Historically, the business of black undertaking has been framed as a male success story—focusing on narratives of lone freedmen with carpentry skills who hammer and nail their way to economic gain as coffin-makers-turned-undertakers during the Reconstruction Era. What is missing from this image is the collaborative nature of undertaking. It was rare that a freedman with only carpentry knowledge opened an undertaking business by himself, as he either did not have the capital or all the skills necessary for running a fully operational undertaking business. In reality, these men worked together, each providing their individual services. They saved their money, honed skills, and partnered with one another in the death trade to open fully-serviced undertaking businesses.
What is also often overlooked is the significant role black women played in this business. Women, regardless of race, were the original undertakers because they were the first point of contact with the deceased during the late 19th century. Women were called to tend, clean, dress, and lay out the dead. They gathered family to mourn and memorialize, and by their dress and behavior they stood as symbols of bereavement. During this period, the home was the focal point of mourning, and death was viewed as heavy emotional work.
At the turn of the twentieth century, death work was gendered, and it became increasingly segregated as well. Those who made coffins were labeled as “undertakers”—not the women who prepared the bodies. The trade also became professionalized, meaning one had to be trained at an embalming school and obtain the state license to be recognized as an undertaker. No longer was death work an extension of the work of women. Instead, funerals and burials were carried out by trained male professionals.
In Baltimore, as in other cities across the United States, black undertaking was built upon apprenticeship and grew based on cooperative networks. Black undertaking was successful because of the power and long-standing presence of the black cemetery. Black people have been in Baltimore from its founding and helped to shape its urban environment to fit their needs. They sought broader inclusion and participation in the city’s society, which extended to the death industry. What becomes clear is that patriarchy and gendered roles pushed black males to the forefront, allowing them to be publicly recognized as undertakers.
When we examine the burgeoning black funeral home business of the early 20th century, black female undertakers become visible. They surfaced as the business managers and partners who ran and operated funeral home businesses. The story of Bettie Elliott sheds light on this significant yet often overlooked history. Bettie was the wife of Robert A. Elliott, one of Baltimore’s oldest undertakers, who started his business in 1896. In all but title, Bettie was co-owner and operator of the Robert A. Elliott funeral firm. As one black newspaper article explained, “the greatness [Robert Elliott] achieved was due greatly to the untiring energy and business tact of his wife.”1 She was responsible for preparing the bodies and served as the funeral director, overseeing funerals and interments. She also handled bookkeeping, managed day-to-day operations, oversaw clientele, and supervised paid staff.
When a certain Leon Hall claimed employment with the firm, she took out an ad publicly denouncing his claim under her authority. In 1916, her husband died and she was left in full control of the business. She purchased property, moving and growing the business and providing clientele with an up-to-date establishment complete with a chapel and parlor. In 1923 when her brother, Felix Pye, Sr.—a Baltimore undertaker since 1877—could no longer maintain his undertaking business, he asked her to manage and conduct it for him. She had already been successfully operating her own undertaking firm for seven years at that point. From 1916 until her death in 1936, Bettie Elliott successfully ran the Elliott undertaking business—which by then included her brother’s former clientele—with her daughter, Ida Snowden, joining her in the final four years in order to become her successor.
Many other black women in Baltimore had similar experiences. Some of the nation’s oldest black male undertakers credited their success–and left businesses–to their wives, daughters, and sisters. They did this because these women were their business partners and they were great undertakers—not just because they were their wives and kin. When funeral owner George Holland fell sick, for example, his wife Helen Holland obtained a funeral director’s license, paid her nephew’s way through embalming school, and took complete control of the firm upon her husband’s death in 1923.
Holland’s undertaking business, already in its 20th year, prospered and grew in size thanks to her leadership. She fully renovated the funeral home, adding space to better serve her clientele. A training center for apprenticed undertakers to learn embalming was also included in the expansion. Many well-known Baltimore undertakers studied under her tutelage, including Herbert Nutter, founder of Nutter Funeral Home. Helen believed in professionalized undertaking, where funeral directors practiced a script of guided principles for quality funerals. Teaming up with other funeral directions who, like herself, all identified as “modern” funeral directors, she recommended a code for “funeral arrangements” for the family of the deceased to follow.
Similarly, Locks Funeral Home, Baltimore’s oldest funeral business, operational from 1860 until 2003, consistently had women at the helm. Edna Francis, the granddaughter of founder John W. Locks, was one of the first licensed women undertakers in Baltimore during her two-decade-long run of the business. By 1954, her daughter-in-law, Mae C. Locks, was not only a mortician and business manager but a beautician to the deceased as well—beautifying the dead by styling hair and applying makeup. Likewise, in 1913 Frances Hemsley and her husband Samuel T. Hemsley were left in charge of and successfully operated Hemsley Undertaking, founded in 1876 by Samuel’s father Alexander Hemsley. Samuel died in 1934, so for thirty-plus years Frances ran the business until leaving it to her stepson Bernard Hemsley after she retired in 1968.
Historical narratives have often overlooked these women’s contributions to the profession. Society has often done the same. Under rigid gender norms, black women were mislabeled as simply the wives, sisters, or daughters of undertakers. They were hardly recognized as undertakers themselves, even though they were fully involved in the business. These stories of black women in Baltimore offer glimpses into the crucial role women played in this business and compel us to move away from historical narratives that center on black men’s experiences alone.
Kami Fletcher is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Delaware State University. She received a Ph.D. in History from Morgan State University in 2013. Her research centers on African American burial grounds, Black towns, and early 20th century Black female undertakers. Follow her on Twitter @.
- “Mrs. Elliott to Continue Business,” Afro-American, May 20, 1916. ↩