By Gayle Harden-Renfro
President, Renfro Funeral Services
(Ms. Harden-Renfro is a former veteran reporter of The Cincinnati Post )
Renfro Funeral Services is the oldest Black-owned funeral home and business in Cincinnati; the second oldest in The State of Ohio, behind E.F. Boyd & Son Funeral Home of Cleveland … and one of 47 Black-owned funeral homes in the nation to reach 100 years.
When I tell people that Renfro turned 100 this year, the common reaction is “W… o… W.” We feel the same way about making it to this amazing milestone. The pictures of our founders, Inez and St. Julian Renfro, hang on the wall of the funeral home’s foyer. They greet me each morning with their smiling, dignified faces. And I return their gaze with, ”good morning…yes, we’re still here.”
I know that making it to 100 was never in their business plan. Their motivation was to escape the weight of racism they battled every day and to carve out a decent life for their family.
Inez was a teacher in Vicksburg and St. Julian worked as a clerk in a saddle factory. They married in 1904 and moved to Cincinnati in 1913. He got a job at the post office and worked his way up into the registry department, the second Black man to work there. After eight years of training his White co-workers, he realized he was in a dead-end position. When he refused to train the thirteenth man, they gave him a choice…train or be fired. He trained, but started looking for another job. St. Julian heard that The Cincinnati College of Embalming had just opened their doors to Black students…and he seized the moment.
Inez, in her eight-page diary writes, “I was terribly afraid of dead people. I revolted. and after finding that Julian really intended on taking the course, I packed up my things and my two children and left—went back to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to my mother’s home…where I stayed for 5 ½ months.”
Julian continued to go to school during the day…and work at the post office at night. Exhausted, and undoubtedly lonely, he pleaded for her to come back. “He told me that if he ever needed me, he needed me now,” she writes.
His pleas for help worked. Inez, in spite of her fear of the dead, packed up her two children…Jenifer and Marietta…and returned to Cincinnati…..and took over.
She nurtured St. Julian back to vitality…and created her own version of “Cliff Notes,” to help him to study for the State Board exam as he went to and from work on the streetcar.
“Julian was wonderful,’ she writes. “Quiet, unassuming, a magnetic personality.” In the process of creating study material for St. Julian, she learned too. St Julian became a licensed funeral director/embalmer in early 1920, followed by Inez in 1931.
After a few years of doing “trade” embalming for others, The Renfro’s decided it was time to open their own funeral home. They recruited a friend, Col. John Fielding, pooled their resources and opened as Renfro & Fielding, at 519 Hopkins Street in the West End in 1921. “He had no money either-so we offered to take him in if he could get up $300. I would turn the first floor of our place over to the business and take over the management and cleaning of same for my part,” she writes. Rent was $35 a month.
“Then came the fireworks. We had four funerals the first month; three great big funerals with no credit at all and no money. We got down on our knees and prayed to God… to please don’t let us have a call until we could collect the insurance money. The insurances paid off and we struggled on… 36 calls the first year; 75 the second and 98 the third year. Still no capitol.”
History describes St. Julian as a brilliant, popular businessman. Inez is always, “the amazing Inez Renfro.” She ran every aspect of the business, from making all of the ladies burial gowns to using her stature to help people get jobs and elected to office. She was the “go to” in the Republican party of her day.
Julian, still working at the post office at night and the funeral home during the day, was close to exhaustion. “Mr. Fielding was not any help with the business. He was terribly afraid of dead people also and very seldom showed up. He did love to sit in the church at the head of the casket when all the people were in the church to protect him.” The Renfro’s bought Col. Fielding out in 1924 for $1,000 and changed the name to Renfro Funeral Services.
St. Julian resigned from the post office and the Renfros continued on, outgrowing the first location on Hopkins and moving to 746 Richmond Street…$65 a month for six rooms. First floor for the business, second for their residence. Their slogan, “The Renfro’s never turn anyone away, regardless of circumstances,” almost sank them. “Everyone who lost a relative and had no money came to Renfro,” she writes. Inez noted that when they tried to collect later, the clients who once loved them turned into enemies.
“Then President Roosevelt closed the banks,” she wrote, describing the beginning of 1929 The Great Depression.
“No money. no credit… getting sued almost every week by creditors, and Julian was awfully ill from the fumes of embalming chemicals. Lord, how we did suffer, trying to continue. The children in school, keeping the roof over our heads… and trying to save our business.” Stubborn and proud, they refused their attorney’s advice to file bankruptcy and gradually worked themselves out of “being head over heels in debt to “everything now is smooth sailing.”
They sent their son, Jenifer to West Virginia State and daughter, Marietta to Howard University. Jenifer, who didn’t get to finish college, returned home to take over when his father could no longer lift. Marietta eventually relieved Inez in the management of the business. In 1955, the city’s master plan for Interstate 75 forced them from 752 W. Ninth to the current home at 647 Forest Ave.
“We have adequate help,” she writes, “wonderful rolling stock. I don’t have to work so hard now. Being experienced and qualified to handle all phases of the business, I am called in to do anything necessary during emergencies. We have a wonderful spirit of co-operation, my son and daughter, both licensed funeral directors and embalmers. God has blessed us wonderfully…for which we are most grateful.”
Their son, Jenifer Renfro, would go on to continue running the business. Jenifer, the second Black to serve on the Ohio Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, served as president of The National Black Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, president of the Greater Cincinnati Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association and Buckeye State Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association. He was very much like his mother…a member of every social and civic association you could think of…Third Degree Mason, Argus Club, Omega Phi Psi, St. Andrews Episcopal Church, The Owls, etc.
Their daughter, Marietta Renfro-Glenn, helped to manage the business with her mother and traveled the world whenever she could. The “treasures,” they brought back from trips to China, Russia, Egypt, Italy are still on display at the funeral home. Inez died at the age of 80 in 1965, tragically followed by her daughter Marietta in 1966.
Jenifer, suddenly alone in business, was joined by his wife, Allene. She and Jenifer fell in love when she started working as a part-time secretary at the funeral home in 1931. She started her career at Stowe School and became the school district’s first Black reading specialist. Allene worked as an apprentice at the funeral home during the summer months off from teaching. She left Douglass Elementary School to join the business. She brought with her compassion and love for people, all wrapped up in fabulous hats, incredible style and high, high heels. She was also a member of numerous social clubs and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She also dedicated herself to establishing a scholarship with the National Black Funeral Directors Association to help financially help Black students. She also mentored countless of students and employees and served for years on The Lincoln Crawford Nursing Home board. Allene, also a member of St. Andrews Episcopal Church, was also honored by Buckeye State as “Woman of the Year,” for her dedication and service to others.
Their son, Julian Renfro, left a promising career in accounting at UPS to help his father after the death of Marietta. The business was no stranger to him, he had been working since the age of 18…first washing cars, then driving the funeral home ambulance. The city service would not pick up Blacks at that time. Black funeral homes stepped in to provide that service. Julian Renfro became a licensed funeral director and embalmer in 1999. His artistic talents combined with on-the-job training and school, helped him to become one of the best restorative embalmers in Cincinnati. Julian was the cornerstone of the business as his parents aged. And when all his family had departed, I stopped by one day between careers to help write some obituaries for the newspaper. That was nearly 20 years ago. I received my funeral directors license Feb. 12, 2013.
Our 39-year marriage was strong enough to take on the challenges of running this business. When he passed suddenly on October 31, 2019, I continued to run the business with the help of my dedicated staff. This is a business that takes a team effort…and I am blessed to have the very best.
Throughout the history of the funeral home, staff and management have functioned as a family. I am so grateful to all of them. We had a memorial the morning after Julian passed and a funeral the day after. I could here him say, “We can’t let our situation get in the way of someone else’s funeral.” The responsibility actually helped me to put one foot in front of the other…from November 1, 2019. until this very moment.
I never dreamed I would be the one to complete the Renfro journey. Now that I know what I know…I think the dynamics of being “needed,” to be of “service” has been the motivating factor that has kept everyone working so long. My mother-in-law Allene once said that, “being a light to others in the midst of their darkness,” kept her working well into her 80s. I find that powerfully motivating as well.
So many people have asked me… so what’s next? Julian gave me permission to do whatever I wanted with this business if something happened to him. I appreciate the freedom to leave my own mark on the business…as everyone has done during their tenure. I am confident that our new line of urns, Gourd-geous Sacred Vessels, will be an exciting new aspect of our story. The urns, which celebrate our African-American culture, represent both of my passions, art and this business. I was fortunate to receive a grant from the United Way ‘s Black Empowerment Grant, to take my vision to a new level.
We will be celebrating this wonderful milestone throughout the year. It is our plan to host a community day in 2022 to thank the countless families and friends who have supported us throughout this journey.
I stand on the shoulders of my husband and his family. Their collective dedication, faith in God, talent and grit has brought us this far.
The only words that adequately describe what is in my heart is….“Wow!” As Inez said many years ago, “God has blessed us wonderfully…for which we are most grateful.”