October 27, 2017 - Vol. 1, Issue 8
Dear Subscribing Institutions, Friends and Supporters:

Welcome to this week's edition of The HistoryMakers Digital Archive Newsletter . For last week's feature, we looked at homegoing ceremonies, an expression of mourning unique to the African American community.

This week, please join us as we continue our exploration of African American funeral rites and traditions by contextualizing the role of African American undertakers in the black community.
Black Life and the Business of Death
Above: Q.J. Gilmore and associates, a black undertaker and funeral director in the early 1900s in Denver, Colorado 11

J. K. Haynes
Reverend Clay Evans
Sala Udin
Lloyd Wheeler
Spencer Leak, Sr.
The son of a black undertaker in rural Monroe, Louisiana, biologist and HistoryMaker J.K. Haynes recalls his father, John Kermit Haynes, Sr., an undertaker, describe the grim nature of his duties: “And so one of the stories that he told is having to go to a lynching where a young black man had been lynched and to take his hearse to the lynching and actually have to cut the person down to take him to the funeral home” 1 [J. K. Haynes, THMDA 1.1.8].

In the early to mid-twentieth century in the United States, racial discrimination was pervasive even after death due to the segregated funeral industry. Grace Elizabeth Hale in Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940, states, “State health codes often demanded that white undertakers handle only white bodies,” which created “a secure and often profitable business for African American morticians.” As a result, the funeral business was an industry that “helped build up a black middle class relatively independent from whites.” 2 In Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West., Matthew C. Whitaker acknowledges that black morticians and undertakers “employed African American traditions, the black church, and black folklore to create an environment that catered to the wants and needs of black communities” and that by doing so, funeral businesses strengthened the economic base of the black community by allowing individuals and institutions to channel their resources into an enterprise that would support black educational, religious and civil rights organizations .” 3

Gerald D. Jaynes notes the prestige of the undertaker in African American communities in the early twentieth century in Encyclopedia of African American Society, Volume 1 : “The local funeral home in African American neighborhoods became a kind of community center. Because white funeral homes would not allow blacks, black funeral homes became thriving businesses for black entrepreneurs, and funeral home directors were prominent people in the community, helping not only with funeral arrangements, but also with financial advice.” 4 Activist Reverend Clay Evans recalls this stature of undertakers in his community in Brownsville, Tennessee in the 1930s: “The most prosperous person in Brownsville, a black man, was a mortician. A man by the time of Al Rawls in Brownsville, Tennessee was the most talented. White folks and all respected him. And he was respected by all, because he was part of the status quo. This undertaker, Rawls, had that town sewed up with business, with cars and houses. And so I wanted to be an undertaker, a mortician” 5 [Reverend Clay Evans, THMDA 2.4.7] . Former Pittsburgh councilman, civil rights activist and HistoryMaker Sala Udin recalls attending the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York City, as he was inspired by the prestige of his local undertaker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1940s:“ From the time I was little and people would ask me, 'What you want to be when you grow up?' I never knew what to tell them. And then, as I saw a man across the street from where we lived in the projects...Samuel Charles was his name. He owned a funeral home and he drove a big black shiny car and was always dressed up, and everybody always had a lot of respect for him. He had the most respect in the community. And I said, ‘What is he?’ They said, ‘He's an undertaker.’ So, I would tell people, I want to be an undertaker when they asked what you want to be. I had no idea what an undertaker did. I just knew that an undertaker looked like Mr. Charles” 6 [Sala Udin, THMDA 1.4.4] . Karla F.C. Holloway underscores this influential role of the black undertaker in the community in Passed On: African American Mourning Stories, A Memorial: “The role and perception of the mortician in the black community were closely associated with issues of class and social status. As the twentieth century began, the black undertaker emerged as a businessman in a community of few independent black-owned businesses.” 7

Often, black undertakers sold burial insurance in addition to funeral services, such that African American families could set aside funds to ensure an appropriate ceremony. Suzanne E. Smith in To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, notes: “The guarantee of a proper burial held particular appeal for poor African Americans, who sought to avoid a pauper’s grave. For this reason, purchasing burial insurance and maintaining these policies became an unusually high priority even in the poorest black communities.” 8 Insurance executive and HistoryMaker Lloyd Wheeler recalls the development of burial insurance policies, from his time as an insurance agent for the black-owned Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company in Chicago, Illinois: “ But now these companies here got smart. They decided to call their policies burial policies. And the black public back in those days, they were only concerned about enough money to bury somebody. And that was usually a very small amount. So, they were able to sell a lot of those weekly premium policies under the name of burial insurance. And they did quite a big business doing that.” 9 [Lloyd Wheeler, THMDA 1.4.3] . Former funeral director, public official and HistoryMaker Spencer Leak, Sr. describes his father, Andrew Leak, Sr., the founder of Unity Funeral Home in 1933 and later A.R. Leak Funeral Chapels in 1938, who demonstrated this cohesion between insurance and the funeral business: “ I know that he was an insurance salesman during that time. And I think because of the close association that insurance companies had with funeral homes--in that time there were what you call burial insurance companies who insured African Americans just for the purpose of having funds to be able to bury a loved one. And so, therefore, there was a close connection with funeral homes. And I think he just graduated in from the insurance agent to funeral director because of the fact that he felt that there was an opportunity because of segregation, and the fact that there were so many black people now moving into Chicago, the need was there for black funeral homes to take care of their dead. The transition from insurance agent to funeral director was a very easy transition” 10 [Spencer Leak, Sr., THMDA 1.1.9].

While undertakers were prominent, powerful and essential figures in the African American community in the early to mid-twentieth century, Whitaker alludes that because of segregation, “African Americans were forced to buy the services of black funeral directors if they wanted to be buried in a manner reflecting their cultural cosmology,” which sometimes led to the exploitation of “their customers’ socioeconomic condition and culture for financial and political gain.”
"I Kept Coming Back"
This past week, on October 24, 2017, the world said goodbye to beloved actor and HistoryMaker Robert Guillaume . Guillaume left his mark on the acting world through his notable roles in musicals like Guys and Dolls; The Robert Guillaume Show , which was the first TV show to feature an interracial couple; and his Grammy-winning role as Rafiki in The Lion King . Guillaume may be best known, however, for his long career playing the lovable butler Benson Du Bois on the 1977 sitcom Soap and the 1979 spinoff Benson , for which he won an Emmy each. The character, which Guillaume developed on the set of Soap, used humor and empathy to connect with his audience, both black and white. In the episode “No Sad Songs” in Benson in which Benson’s mother dies, Guillaume recalled how television had the power to bridge gaps between people : “My mother was played by Beah Richards and she had come over to cook me something and she talked of being tired and she went out of the room and went into the living room. She didn’t come back for a long time and Benson finally went in wondering where she was, and indeed she had died. The episode ended there with Benson talking to God. Well one time I was coming back from New York on a flight and I noticed someone came out of coach and came up to the magazine rack in first class and every time he would go back he’d shoot me a look. It was two or three times he did that before I became aware that he was doing that and I noticed that he was what you would typically call a redneck. So he heads for my seat, and he kneels down at the seat and he said, ‘You that boy play on “Benson” ain’t you?’ I decided to forgo an investigation of the term boy in favor of hearing what he had to say. I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Nice to meet you,’ and I said, ‘Nice to meet you, too.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to take up none of your time but you all did a show one week where your mother died,’ and he said, ‘my mother died under similar circumstances.’ He said, ‘My mother died under similar circumstances and I never was able to reconcile her death until I saw y’all’s episode,’ and he said, ‘I just want to thank you for doing that show.’ Man, it broke my heart” 12 [Robert Guillaume, THMDA 1.8.3] .

When recalling his hardships and successes as an actor, Guillaume reflected, “I keep coming back, that’s what I want to be remembered for” 13 [Robert Guillaume, THMDA 1.9.5].

Thank you, Mr. Guillaume.
This week, 18 new interviews were added to The HistoryMakers Digital Archive:
Melvin J. Holley

City transit worker and genealogist Melvin J. Holley (1933 - ) served as president of the Lansing Area African American Genealogical Society.
Verna Holley

High school music teacher and choral director Verna Holley (1936 - ) was the fine arts director at J.W. Sexton High School in Lansing, Michigan, and the pianist and music director of the Earl Nelson Singers.
William Harvey

University president William Harvey (1941 - ) was a highly lauded educational administrator and served as the president of Hampton University for over three decades.
Ronald Gerald Coleman

African american history professor Ronald Gerald Coleman (1944 - ) taught history and ethnic studies at the University of Utah from 1973, and specialized in the black history of the American West.
Forrest Crawford

Civic leader and academic administrator Forrest Crawford (1952 - ) established the Utah Coalition for the Advancement of Minorities in Higher Education, and chaired the Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Commission. He was instrumental in securing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Utah.
Darwin McBeth Walton

Educator Darwin McBeth Walton (1926 - ) authored several acclaimed children's books, including "What Color Are You?" which was named a landmark book by the Chicago Historical Society. She also taught black history and self esteem at National Louis University.

Marvis Kneeland Jones

Travel agent, elementary school teacher, and public relations manager Marvis Kneeland Jones (1941 - ) helped to desegregate Memphis University and worked to promote civil rights and education throughout Memphis.

The Honorable Justin Johnson

Judge The Honorable Justin Johnson (1933 - ) was the second African American judge appointed to Pennsylvania’s Superior Court. He was also chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Examiners, and a trustee of Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton Theological Seminary.
Willie L. Wilson

Entrepreneur and gospel singer Willie L. Wilson (1948 - ) was among the first African Americans to own a McDonald's franchise, and was the creator and producer of the first nationally syndicated, black-owned gospel music TV show, Singsation .
Cheryl Mayberry McKissack

Entrepreneur and marketing executive Cheryl Mayberry McKissack (1955 - ) was a successful sales executive in the dotcom industry, and founded Nia Enterprises L.L.C., an online consumer research firm focused on black women.
Michael Jack

Television station general manager Michael Jack (1951 - ) was the president and general manager of NBC New York.
Glenn Harris

Television sports host Glenn Harris (1947 - ) hosted numerous sports talk shows, including Let’s Talk Sports on WHUR-FM and Community News and Sports on Channel 4 in Washington, D.C., later anchoring NewsChannel 8’s Sports Talk .
Lynn Norment

Magazine editor Lynn Norment (1952 - ) was the senior staff editor for Ebony Magazine. She wrote and edited "Sisterspeak," "Ebony Advisor" and "Money Talks." She was also the vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Ethel Bradley

Civic leader Ethel Bradley (1919 - 2008 ) was the first lady of Los Angeles during Thomas Bradley's mayoral administrations from 1973 to 1992. Bradley organized the Women’s Volunteer Corps, Las Angelenas, and was a co-founder of the Black Women’s Forum.
Mary Shy Scott

Association chief executive and elementary school music teacher Mary Shy Scott (1930 - 2013 ) was the 23rd International President of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
Dr. Rene Martin Earles

Dermatologist Dr. Rene Martin Earles (1940 - ) developed the Earles Flap, a surgical technique for treating alopecia marginalis in African American women. He also developed a skin and hair product line called Dr. Earles.
Reverend Marvin Griffin

Pastor Reverend Dr. Marvin Griffin (1923 - 2013 ) served as religious leader for the New Hope Baptist Church and the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In honor of his accomplishments, a building associated with Ebenezer was named after him in 2002.

Ken Page

Actor Ken Page (1954 - ) portrayed the Lion in The Wiz , Old Deuteronomy in the American Broadway debut of Cats , and was an original cast member of Ain’t Misbehavin’ , for which he was awarded the Drama Desk Award.
1.   J. K. Haynes (The HistoryMakers A2011.013), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 14, 2011, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 8, J.K. Haynes recalls his father's funeral home business
2.     Grace Elizabeth Hale, “Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. August 25, 2010.
3.       Matthew C. Whitaker, Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West. University of Nebraska Press, August 1, 2007.
4.     Gerald D. Jaynes, Encyclopedia of African American Society, Volume 1 SAGE, 2005.
5.   Reverend Clay Evans (The HistoryMakers A1993.001), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 30, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 4, story 7, Reverend Clay Evans talks about wanting to be an undertaker like the prosperous black undertakers in Brownsville, Tennessee
6.     Sala Udin (The HistoryMakers A2008.104), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 12, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4, Sala Udin recounts his semester studying to be an undertaker at the American Academy McAllister Institute
7.     Karla F.C. Holloway, Passed on: African American Mourning Stories, a Memorial. Duke University Press, 2003.
8.     Suzanne E. Smith, To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death Harvard University Press, February 25, 2010
9.   Lloyd Wheeler (The HistoryMakers A2002.111), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 23, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Lloyd Wheeler discusses the insurance industry and the black community
10. Spencer Leak, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2004.004), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 21, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Spencer Leak, Sr. talks about the origins of his father's interest in the funeral home business
11. The History Colorado Archive. Q.J. Gilmore, Undertaker and Funeral Director. A black owned business in early Denver. Can be found:
12. Robert Guillaume (The HistoryMakers A2005.114), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 29, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 8, story 3, Robert Guillaume describes a fan's reaction to the episode "No Sad Songs" on 'Benson'
13. Robert Guillaume (The HistoryMakers A2005.114), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 29, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 9, story 5, Robert Guillaume describes how he would like to be remembered, pt. 2
14.  Robert Guillaume, Courtesy of Twitter. Can be found:

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