Indispensable to Their community: An Examination of Black Undertakers in Baltimore, Maryland
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Type of WorkText
DepartmentHistory and Geography
ProgramMaster of Arts
African American involvement in the death trade has been present in American history since Africans were forced through slavery to come to America. The conclusion of the Civil War ushered in the long-desired emancipation of countless enslaved blacks and the professionalization of the undertaker trade. In Baltimore, Maryland there was a thriving free black population that gave birth to a number of successful black professionals and businesses. One of the most successful businesses was that of undertaking. The business of undertaking and the undertakers themselves provided an indispensable service to their community, while satisfying important cultural and traditional needs of African Americans and their deceased loved ones. Research concerning the black undertaker’s role in the African American narrative is in its embryonic stages. It is clear however that these undertakers embodied the spirit of selfhelp and uplift. The oldest of these black undertaking firms was Joseph G. Locks, Jr. Funeral Home, which served the East Baltimore black community for over 150 years and five generations. Through the lens of several funeral homes, this thesis reveals how they and other undertakers answer the call of self-help and service to their community. This thesis also explores the records of the Board of Undertakers of Maryland, 1902 to 1935, and the impact of Jim Crow laws on undertaking. The Board of Undertakers professionalized the undertaking trade, consequently transforming black undertakers into funeral professionals. Lastly this thesis explores the role of women in these black undertaking businesses, bringing to light their history as wives, daughters, and business women. These women took over the businesses they built with their husbands, continuing to grow their business into successful enterprises that thrived for years following their succession. These women laid the foundation for the black female funeral directors of today who still face many of the same issues as their predecessors.