African-American Undertakers in the Circle City

In 1887 John J. Thornton’s undertaking shop on West Market Street appeared on this Sanborn map just off Monument Circle (note building marked “Coffins” in center of image; click for an expanded view).

In March, 1880 the Indianapolis News proclaimed that “Indianapolis now has a colored undertaker.” The newspaper did not identify that undertaker, but it certainly was George H. Woodford, who opened an undertaker’s shop on Indiana Avenue. George Woodford was part of a nationwide movement to professionalize undertaking and mortuary services in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. In the midst of turn-of-the-century racial segregation, African-American undertakers had little direct competition with White undertakers as death and the Black body were increasingly ceded to African-American entrepreneurs. African-American undertakers appealed to African Americans’ reverence for a proper burial while recognizing that White undertakers were much less likely to dignify Black death. Consequently, after the turn of the century, undertakers ranked among Indianapolis’ most prominent African-American entrepreneurs.

Before the Civil War, local craftspeople often constructed caskets; families prepared the deceased for burial; and many people were buried in modest family cemeteries, especially in rural settings. This began to shift in the late-19th century with the emergence of chemical embalming, an industry marketing funerary material goods, professional undertaking courses and schools, and the shift from home-based funerals to funeral parlors. Embalming began to be practiced on a wide scale for the first time during the Civil War, when it was used to prevent the decomposition of soldiers being shipped home for burial. Perhaps the most influential example of embalming was the preservation of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse as his body was escorted to Illinois over several weeks in 1865 (including a stop in Indianapolis on April 30). Undertakers’ schools began to teach embalming and burial practices in the late-19th century, and in 1882 the National Funeral Directors Association was formed to advocate for professionalization of the trade.

The Circle City’s first African-American undertaker, George Woodford, was born into captivity in about 1846 in Wayne County, Kentucky. After Emancipation Woodford enlisted in the Union Army on September 8, 1864 at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, and he served in the Fifth United States Colored Cavalry. Woodford was almost certainly one of the 80 African-American soldiers in Company E who were attacked near Simpsonville, Kentucky on January 23, 1865, an ambush that left about 22 of the soldiers dead. Woodford married Tieney Williams in Louisville in 1875, and the newlyweds migrated north to Indianapolis by early 1876.

In 1880 Woodford began to operate an undertaker’s shop on Indiana Avenue, first where the One America Building sits today and then a block away at the northwest corner of Indiana Avenue and New York Street (now the 300 block of Indiana Avenue). Yet on April 29, 1882 the Indianapolis Leader noted that Woodford was ill and “grave doubts of his recovery are entertained”; the Indianapolis News reported on the same day that he had in fact died. Woodford was buried at Crown Hill in services conducted by his fellow members of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, but the city did not appear to have another African-American undertaker. In 1886 John J. Thornton probably became the city’s second African-American undertaker when he opened his shop on West Market Street just a block east of the Indiana State House. Yet like his predecessor George Woodford, Thornton died soon after in October, 1888.

This April, 1905 ad for Cassius M Clay Willis’ funeral home noted the firm was managed with his daughter Beulah Willis. Beulah had graduated from an embalming program, one of many women active in the management of early 20th-century funeral homes. The 23-year-old Beulah died just a month after this ad appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder.

At the turn of the century, a circle of professionally trained undertakers established several longstanding African-American funeral homes. Cassius M. Clay Willis came to Indianapolis in about 1875 and established his undertaking firm in 1890. Willis graduated from a Massachusetts School of Embalming course in 1895, possibly taking the course with the embalming schools’ traveling instructors, who conducted such courses in places like Terre Haute. Willis’ first undertaking shop from 1890 to 1913 was in the Odd Fellows’ Building on what is today the 500 block of Indiana Avenue, and in April 1913 he purchased an existing double at 622-624 North West Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Street) and moved his business there the following August.

In October, 1900 Willis hired another professionally trained undertaker, Lucas B. Willis (no relation to Cassius Willis), and Lucas Willis would remain a prominent Indianapolis undertaker until his death in 1930. Lucas Willis began his career working for Thomas K. Robb’s undertaking firm in Frankfort, Kentucky before coming to work for CMC Willis in October, 1900. Lucas B. Willis completed a course in the Massachusetts College of Embalming in 1898 and received instruction at the Renouard Training School for Embalming.

There was relatively little professional oversight of undertakers around the turn of the century, and some problematic practices persisted. The most shocking Indianapolis example came in 1902, when a series of freshly buried bodies were discovered missing from the Anderson Cemetery on East 10th Street. Estella Middleton, a 15-year-old African American, was living on Gladstone Street in August, 1902, when she was struck with typhoid fever and died August 28th. Middleton was buried in the Anderson Cemetery by CMC Willis, but in September her grave was found disturbed, and Middleton’s body was found in the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons where it was being used for medical students’ training.

Middleton was re-buried in the Anderson Cemetery, but it instantly became clear many more graves had been emptied. The Central College of Physician and Surgeons was one of three medical schools in Indianapolis, two of which eventually joined with other schools and became part of the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1908. After the discovery of Middleton’s body, Demonstrator of Anatomy Joseph C. Alexander was found to have secured at least two stolen corpses, and apparently the grave robbers had been provisioning medical schools for some time: suspects Garfield Buckner and John McEndree had been suspected of grave robbing the poor farm and Mt. Jackson cemeteries in 1900; they escaped prosecution, but police were suspicious because Buckner was working for one of the city’s medical colleges.

Alexander had obtained the bodies from a team of African-American grave diggers that included Rufus Cantrell, an African American who worked for CMC Willis, and James Harvey, an embalmer who had been employed by Willis. Cantrell and his partners confirmed that Willis had been party to the crimes and had arranged for bodies to be supplied to Alexander for $30 a body. The suspects claimed that in 1900 Willis even provided the body of one of the grave robbers’ own wives to Alexander without burial.

The grave robbers soon implicated a series of cemetery sextons and a Central College intern and the janitor, and they acknowledged they had robbed many cemeteries throughout central Indiana (including cemeteries in Fishers, Jones Chapel Cemetery on present-day West 56th Street, Pleasant Hill Cemetery near Trader’s Point, and Holy Cross/St. Joseph Cemetery on the southside). More bodies were thieved from Mt. Jackson than any other cemetery. Cantrell admitted that “he and the other negroes visited Mt. Jackson cemetery almost every time anyone was buried in the place. `We pretty near cleaned that place out,’ he said. `I don’t believe we missed any body that has been planted there since July.’” In October bone remains found in the college were suspected of being stolen cadavers that were burnt to conceal evidence, and four bodies from robbed graves were discovered bagged in an Indianapolis alley; burial shrouds were found in the college as well. Nevertheless, Alexander escaped with a hung jury the following February, and he was never re-tried. Cantrell was sentenced to the State Reformatory in Jeffersonville, and several of his grave-digging colleagues also served prison time.

Cassius MC Willis continued to run one of the city’s most prominent African-American funeral homes after escaping without jail time, moving from Indiana Avenue to North West Street in 1913. The funeral home on North West Street (which sat in the same block as Madam CJ Walker’s home) continued to be run by Willis’ son Herbert after Cassius’ death in 1920. Herbert died in 1952 and the funeral home had its last services in 2009. The building stands today, connected to newly constructed apartments.

James Shelton and Lucas Willis appeared in this August 1905 ad in the Recorder the year after they established their partnership (click for expanded view).

Lucas Willis remained with CMC Willis’ firm until Lucas established a competing funeral home with James N. Shelton in 1904. Shelton received some training at Harvey Medical College, a co-ed evening school in Chicago that trained working-class students, and he graduated from the Chicago School of Embalming in 1900. Shelton’s wife Mayme also completed an embalming course in Chicago in 1901. Shelton first managed an Indianapolis undertaker’s business with Ola Homer Morgan from December, 1900 until August, 1904, when he and Lucas Willis formed the firm Shelton and Willis. In 1905 the pair was forced to note in advertisements in the Indianapolis Recorder that they were “not connected in any way with CMC Willis undertaking establishment.”

In the early 20th century, James Shelton was among the most prominent African-American undertakers in national professional circles. The National Funeral Directors Association formed in 1882, but its membership was officially segregated in 1912; it did not accept African-American members until 1970. The National Negro Business League was formed in 1900 by Booker T. Washington to promote African-American commercial and marketing enterprises, and funeral directors would always be prominent in the League. James Shelton attended its national meetings in 1907, 1909, 1910, 1911, and 1913 (and likely other years as well). In 1907 a group of funeral directors in the League formed the National Negro Funeral Directors Association, the same year that Shelton and St. Louis undertaker W.C. Gordon delivered a paper “The Undertaking Business.” Two years later Shelton was the group’s Secretary, and Lucas B. Willis was serving on its Executive Board.

Shelton was one of 16 Hoosiers to attend the 1910 National Negro Business League meeting in New York as part of a delegation that included his famous neighbor Madam C.J. Walker. During Shelton’s report at the 1911 convention as Secretary of the National Negro Funeral Directors Association he proclaimed that African-American funeral directors “receive ninety-five per cent of the patronage of the colored people in the communities in which they live.” Two years later Shelton again spoke at the convention and argued that “I say the time has come when we ought to make it impossible for any white man to bury a Negro in any community in which you live.”

Lucas Willis was likewise actively engaged in national African-American funeral directors’ associations. In September, 1905 Willis was elected Vice-President of the Colored Interstate Funeral Directors Association, which was apparently one of a patchwork of early state and regional funeral directors associations. Willis served on the Executive Board of the National Negro Funeral Directors Association when it first formed in 1907, but National Negro Business League influence waned by World War I, and new African-American undertakers’ groups began to form. The Independent National Funeral Directors Association formed in September, 1924, and Willis became its Secretary when 31 African-American funeral directors met in Chicago in 1925. In 1927 Willis was one of three Indianapolis undertakers to meet with the group in Cincinnati, and the organization remains active today as the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association.

James Shelton ran this ad not long after he began to operate an independent funeral home on Indiana Avenue, where he had once shared space with Lucas WIllis.

James Shelton and Lucas Willis ran a funeral home on Indiana Avenue until July, 1914, when they parted ways to run funeral homes in their own names. Shelton continued to manage his funeral home on Indiana Avenue at the location he had shared with Lucas, and he remained there until his death in 1921. Lucas Willis opened his own funeral home on West Michigan Street and would remain active in national African-American funeral associations. In 1915 Shelton and Willis’ former embalmer Shirley H. Winfrey partnered with undertaker Andrew W. Breckenridge in a funeral home at 517 North West Street, where Breckenridge and George W. Lee had opened a funeral home the year before. Breckenridge had been an undertaker in Xenia, Ohio between about 1902 and 1910, and Winfrey had been an undertaker in Terre Haute.

The Peoples Burial Company ran this patriotic ad in 1934 paying homage to their founder Henry Dunn, whose widow Lula was running the funeral home. They had recently hired William Lester Craig, who would establish his own funeral home on the near-Southside in 1936 (click for expanded view).

By the time of Lucas Willis’ death in 1930 the number of African-American funeral directors in Indianapolis had increased significantly. For instance, People’s Funeral Company was founded in 1919 by Henry Dunn and his wife Lula Jackson Dunn, and Lula Dunn became perhaps the first licensed African-American female mortician in Indiana. Since the turn of the century, every funeral home had female attendants, including CMC Willis’ daughter Beulah Willis and Ola H. Morgan’s wife Fanny. Lula Dunn was employing William Lester Craig by 1934. In 1936 William and his brother Joseph opened a funeral home on the near-Southside at 1002 South Senate. The Craig Funeral Home was erased by the construction of interstate and moved to 826 South Capitol Street in February, 1968. William Lester Craig died in November, 1974, and his son William Martin Craig assumed management of the firm. Less than a year later the funeral home was displaced for the second time by interstate construction, and the family firm moved to 3447 North College Avenue in November, 1975, where they remain in business today.

The Craig Funeral Home has moved twice in the face of interstate construction in the 1960 and 1970s. In November, 1975 they announced their second move to North Capitol Street, where they remain today.

African-American funeral homes gradually found themselves in competition with historically segregated White funeral homes after the 1950s, but many African-American funeral homes remained viable and trusted community institutions into the 21st century. Nevertheless, chains have swallowed up much of the family based funeral home trade. Historically African-American communities have also been displaced after World War II by urban renewal and highway construction—forces that twice forced the Craig Funeral Home to relocate—and the communities along Indiana Avenue or the near-Southside have been completely uprooted.  Just as much of the landscape of African-American Indianapolis is now razed and invisible to many contemporary people, the heritage of more than a century of African-American undertakers and funeral homes risks being lost as well.

 

References

LaTrese Evette Adkins

2003 “And who has the body?”: The historical significance of African American funerary display. PhD Dissertation, Michigan State University.

 

Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck (editors)

2009 Encyclopedia of Death & the Human Experience. 2 vols. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.

 

Christopher Leevy Johnson

2004 Undertakings: The politics of African -American funeral directing.  Phd Dissertation, University of South Carolina.

 

Gary Laderman

2003 Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America.  Oxford University Press, New York.

 

Charles William McCurdy

1896 Embalming and Embalming Fluids. The Post-Graduate and Wooster Quarterly 39:175-258.

 

William Henry Porter, Jr.

1958 Middleville Morticians: Some Social Implications of Change in the Funeral Business in a Southern City.  PhD Dissertation, Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College.

 

Suzanne E. Smith

2010 To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African-American Way of Death.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Shirley Winfrey and Andrew Breckenridge ran this ad for their North West Street funeral home in 1916

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One thought on “African-American Undertakers in the Circle City

  1. My great grandmother was buried in Mt. Jackson Cemetery, although I hope she wasn’t stolen as she died in 1911. I just wrote a piece on Rufus Cantrells brother, Nelson Cantrell who appeared as a witness at my 2X great uncles USCT pension hearing. Yikes!

    Finding Eliza

    Like

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