Funeral director’s forgotten role in the civil rights movement, an interview with Suzanne Smith

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Mon, February 27th, 2012

Slave getaways were plotted at funeral homes, civil rights leaders were shuttled to safety in hearses, and after writing his famous letter from the Birmingham jail it was a prominent local funeral director that bailed out Martin Luther King Jr.

Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955. The sheriff told the funeral director to bury him immediately, but Till’s mother wanted the world to see what they had done to her son. Suzanne Smith discusses this case and others in her new book on black funeral directors.

This and more is discussed in Suzanne Smith’s new book, To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death. Smith teaches at George Mason University, she recently spoke with Digital Dying.

How did black funeral directors become so powerful?

In the late nineteenth century insurance companies come out with a study that says African Americans are too risky to insure. In response blacks form their own insurance and burial societies. African Americans are obsessed with the idea of a proper burial and communities put whatever extra pennies they have into these societies. Booker T. Washington actually comes out and says he’s frustrated that blacks are putting so much money towards burials. ‘You ask a white man what he is doing in the morning, he is preparing to start a business,’ says Washington, ‘you ask a black man what he is doing in the morning, he is prepping to die.’ Eventually Washington wakes up and realizes funeral homes are a way for African Americans to gain financial independence and this is good. He founds the National Negro Business League and becomes really gung-ho about black funeral directors. Black funeral homes also become a way to spread civic messages. For example, on the back of the funeral fans they handed out at black funerals would be instructions on how to register to vote.

Other Great Reads: More on African American funeral customs

How did the act of embalming itself become politicized during the civil rights era?

Often African American funeral home directors would have to figure out how much restoration they were going to do. In the case of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old black boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi, his mother wants the world to see what they had done to her son. They drag him out of the Tallahatchie River and the sheriff said to the black undertaker, Chester Miller, ‘Bury him immediately.’ Then the family showed up and stopped the burial. Funeral directors were right in the thick of how this was going to be presented to the world.

What role did funeral directors play the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated?

King’s security detail was provided by a Memphis funeral director. Funeral homes also provided the cars to drive him and his people from place to place. The last person to speak to King was his chauffeur, a guy from the funeral home named Solomon Jones. He jumped in a car and tried to chase in the direction of where he thought the shooter had come from. In the book I also tell the story of James Farmer, who was leading a protest and got threatened by the local authorities. He finds refuge in a funeral home. They throw him in a hearse and take him away from the lynch mob that is trying to kill him.

Didn’t funeral directors also help King in Birmingham?

A man named A.G. Gaston starts a burial society in Birmingham that asks members to pay 25 cents each week. Gaston ends up becoming a multi-millionaire, running a funeral home business with more than a dozen branches across Alabama, as well as an insurance company and a motel. He becomes this power broker between the white leaders of Birmingham and civil rights leaders. The blacks thought of him as conservative, but he is providing his funeral home as an organizing place for civil rights activists. He bails King out of jail after he gets arrested for breaking the injunction against marching. King was also staying at the Gaston Motel. That was a big deal, the motel gets bombed at the tail end of the Birmingham campaign. Gaston’s house gets bombed too. He is the ultimate symbol of black success and him and his wife are at a White House state dinner with the Kennedys. Then they come home and find that their house has been bombed. What’s so fascinating is Gaston says, ‘I’m not really sure who bombed me, could have been the Klan and could have been the black radicals who don’t think I’m radical enough.’

Why didn’t black funeral directors like Jessica Mitford?

Black funeral directors said, ‘This woman is crazy,’ nobody is going to tell blacks they can’t have a nice funeral. Robert Miller defended black funeral directors, saying, ‘Our people were lynched and got laid low, we picked up the dead bodies and gave them a good home going.’ The black funeral directors were very much invested in supporting the black community’s desire for a proper burial because it is seen in this larger context of racism. So, no matter how you died in life, whether you died violently or not, you would get a proper home going.

What’s a ‘home going’, and can you describe a typical slave funeral?

The concept of a home going comes from the slave trade, if you died on the boat it was thought you would go back to Africa. Now it would be more like, you’re going home to God. Slave funerals usually involved two funerals, the first funeral is in the week after the death, during the time of most intense grief. There is singing at night, visitations, and the body is prepared for burial. The second funeral was like a big celebration of the person’s life and happened upwards of a year after the death. That would allow for whatever family members who could travel to come. Slaves would actually get black preachers to preach the sermon.

How did African American burial rituals mimic those found in West Africa?

West Africans usually decorated graves with the last few objects the person touched before they died, or with objects that held water. In West African cosmology the world of the living and the world of the dead is separated by water. Spirits of the dead dance on top of the ocean, so it’s important to decorate the grave with things that can contain water, like pitchers and cups. I found a picture in a book of a grave in Alabama from 1936 with bottles arranged in the same way as on graves in West Africa. And in South Carolina I saw a grave elaborately decorated with a wheel from a motorcycle. Mirrors or other things that replicate how water looks are important too.

Other Great Reads: Get buried in a uterus or a Ferrari, the history of fantasy coffins

Are African American funerals still as grand today as they once were?

There’s an interesting Baltimore Public Radio piece that describes competition between black and white funeral directors. This one funeral director said a lot of white funeral directors are jealous of black funeral directors because black people tend still not to cremate and want the full funeral, whereas whites tend to simplify it these days. They don’t want lavish services anymore. I think because of the discrimination and degradation faced in slavery there is a different intensity about what a proper burial should be within African American society.

What’s the future of African American funerals?

There’s still a tremendous amount of loyalty within the black community. What’s really changing for black funeral directors today is that because immigrant communities are so diverse they have to reach out to immigrant groups to keep their businesses going. Class is also changing, as many elite blacks go out into the suburbs where there are not as many blacks. But look at Whitney Houston, she was a very successful millionaire and yet when she died her family brought her back to their funeral home in Newark, New Jersey, a very down home funeral home. I was surprised by that.

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