of slaves; the desire to own one’s labor and profit from hard work, served as a motivator to entrepreneurship. During the post-bellum era, those with an entrepreneurial spirit operated their own businesses selling food, used clothing and furniture, and hand-made crafts (Jones 8; Logan 112; Walker xxiv). Others were involved in businesses such as journalism, hairdressing, shoemaking, and tailoring (Jones 8). Emancipation provided the opportunity for African Americans to expand their business ventures into...