Tuesday, January 21, 2020

African American Morticians



Donna Tyler Hollie

The General Assembly of Maryland enacted legislation in 1902 which established the Maryland State Board of Undertakers. The Board was formally organized on May 22, 1902 at 413 E. Fayette Street and was composed of five undertakers, the Secretary of the Board of Health and the Health Commissioner, all of whom were appointed by the governor and charged with registering, certifying, licensing and monitoring all funeral directors and embalmers in Maryland.[1]

The intent of this article is to offer an overview of African American funeral directors and embalmers as reflected in the minutes of the Maryland State Board of Undertakers.

All of the members of the Board were white men. Three classes of licenses were issued: one to Undertakers who were authorized to embalm and conduct funerals, one to Funeral Directors who could only conduct funerals and a third to Assistant Undertakers who could conduct funerals only under the supervision of a licensed undertaker.[2] The Board administered written and oral examinations in which applicants were required to demonstrate their knowledge of human anatomy and sanitary practices. In the first decades of the Board’s existence there was a $20.00 fee for the examination, which was refunded if the applicant failed.

Upon successful completion of these tests, applicants for the undertakers’ license were required to demonstrate their ability to embalm, using unclaimed cadavers supplied by the Baltimore City Health Department.[3] License renewal was required every two years, with a $5.00 renewal fee.[4] The Board had the power to suspend or revoke licenses for acts contrary to State regulations and for “conduct unbecoming an Undertaker and Embalmer.”[5] Conducting funerals and/or embalming without a license were illegal and the offender was subject to financial and/or criminal penalties. For example, Edward Bryan and George Snowden, of Montgomery County, were reprimanded by the Board for transporting and burying cadavers without obtaining the necessary permits from the Commissioner of Health.[6] Leonard Whalen received a much harsher penalty, revocation of his license, for not burying until April 26, 1929 a man who died on January 21, 1929.[7]

Baltimore’s African American community at the time the Maryland State Board of Undertakers began operation was unique in several ways. First, there was the legacy of the antebellum era when Baltimore was home to the largest population of free Blacks in the nation. In 1830, for example, there were 4,120 slaves and 14,790 free Blacks in the city.[8] In addition, Baltimore’s free Blacks had been relatively prosperous and extremely pro-active in their efforts to improve the quality of life for the entire African American community. Compared to New Orleans, which also had a substantial free Black population, Blacks in Baltimore were much less socially stratified. Consequently, there was a great deal of interaction and cooperation between slaves and free Blacks in the areas of religion, education and business. Also, free Blacks and slaves worked in concert in the Underground Railroad and other anti-slavery efforts. These collaborative efforts were both the result of and a stimulus for unity and strength within the antebellum African American community. After Emancipation, racial segregation fostered a degree of independence from the white community and a continuation of interdependence among people of color.

This spirit of unity was prevalent in June 1902 when Alexander Hemsley, Charles G. Bailey, Felix Pye of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, and John H. Toadvine became the first African American funeral directors/embalmers licensed by the State of Maryland. A week later, licenses were granted to Clarence E. Wright, Robert A. Elliott, Isaac Brown and Joseph Locks.[9] Prior to licensure, most of these men had worked cooperatively in the funeral industry for several years, their businesses having evolved from cabinet/coffin making and from driving carriages. For example, Hemsley, a cabinet maker, practiced as an undertaker at 116 Orchard Street in Baltimore as early as 1881 and in 1884 he conducted the funeral of his friend and fellow undertaker, John W. Locks.[10]

Locks, who owned a fleet of hacks or carriages, worked in conjunction with Hemsley to provide burial services to the African American community. Neither had ever been enslaved and both were financially successful and active participants in religious, fraternal, political and civic organizations before the Civil War. Locks, who had been involved in labor unions, was a co-founder of The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company.[11] Additionally, he was a leader of Bethel A.M.E. church and served on the board of trustees of the Howard Normal School, which was founded in 1867 for the education of African Americans.[12] Hemsley rose to a position of power as the Deputy Grand Master of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. Following his death in 1912, his son, Samuel, inherited the business which remained in operation for many years.[13]

Many widows also inherited funeral businesses. In the era before public welfare, Social Security and other governmental programs designed to aid the indigent were established, widowed women faced tremendous economic obstacles. Those of African descent were particularly disadvantaged and had limited occupational choices. Apparently, the Board recognized the economic difficulty confronting women, as they were extremely liberal in granting licenses, doing so without requiring examinations as they did for men. Mrs. Joseph G. Locks, the former Edna Francis, was the first African American woman granted a license in Maryland. Her husband’s license had been renewed in April 1911 but by July of that year he was dead from appendicitis.[14] Edna Francis Locks continued the business, more than likely with the assistance of her husband’s friends and fellow undertakers, Hemsley, Samuel Chase and Willis Madden. On 23 April, 1912, the Board granted her a license in her own name.[15] For more than twenty years she operated a funeral business which evolved from the hack service established by her husband’s grandfather in 1865.[16]

In a similar manner, Mrs. Robert Elliott (Zorah) entered the funeral business. In 1913, Samuel Hemsley appeared before the Board and reported that Mrs. Elliott was conducting funerals without a license. (Additional research is necessary in order to clearly define his motivation in making this report.) Summoned before the Board, she admitted that she had violated the regulations out of economic necessity. Her husband had passed away and she had no other means of support. The Board’s decision was to invite her to apply for a license which was promptly approved. She was required, however, to hire licensed undertakers to embalm for her.[17] Since that time, women have been continuously involved in the operation of this establishment. The Elliott Funeral Home, at the corner of Caroline and Biddle Streets, was subsequently operated by Ida Elliott Jones Snowden, who was the daughter of Robert Elliott and the widow of two undertakers, Charles Jones and George Snowden. Mrs. Patricia Betts, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, operated a business at the same location until her death in December 2010, thus ending almost one hundred years of female entrepreneurship.

Gender equality and transgenerational support were hallmarks of the African American funeral directors’ community. While women inherited businesses from men, men were often beneficiaries of the knowledge, skill and business acumen of women. For example, Mrs. George A. Holland (Helen) and Mrs. James H. Dennis (Elizabeth) were both widowed and subsequently licensed to continue businesses operated by their husbands. Mrs. Holland, a childless woman, nurtured and trained a non-related neighborhood youth who worked at her establishment after school and during summer vacations. She bequeathed it to Herbert Nutter who operated it with his sons until his retirement.[18] Thomas E. Kelson, who served his apprenticeship under Mrs. Dennis, continued to operate the business after her death. The Board approved his request to advertise as “Thomas E. Kelson, successor to Mrs. James H. Dennis.[19] George Kelson, who served his apprenticeship under his brother, Thomas, inherited the business. Like Helen Holland, George Kelson trained a non-related neighborhood youth, Vernon Bailey, who operated the establishment after his mentor’s death.

Katie Ringgold Williams stands in contrast to other women in the funeral industry in that she was the first to obtain a license without inheriting a business from her deceased husband. While employed as a waitress in a hotel, Williams may have worked in or served an apprenticeship with a local mortician. In March 1920, she was one of seventeen people---eleven white men, two white women and three African American men---who passed the licensing examinations.[20] Probably the most financially successful female to engage in Baltimore’s funeral business, Williams buried between 10,000-13,000 people during her forty year career.[21] The Baltimore Afro-American Newspapers reported in the January 19, 1963 issue that more than 1,500 people attended the funeral services for the Baltimore native and that twelve clergymen participated, praising Williams for her charitable acts.

According to her nephew, Charles Powell, Williams was trained in anatomy at Johns Hopkins Hospital and received a diploma in 1920.[22] No documentation supporting this statement has been uncovered, however, Joseph G. Locks, Jr.’s assertion that his father was employed in the Johns Hopkins Hospital morgue gives credence to the theory that some informal education in anatomy may have been obtained by African Americans at Hopkins.[23] While adhering to the restrictions of a racially segregated society, the Board recognized the need for formal training for African Americans and, in 1910, voted to inquire of “Dr. Winsey (colored) or any other reputable colored practitioners of medicine as to the possibility of getting them to establish a School of Instruction in Embalming for colored applicants.”[24] The Board’s minutes do not reflect that such a school was ever established. However, the fact that the Harvard educated Whitfield Winsey was a faculty member at Provident Hospital, Baltimore’s teaching hospital established by and for African Americans, suggests the possibility that some training of embalmers may have occurred there.[25]

In matters of race, the Board’s behavior varied. Throughout the minutes, women of both races, who were either in the funeral business or applicants for licenses were consistently referred to by their husband’s first and last names. For example, Edna Francis Locks was referred to in the Board’s minutes as Mrs. Joseph Locks, a courtesy usually extended only to white women. Perhaps the fact that these women operated businesses gave them elevated status in the eyes of the members of the Board. It was not until 1920 that the Board consistently used racial designations when referring to undertakers, most often by inserting the word “colored” in parenthesis after the person’s name. In 1935 Sol Levinson became the first Jewish President of the Board and at that time the practice of identifying people by race ceased. In 1936, the practice was resumed but on an inconsistent basis. In 1924, white applicants were tested in the mornings and Blacks in the afternoon. In subsequent years, both races were tested together.

The passing grade for examinations was seventy-five and few applicants passed at the first attempt. Why then, did so many come to Maryland from Virginia, West Virginia, the District of Colombia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois to be licensed?[26] Joseph Locks, Jr. who passed on his first attempt, theorizes that the examination, although difficult, was easier and more objectively administered than in other states. In states where licensing was not mandatory, some undertakers viewed the acquisition of a license as good for business in that they could advertise themselves as being better qualified than unlicensed individuals. For example, in 1926 John Edward Thomas of Accomack, Virginia applied for licensure in Maryland. Days before the scheduled examination he withdrew his application, indicating that he was too busy burying victims of a mill explosion to come to Baltimore to take the test. The Board voted to refund his application fee. He subsequently reapplied and was successful in passing the examinations.[27] The minutes of the Board do not reveal any bias toward African Americans in the administration of the examination. Baltimore , a city with a history of de facto and de jure segregation in all areas of life--housing, education, religious and social activities and medical care--had a need for African American embalmers, in order to maintain racial segregation even in death.

Again, due to racial segregation, African Americans were unable to join professional organizations established by whites. They therefore formed the Colored Funeral Directors Association in 1904. Among the men who held leadership positions in the organization were Bernard P. Hemsley, Samuel T. Hemsley and John M. Johnson. The first mention of this organization in the minutes of the Board was in 1935. While the group had no official decision making capability, the Board frequently contacted them and took their opinions into consideration before announcing their rulings. As an example, when Adolphus Halstead, who operated an establishment at 904 N. Eutaw St., applied for a license to open a branch office on Brantly Ave., the Board requested the officers of the CFDA to appear in case they wanted to oppose his application. Following their testimony, Halstead withdrew his application.[28] Officers of the CFDA also appeared before the Board to support and defend members charged with inappropriate conduct. In addition, the CFDA policed its members and referred those who did not adhere to State regulations to the Board for censure. The group may have acted out of economic necessity, fearing that all might have suffered for the negative actions of one funeral director. Such actions were common among oppressed people who seek the approval of the majority culture as a means of demonstrating and validating their own worth.[29]

African Americans were also oppressed in terms of access to burial insurance. White companies frequently refused to insure or severely limited the amount and type of insurance available to people of color, claiming that they were poor risks. To meet the need for burial funds, many African Americans turned to fraternal organizations such as the Knights of Pythias, The Order of Good Hopes and the Galilean Fishermen. Social organizations provided the same benefits. For example, one of the incentives for joining The Arch Social Club, which was founded in 1912, was the fact that members were entitled to sick benefits and burial funds. Included in this club’s membership were morticians George Kelson, Elroy Wilson, George Holland and George Bailey who served as president[30]

Another response to the racism rampant in the insurance industry was the formation of The Burial Association of Baltimore in which mortician Charles H. Alexander, Addison D. Owens and George P. Bailey held positions of leadership. In addition to selling insurance to those considered poor risks, this group applied, as a corporation for an undertaker’s license. On at least one occasion, the Burial Association had been accused of failing to pay a claim to the survivors of a policy holder. Perhaps this was the reason why, after hearing testimony from the survivor and from the officers of The Colored Funeral Directors’ Association, the Board denied the license.

African American morticians have a long and productive history in the State of Maryland. Even prior to the period when licenses were required and a formal organizational structure existed, they functioned with a spirit of cooperation, placing the interests of the group above those of individuals. Through the years they supported needy members such as widows and provided both employment and opportunities for ownership to the younger members of the community. While other professions have sometimes denigrated the abilities of female members, morticians have, historically, supported, respected and learned from them. Currently, African Americans have a wider variety of career choices and opportunities than did the pioneers in the funeral industry. Consequently, there are fewer businesses being passed from parent to child than in years past. Other traditions, however---those which insured the survival and prosperity of African Americans---continue among members of the Funeral Directors and Morticians Association of Maryland, Incorporated.

African American Undertakers in Baltimore, 1920

Charles G. Bailey

John A. Bishop

Isaiah Brown & Son

Wilbert Brown

Samuel W. Chase & Son

James H. Dennis

Mrs. Robert A. Elliott

Joseph A. Farrell

Alfred J. Freeland

Samuel T. Hemsley

John W. Henderson

George H. Holland

George H. Hooper

John M. Johnson

Mrs. Joseph G. Locks

John H. Owens

Felix B. Pye, Sr

Edward Ringgold

John H. Toadvine

Theodore White

Clarence C. Wright

1421 Jefferson St.

1107 Druid Hill Ave.

108 W. Montgomery St

114 N. Schroeder St.

1400 Mosher St., Corner Calhoun St.

1303 Presstman St.

1725 Ashland Ave.

2319 Division St.

114 N. Schroeder St.

578 W. Biddle St.

31 N. Caroline St.

1631 Druid Hill Ave.

606 Little Paca St.

1234 Etting St.

618 N. Bond St.

1222 Division St.

102 E. Mulberry St.

1463 Carey St.

142 W. Hill St.

1702 Gough St.

1364 N. Carey St.[31]

1921 Advertisements in the Afro:

Afro-American (1893-1988); Aug 5, 1921; ProQuest Historical Newspapers, pg. 4

A Woman’s Touch

In a home disrupted by bereavement there are innumerable ways in which a lady assistant lends a helping hand. By her kindly manner and diligent application, order is brought out of chaos. Her womanly intuition adds warmth and understanding to the simplest detail. She anticipates every need in the household and is, by nature, able to sympathize perfectly with every member of the family. Such an assistant is part of our service.

Madison 0692

Mrs. George H. Holland

Funeral Directress and Embalmer

1631 Druid Hill Ave.

Baltimore Md.

Moncure A. Brown, Manager

Source: The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1931-1932, p. 11.


Black Baltimore, 1870-1920, Alexander Hemsley. Maryland State Archives. http://www.mdarchives.state/md.us/msa/stagser/s1259/121/6050/html/114160000.html.

“Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.” State Agency Histories. http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/refserv/staghist/html/sh81/html.

Certificate of Death #73820. Baltimore City. March 9, 1884.

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Gaines, Kevin K. Uplifting The Race. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Locks, Joseph G. Interview by author. 4 July 1999.

_________. Interview by author. 2 September 2000

Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland, 1902-1939.

Nutter, Herbert. Interview by author. 21 January 1995.

Phillips, Christopher. Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Powell, Charles. Interview by author. 19 September 1994.

The Baltimore Morning Herald. March 10, 1884

The Baltimore Sun. March 11, 1884.

The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1920-1921. Baltimore: Robert W. Coleman, 1921.

The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1931-1932. Baltimore: Robert W. Coleman, 1932.

Walker, Juliet E.K. The History of Black Business in America. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.


[1] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. 1902-1908.

[2] Ibid., June 18, 1902.

[3] Ibid., May 25, 1928.

[4] By 1924 the fee had increased to $20.00. African Americans Eugene Waters, Byron Wright and Edward Graham were among those licensed that year with their fees paid by the United States Veteran’s Bureau.

[5] Ibid., May 10, 1929.

[6] Ibid., February 27, 1925.

[7] Ibid., May 10, 1929.

[8] Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 62.

[9] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. June 18-24, 1902.

[10] Baltimore City Certificate of Death # 73820, March 9, 1884.

[11] The Baltimore Morning Herald, 10 March 1884. P.4.

[12] Willard B. Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 263.

[13] Black Baltimore, 1870-1920, Alexander Hemsley. Maryland State Archives http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/stagser/s1259/121/6050/html/114160000.html

[14] Joseph G. Locks, Jr. Interview by author. 4 July 1999.

[15] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. April 23, 1912.

[16] Black Baltimore 1870-1920, John W. Locks. http://www.mdarchives.state.md/us/msa/stagser/s1259/121/6050/html/12388000.html

[17] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. March 11, 1913.

[18] Herbert Nutter. Interview by author, 21 January 1995.

[19] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. May 25, 1928.

[20] Ibid, March 5, 1920. See also Minutes dated March 12, 1925 and March 6, 1928: Williams’ husband, Clarence, passed the funeral directors’ examination in 1925. In 1928, the Board requested that he submit proof of graduation from high school in order to take the embalmer’s examination, however, there is no evidence that he ever did so.

[21] Charles Powell. Interview by author, 19 September 1994.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Joseph G. Locks, Jr. Interview by author, 2 September 2000.

[24] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. September 23, 1910.

[25] Efforts to obtain early records of Provident Hospital have not been fruitful. Inquiries made at the John Mason Chesney Archives, which houses the records of the Johns Hopkins medical institutions, yielded no evidence of courses being offered to African Americans.

[26] In 1921, Robert Edward Williams and Daniel E. Smith of Philadelphia, Pa. applied. In 1927 John E. Ridgley of Washington D.C. and Henry G. Reynolds of Chicago, Ill were tested. In 1928 John Thomas of Accomac, Va. and Willie Staley of Pittsburg were tested.

[27]Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland, March 9, 1926.

[28] Ibid. , May 10-June 19, 1929.

[29] For a comprehensive account of the effects of racism on the self-perception and behavior of African Americans see Uplifting The Race by Kevin K. Gaines.

[30] The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1920-1921.

[31] Ibid.

Note: This article first appeared in Flower of the Forest; Black Genealogical Journal Vol. II No. 7. 2000.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going through some of my family history and recently found that one of my relative's funeral director was Elroy Wilson. I'm having problems reading the address for the service and the cemetery in which my relative was buried. Would you be able to point me in the direction of his place(s) of work in 1948? You mention him briefly in this point and I would appreciate any resources you can point me toward.