By Catherine Ferraro
When Mason historian Suzanne Smith was in graduate school at Yale University, she took a course in 20th-century African American culture and decided to write a seminar paper on Motown Records. As a native of Detroit, she had a special interest in the record label and how it affected her hometown. “I sometimes jokingly call it the seminar paper that would not die,” she says.
Smith’s professor told her that the paper had the potential to become a dissertation. Smith rose to the challenge and wrote the dissertation, graduating from Yale with a PhD in American studies in 1996. That work, which examined Motown and its relationship to the black community of Detroit and the civil rights movement, became her first book, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, 2000). The book received a third place Ralph Gleason Award, a prize sponsored by New York University, Broadcast Music Inc., and Rolling Stone magazine that recognizes achievement in critical writing about popular music.
To this day, the decision to write about Motown still influences Smith’s work. It was while researching the history of Motown that Smith learned how musicians would often steal away from the recording studio to a funeral home across the street to relax and unwind among the caskets. This fact intrigued her.
In her most recent book, Smith moves beyond Detroit and the music business to explore the role of African American funeral directors and their participation in the civil rights movement nationally.
During her research for To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (Harvard University Press, 2010), Smith uncovered the rich history of African American funeral directors dating from colonial times to the present. Often revered in their communities for their ability to honor the dead, funeral directors were among the few economically independent African Americans who did not rely on white society.According to Smith, to understand the importance of the African American funeral, one must look back to the burial and mourning practices in West and Central Africa during the slave trade. Often described as a “homegoing,” slaves believed that death freed the deceased from a life of oppression and that the person’s soul would return to Africa.
“The slave funeral was a powerful refuge where slaves bonded together as family and community, and it helped to lay the groundwork for African American communal life,” says Smith, who is an associate professor of history at Mason. “Funeral directors began to have a very important role in African American culture because they were the individuals who oversaw death and burial.”
Throughout the 19th century, funeral directors and the funeral industry underwent a significant change as industrial America emerged. Funeral directors, instead of family members, were tasked with coming directly to the house and preparing the body for viewing and making other arrangements. The rise of the modern funeral industry, according to Smith, occurred during the Civil War when embalming became popular and necessary to preserve the bodies of soldiers during shipment home for proper burials.
Although the funeral industry was growing at a rapid pace, African American funeral directors and other business leaders realized that, with the rise of Jim Crow segregation laws in the 1880s, the key to their success lay in securing the African American market for themselves. This loyalty, however, was not always guaranteed, and funeral directors had to actively promote the cultural and economic benefits of supporting African American businesses.
When funeral homes began popping up in the 1920s, the funeral industry and directors took on a more active role in the civil rights movement. Smith found that many funeral homes became sanctuaries and meeting spaces in communities where Jim Crow restrictions were harsh.
Putting themselves at considerable personal and financial risk, many funeral directors supported causes such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the result of Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person. They also aided civil rights leaders and activists by providing inconspicuous transportation to and from rallies and other demonstrations.
“The civil rights movement provided a unique opportunity for African American funeral directors to not only honor the fallen dead, but also show their support by aiding civil rights leaders and activists,” says Smith. “However, this created quite an ambiguous role for funeral directors who were trying to stand up for their race by fighting discrimination at the same time as they were fighting for job security by encouraging individuals to support African American businesses.”
Smith has been traveling around the country to talk about her research and the book. She has been on such radio programs as NPR’s Morning Edition and the Kojo Nnamdi Show discussing African American funeral traditions. She has even given talks at funeral director conventions. Although she is still publishing and speaking about the African American funeral industry, she is already at work on a new project.
Smith’s new book, tentatively titled “Jesus Was a Capitalist,” will examine the role of entrepreneurship in the modern African American religious tradition, including the business careers of charismatic black televangelists such as Reverend Ike, as well as the rise of black mega churches.
“I think of my work as studying African American entrepreneurship through a cultural lens, using music, death, and now religion.”
Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress.