By Brad Miller, CHP Graduate Research Assistant
While I was searching for a thesis topic that combined my interests in African American history and the built environment, Dr. Van West suggested that I look at African American funeral homes in Tennessee. The Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) has long partnered with African American communities across the state to interpret their rich pasts, but funeral homes had never been at the center of these studies. I was honestly creeped out by the prospect of studying buildings that solely existed for the care of the dead. Sure, I have always been a fan of historic cemeteries, but they convey a much different, more natural atmosphere. After stubbornly searching for other topics last summer, I wound up back with African American funeral homes and have realized they are keys to one of the most fascinating aspects of the African American experience from Reconstruction to the present.
African Americans had achieved freedom in the Civil War and were discovering ways to express their newly acquired citizenship. Caring for the dead became one aspect of emerging African American communities that were striving for autonomy with the growth of their own churches, social organizations, and businesses. A modern funeral industry emerged in the 1880s, which replaced the care and burial of the deceased by community-based burial societies. These early professional undertakers embalmed and transported bodies, arranged funeral services, and sold coffins.
As the era of Jim Crow gradually took hold following Reconstruction, death care became a strongly segregated business. African American funeral homes emerged as the center for a particularly racialized death defined by increased racial violence and inadequate resources for health care. The separate customer base provided economic stability, which allowed funeral professionals to invest in their communities and rise up as civic leaders. For example, undertaker Preston Taylor had purchased land for Greenwood Cemetery and Park by 1905 to serve the African American community of Nashville for proper burial and a space for recreation free of racial restrictions. A.G. Gaston ran a funeral home and insurance business in Alabama that helped fund the modern civil rights movement and bail Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail.
I was able to start identifying and assessing historic African American funeral homes in Tennessee through other projects with the CHP during the school year. I began to understand that these buildings were critical anchors in the community, just like the social, economic, and political leadership of their owners. Funeral homes were typically located near churches (historic centers of the black community), along the border with the white community, and served as hubs of community activity.
Just down the road from the CHP in Murfreesboro is Scales & Sons Funeral Home, founded by Preston H. Scales in 1916 in the African American business district on South Maple Street off the square. These businesses were physical liaisons with the white-dominated square. Scales & Sons soon moved to East State Street and became a center of the growing African American neighborhood southeast of the square. Preston’s son, Robert, ran the business from this location and later became the city’s first African American city councilman.
While working on an African American heritage driving tour in Maury County, I connected with Mrs. Jo Ann McClellan of the Maury County African American Heritage Society. I discovered that there are currently four African American-owned funeral homes in the county. Another, Morton & Sons, is no longer in business but has a particularly interesting past. James M. Morton founded Morton & Sons Funeral Home in 1891 and quickly became a pillar of the community. The business was strategically located next to the First Baptist Church and a congregation full of possible customers. The original building, which mostly remains today, also served as a rallying point for African Americans during the 1946 Columbia race riot.
V.K. Ryan & Sons Funeral Home is another important Columbia institution, which has served as a hub of social and economic activity since 1938. The Ryan family lived upstairs well into the 1960s, while the first floor served as a space for the funeral business and a gathering place for a local fraternal lodge. The Ryans owned a filling station to the left of the house, where they also operated a café, barber shop, and cab company. The concentration of businesses, which would have doubled as places of daily social interaction, reveals the restrictive racial space in Columbia and the solidarity cultivated by African Americans in physically separate locations.
Through my work I have gained a huge respect for African American funeral professionals as men and women who answered the call for both the living and dead members of their communities. Many African American funeral homes across the United States remain in the family, with some businesses spanning over a century. Large international funeral companies and the declining racial divide that once guaranteed a separate customer base have led to the decline of many of these businesses. Funeral homes are often on the margins of preservationists’ minds because they are easily overlooked buildings that have become a natural part of our built environment. Demolition has already begun taking these invaluable historic resources and business anchors of African American communities.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be making my way around Tennessee to capture images of these buildings and connect with business owners and community members. I can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any information regarding African American funeral homes in Tennessee or wish to find out more.
Historian Suzanne Smith talks about her book To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (2010), which traces the importance of death and freedom in African American culture.
Homegoings, a PBS documentary.