Some of Cincinnati’s remaining owners of independent, historic African-American mortuary businesses are, from left, Linwood Battle, president of J.C. Battle & Sons Funeral Home; Preston Charles Jr., executive director of Preston Charles Funeral Home; Gayle Harden-Renfro, vice-president and licensed funeral director of Renfro Funeral Services; Richard Stewart of Stewart Funeral Homes and Rev. Clarence E. Glover of House of Glover. Herald photo
By Dan Yount
The Cincinnati Herald
Historic African American owned funeral homes are disappearing across the country as large corporate entities move into what was once considered the “Black” market. Corporate acquisitions of former Black-owned funeral homes pose a dynamic set of challenges today to independent homes nationally, as well as in Cincinnati.
Historically, racial segregation within the mortuary industry helped create a class of African American millionaires, according to a 1953 Ebony magazine articled titled, “Death is Big Business.” Also historically, funeral parlors run by White funeral directors did not usually welcome business from African Americans, according to the Ebony article, thereby creating a segregated market that lasted for years. “Black people knew they could count on Black-owned funeral homes to honor and preserve their burial traditions. Most importantly, the deceased…and their family…were given a respect that was not always rendered to them in life,’’ the article reported.
Today, these independent, Black-owned funeral home owners say they feel the challenge of competing against the lucrative resources of corporations; online sales of caskets and urns, discount pricing, as well as the rising rate of cremation, which are lowering profit margins nationwide throughout the entire industry.
Carol Williams, executive director of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association (NFDMA), says its membership and independent firms have declined.
Today, the NFDMA, the oldest and largest Black trade group in the industry, represents 1,200 members today compared to 3,000 members in 1997. Nationwide there were 3,800 African American owned mortuaries compared to 2,600 today. “Many today,” Williams said, “cannot afford to keep their doors open.”
She attributes today’s challenges to integration, which, while having a positive impact for the country, is yet a double-edged sword for the Black funeral director who seldom serves the White community.
“Back in the day, the Black funeral business was a ministry that was often directed by ministers,’’ she said. “Those businesses provided ambulance services to the hospitals for Blacks who were not served by White-owned ambulance services. They served as bail bondsmen, paid people’s rent and provided other community services.’’
According to Williams, the NFDMA started a 40 and under group to reach out and bring younger people into the organization and involve them in future plans to strengthen the organization, she said.
Owners of some of Cincinnati’s most tenured, respected and independent, family-owned funeral homes serving Cincinnati’s African American communities recently met at The Cincinnati Herald offices in Avondale to discuss current market challenges.
The owners acknowledged that they may be in a business that is “dying’’ across the nation. However, they add, providing outstanding service can make a difference in their ongoing survival.
Preston Charles Jr., executive director of Preston Charles Funeral Home, which is a newcomer to the independents and located in Lockland, said, “the plight of African American funeral homes is a concern as we look at the dwindling number of firms. We cannot help but wonder how the rest of us are going to survive.’’
Gayle Harden-Renfro, co-owner of the 98-year old Renfro Funeral Services with her husband Julian Renfro, said the entry of White-owned corporations into the Black communities, aggressive, bait and switch business practices, and de-regulation have combined to changed the business environment.
Harden-Renfro said that the Black-owned funeral homes, beauty parlors and churches have historically been the economic core of the Black community. “We had the Manse Hotel, which catered to African Americans, restaurants, and other businesses that were the staples of our neighborhoods,’’ she said. “Corporate firms take resources out of our community, and it is not a level playing field. As a community, we have to work to be sure that our dollars yield an economic impact in our community. Or we will all remorse in the end that there are really no Black-owned businesses, but Blacks serving as the face of White corporations.
The funeral home industry overall faces more pressure to publish the prices of their goods and services online so consumers can comparison shop without calling or visiting a funeral home, funeral directors say. This limits questions and can be misleading to the consumer.
Richard Stewart, of Stewart Funeral Home at 3437 Montgomery Road, said when he began working in the business at Houston & Sons Funeral Homes on Gilbert Avenue in 1953, there were 18 African American-owned mortuaries in the city. Now, only eight Black-owned independents remain.
“Corporations eyed this market, because there are still a large number families that hold funerals in the Black community although cremation rates are now higher,’’ Stewart said. “However, it would be nice if African American dollars remain in our communities.’’
Stewart said the community should consider the contributions the independents have made to Black Cincinnati and continue to support them, citing a long list of operators that started in the West End and Lockland, including James H. Thompson and Cora Jamison, whose businesses later merged.
No independently-owned Black funeral home in city can in many aspects compete with the larger firms, except for providing outstanding, personal service, said Harden-Renfro. “I can’t say that the corporate newcomers do not provide good service. However in today’s pricing game, services we have always included in our pricing is now an additional price that is added back on to that low, advertised price. So the result is the customer went to them for a lower price, but paid more in the end for services.
“Yes, you can price shop, but pricing does not evaluate professionalism, skill, services and going beyond the call of duty, regardless of the price of the funeral,’’ she said.
Charles said he agrees that the challenges he and others face can be met only through maintaining great relationships in the community and providing superior services. “The doors are closing at the older funeral homes because someone has come in and cheapens the experience,’’ he said. “But those who win will deliver the best services.’’
Clarence Glover, owner of the House of Glover in Cincinnati and a former president of National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, said when he started in the business back in 1965, a funeral was $500 and the grave site cost $75. He said Black mortuaries should continue their policies for offering basic, fixed prices for the services and to be careful how they treat additions to services that can become confusing for customers.
Owning a funeral home has historically been a profitable business that attracted African Americans looking for economic opportunities, funeral directors say.
Harden-Renfro said her husband’s grandfather, St. Julian Renfro, started Renfro Funeral Services in 1921 because he realized he would never grow to his full potential working at the post office.
“He wanted to control his own destiny,” Renfro said. He and and his wife Inez started the funeral home with a pledge to treat “each customer as if they were family.” That respect for our customers has not changed in 98 years, Harden-Renfro said.
Harden-Renfro said self confidence and an atmosphere of pride is evident at Black funeral director and association meetings. “As for me, I have enjoyed a very diverse career, but I have been happiest working at the funeral home inspite of today’s challenges. Inez and St. Julian Renfro never dreamed that we would be nearing 100 years. They just wanted to be free. So we are part of the history they started. We have opened our doors to teach students and they have gone on to contribute to this honorable profession. Julian and I are quite proud that our families, regardless of how little or how much they spent, feel good about the quality and the dignity of service they received.”
“We do what we do because of the heart that beats within us,’’ Glover said. “Regardless of your financial situation, we have operated with the attitude of seeing what we can do for your loved one.’’
When business gets challenging, Harden-Renfro said her husband Julian always reminds her to, “Do the best you can, treat people right, and you will remain in business.’’
Edward McCall Jr. of McCall Funeral Home at 3800 Reading Road in Avondale, was unable to attend the meeting with local funeral directors. However, in a statement on his businesses’ website, he states, “McCall Funeral Home is committed to excellence and a quality of selfless service that requires a level of consciousness and content of character by each and every member of the McCall Funeral Home staff. At the end of the day, it is not about us, it is about you.’’