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Cultural changes hitting area’s black funeral homes

When there was a death in Rhonda Jackson’s family, Thomas T. Edwards Funeral Home would be called.

“They had done the arrangements for my grandfather and my father,” she said.

For another local black family, it might have been another black funeral home, like the iconic H. Alfred Lewis Mortuary on Jefferson Avenue or Memorial Chapels of Buffalo on East Utica Street. And in Niagara Falls, the African-American community turned to Williamson Funeral Home on Main Street.

“There was an unwritten agreement between the community and its funeral homes,” said Frank B. Mesiah, president of the Buffalo branch of the NAACP. “When my mother died, we automatically took her to a black funeral home; it never crossed our minds to go anywhere else. That’s what you did; that’s what we’ve always done.”

The long-standing tradition here and around the country created a stable, generational customer base and a thriving industry even in economically distressed inner cities. And it propelled the black funeral director to reverential status. Sherman L. Walker, who opened a parlor on Clinton Street in 1927, is considered Buffalo’s first black millionaire, and also was the area’s first black elected official.

But Jackson broke with that tradition when her nephew was killed in 2009. Her family went to Lombardo Funeral Home – a white-owned firm – for his arrangements.

“It was $2,000 cheaper than the black funeral homes,” she said. “They were upfront about costs and very professional. When I lost my other nephew, I went back to Lombardo.”

In the past decade, African-Americans have increasingly used local white-owned parlors, mainly Lombardo and Amigone Funeral Home. It’s a shift that has hit the black-owned businesses hard and could portend the demise of one of the few viable industries on the East Side.

“It used to be that when I went to a white funeral home, I was going for a white friend, and when I went to black funeral homes, it was for my black friends,” Mesiah said. “But lately, I’ve been going to white funeral homes for my black friends – that’s very new. You would’ve never seen that 10, 15 years ago.”

Taken for granted

Experts say the monopoly that black firms once enjoyed made them complacent.

“Because they could count on, for various reasons, a ready and expanding market of black bodies, they had a business that needed little but their constant availability,” said Karla FC Holloway, a Buffalo native and Duke University professor who wrote “Passed On: African American Mourning Stories: A Memorial.”

Holloway said that their stature in the community, “so easily earned and socially necessary, also led to less attention to developing the businesses alongside changing markets and, of course, integration.”

In addition to costs, black funeral homes have been criticized for neglecting their facilities, which are viewed as dated, with few amenities compared to the modern homes of their white counterparts.

Some black directors reject that idea. Brian K. Lewis said that, over the past three years, he has spent almost $200,000 updating his facilities on Bailey Avenue, Sycamore Street and Peckham Avenue, which included new furniture, lighting and vehicles.

But today some black funeral homes are reeling, locally and nationally. Some local homes have cut back hours or lowered prices to be more competitive, while others have diversified their customer bases, serving the region’s new immigrants.

“I handled 85 to 90 percent of Muslim services in the area,” said Lewis. “I knew when I opened 17 years ago that I couldn’t count on the community like before. There were signs then that the loyalty wasn’t the same; I couldn’t just be a black funeral home if I wanted to stay in business.”

More competition

For black funeral directors, the change isn’t just a loss of business, it’s a loss of the black funeral tradition, steeped in African burial practices that withstood slavery.

“A black man will go to an Irish-American funeral director to save $80, and his grandfather would have never done that,” said Michael Williamson, owner of Williamson Funeral Home in Niagara Falls. “Our grandparents would have never considered that; there’s a disconnection with our traditional values. It’s generational.”

Meanwhile, local white funeral directors have been projecting growth in the African-American market. A third of Lombardo’s services – 350 to 400 a year – are held for black families, and Amigone serves 300 black families a year, about 15 percent of its business, according to the companies.

“You provide a nice facility, good service and prices, and these things will help the business grow,” said Joseph P. Lombardo, owner of Lombardo, which has three area locations. “Because we take care of families in their time of need, they’re telling other people,” he said.

Amigone has 15 locations and previously operated a location on East Delavan Avenue. Amigone said another East Side parlor is a possibility.

The funeral industry views the African-American community as especially lucrative because of shorter life expectancies, the high mortality rates of young black males due to violence and blacks’ traditional preference for pricier full funeral services. And for those reasons, white funeral homes are being accused of aggressively pursuing the community with strategic advertising.

For years, Lombardo and Amigone have been buying ads in the programs for major events at black churches. Amigone is currently running a TV spot featuring a black woman touting her experience with the funeral home. In recent years, Lombardo’s launched a low-price campaign with ads placed on the side of NFTA buses that black funeral directors said were aimed at East Side residents.

“We put those ads on all buses and those buses went all over the area, not just the East Side,” Lombardo said.

Black funeral directors believe Lombardo’s lower prices don’t include everything for a basic service, and when they are added, Lombardo’s prices are comparable to theirs.

Lombardo refutes the allegations of false advertising. He said certain options, like limousines and death notices, are not included in his prices, because not everyone family wants those services. Lombardo added that African-Americans tend to pay less than his advertised price because they use churches, not his facilities, for wakes and funerals.

The break of the color barrier would be applauded if it was a two-way street, Mesiah said.

“While I’m seeing more and more blacks at white homes,” he said. “I’m not seeing whites at black funeral homes.”

But Brian Lewis said he does have some white families, like the elderly Polish residents on the East Side, and some families “who live in Kenmore, Tonawanda and Orchard Park.”

But he said it doesn’t compare to the number of black families who go to white funeral homes. The combination of his Muslim and white clientele account for 20 percent of Lewis’ business. But while those areas grow, the base of his business continues to erode.

“I saw a black family last week that I thought should have come to me, go to Amigone,” he said. “I had worked with them for years.”

The closing of some black funeral homes, like H. Alfred Lewis and Memorial Chapels of Buffalo due to retirements, has negated some of that loss because their clients now use other black homes.

“My numbers are up 47 services from this time last year because Lewis’ families are coming to me now,” said Brian Lewis, who usually does about 350 services a year. “I’ll probably do about 500 services this year.”

Declining profits

Williamson Funeral Home is the first and only black-owned funeral home in Niagara Falls, and it’s also the longest sustained black-owned business in the city. It opened in 1960.

In the past decade, the parlor’s 99 percent stake of the black funeral market in the Falls has dropped to 89 percent, Williamson said.

“Ten percent is a lot,” he said. “If I drop 10 percent over the next few years, I’d be out of business.”

So he’s had to lower his prices to keep his doors open.

“I have to provide the same services for much less money. My profit margin has shrunken,” he said.

The Thomas T. Edwards Funeral Home opened in 1970 in Buffalo, and it was where generations of directors got their start, including Brian K. Lewis and Tony Pickens, who opened his business, TL Pickens Mortuary Services, in 2009. The men said the Genesee Street firm is the barometer of the changes. Lewis recalls an average of 1,000 services a year during his apprenticeship from 1985 to 1998. But during Pickens’ time in the 1990s and 2000s, the average was 700.

“As the years went on, our volume just started dwindling; I don’t think we were doing 500 by the time I left,” Pickens said.

Edwards is now owned by Concord Family Services, an Illinois-based company, that owns seven other black funeral homes around the country. Concord did not return calls for comment.

Expanding in the market

When the American funeral business took shape in the 1920s, white funeral homes accepted black families but “instead of offering us full services, they embalmed black bodies in garages or basements, never allowing access to the formal facilities,” said Holloway, who is the James B. Duke professor of English and a law professor at Duke. She added whites in South used intimidation tactics and violence to keep blacks out “of what they knew would be a lucrative business.”

Locally, Amigone said his family’s operation has welcomed blacks since 1927, although African-American historians said most white establishments didn’t serve black families until the 1970s.

Lombardo, who is a third-generation owner, said the discrimination was during “our grandparents and great-grandparents time. We’ve been working with black families for 30 years.”

As a boy in the 1930s, Theodore Williamson saw funeral homes in Niagara Falls turn away his aunt’s body, and the lone parlor that accepted blacks was disrespectful to his family.

“It was such a terrible experience that my father decided he’d open a funeral home when he grew up, so no other black family would have that kind of experience,” said Michael Williamson, second-generation owner and operator of the business.

The segregated landscape provided local black parlors an opportunity to grow and flourish. Before H. Alfred Lewis closed in 2014 after 71 years in business, it was the area’s oldest black-owned business in Buffalo.

“There was never a shortage of work,” said E. Paul Smith, the grandson of H. Alfred Lewis, who took over the business in 1969 and closed it last summer when he retired.

Lombardo and Amigone gained influence in the African-American market during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and ’90s, when intravenous drug users on the East Side were succumbing to the disease at a rapid pace.

“Black funeral homes either refused to take AIDS victims or wanted significantly more,” said the Rev. James A. Lewis III, who is the director of pastoral care at Erie County Medical Center, which operates the AIDS Center/Immunodeficiency Services. “We had a problem on our hands, but Joe Lombardo came to our rescue and he said, ‘I take any body and won’t charge more.’” He said Amigone also welcomed black families who had lost loved ones to the virus.

Discrimination against AIDS victims wasn’t alleged at only black funeral homes; it was industry wide, here and around the country, Amigone said.

Brian Lewis, who worked at Edwards at the time, said: “we were accepting AIDS bodies. We didn’t know much about AIDS at the time, so Mr. Edwards, himself, would work on those bodies. And we didn’t charge extra.”

Still, that period gave black families exposure to white funeral homes, and it dispelled their long-held beliefs that whites couldn’t prepare black bodies, as far as makeup and hair styling, James Lewis said.

“When the first body goes white, the whole community goes white,” Holloway said. “It only takes one funeral,” because the family, friends and neighbors attend, giving white businesses the opportunity to market to the entire community.

“And the word spreads from there,” she added.

Community leaders

Here and around the country, the funeral business provided generations of black men with economic independence and an entry into middle class, along with respect of the community.

“You can match the funeral director’s social status with the black pastor’s; they were often one and the same, so in the same way the church was a site for politics and the ministers emergent and recognizable leaders; funeral directors were similarly positioned,” said Holloway. “It was recognizability, familiarity with the community, deep knowledge of families and their histories, and their expansive reach into our neighborhoods. Knowledge and trust mattered. And we knew them at the most vulnerable times of our lives, and trusted them with our most precious bodies.”

Walker’s high-profile status garnered him an appointment to the Erie County Board of Supervisors in 1933, and he was later elected to the post – making him the first elected black official in local history.

“They were trailblazers – all of our early politicians were funeral directors,” Mesiah said. Others, like H. Alfred Lewis and Leeland Jones, were also elected to the board. Theodore Williamson served on the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority board of commissioners for more than a decade.

While they were prominent community leaders, they also established personal relationships with the families they served.

Holloway – a 1967 graduate of Bennett High School and the daughter of Claude Clapp, the city’s first black deputy schools superintendent – still relishes in a childhood memory of H. Alfred Lewis, crouching by her side, stroking her cheek, assuring her it was it was OK for her to view the body of her grandmother.

“The tenderness at that moment meant so much to me, and it stayed with me,” she said.

Williamson said while black funeral homes don’t have the fanciest limousines, it’s commonplace for directors to offer an intimate level of service that mainstream firms wouldn’t be familiar with.

“We would have a lot of follow-up calls, even months after the service,” said Smith of H. Alfred Lewis.

“I’ve gone with families to the Social Security office to apply for their benefits. A lot of people don’t have money for a lawyer to get their small estate work done, so I was always in Surrogate Court with families, filling out the paperwork for them. You don’t get that kind of service from funeral homes outside of the community.”

When Holloway’s parents passed away in the early 2000s, the family returned to H. Alfred Lewis each time. But Holloway said her generation was probably the last with the “if they bury grandma, mom, they’ll bury me” mentality.

The changes in the economic climate with loss of manufacturing jobs, coupled with the higher-than-average unemployment rates, upended the tradition of loyalty and ushered in the “what’s affordable” approach to arrangements, Williamson said.

“People can’t afford to take care of themselves while they’re living, how can they take care of someone who has died?” he added.

Changing services

Another change facing funeral directors involves the funeral itself. For blacks, funerals held high importance, Brian Lewis said. Without much to celebrate in life, the afterlife would right societal wrongs, many believed.

“There weren’t many opportunities for a celebration for black people because of financial restraints,” Brian Lewis said. “We didn’t really have birthday parties, or college graduation parties – people weren’t going to school like that. If you were lucky enough to get married, there was a celebration then. But for the most part, your birth and your death were major celebrations.”

Traditionally, burial rituals were festive, indulgent and spanned days. It involved a wake that would be several hours long, the day before the funeral, which itself lasted three to four hours, followed by a couple more hours at the cemetery for the burial at the cemetery, and then three to four more hours for the meal.

“The funeral was an all-day affair,” Lewis said. “We would begin our day at 7 a.m.”

The funeral director, being from the culture, was intrinsically involved and “we knew everybody in the family and even knew the songs they would sing at the service,” Williamson said.

But 15 years ago, services started getting shorter and have been whittled to a one-day affair that lasts only a couple of hours in some cases.

Holloway said there’s no time to lament about the past, and funeral directors must make swift changes.

“It’s going to be survival of the fittest,” she said. Also, they should think out of the box, like opening a parlor in a location where blacks have moved.

“We don’t all live in the Fruit Belt or Hamlin Park anymore,” she said. “If you don’t move where we are, we’ll go to the business that’s closest.”

Brian Lewis agreed that his peers have to become more business-savvy and return to their roots. His business is thriving not only because he’s diversified, but because of his community involvement. He sponsors a couple of college students, helping out with tuition, popular events, like cotillion and Juneteenth. Last week, he was involved in gun-buy-back initiative.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time – more than 30 years, so people know my name from my business and I really support the community,” he said. “This new generation of funeral directors aren’t doing that; they’re not about the community. But the community is our history.”