End may have come for Saginaw's oldest black-owned business
For decades, Joseph Black Sr. heard rumors that men and women whispered his wife's name on their deathbeds.
"Elsie Black ... Take my body to Elsie Black."
She was among Michigan's first black female morticians, a woman born into the business of dead people. When she first drove her father's hearse in a funeral at age 11, she sat on a fruit crate just to see over the dashboard, her husband says.
One of Saginaw's most prominent citizens, she owned and operated Black's Funeral Home for more than 60 years
Even after she suffered a stroke three years ago and business dragged, her license kept the doors open. Months after her death, the Black family is struggling with a grim reality: Saginaw County's oldest black-owned business may have died with her.
Empty seats at her funeral
The funeral parlor, with its busted windows and unkempt lawn, sits in disrepair at 1106 N. Sixth at Norman. Black's has done fewer than 10 funerals in the past three years. Most were prepaid years ago, before Elsie Black fell ill.
The Blacks turned over Elsie Black's own funeral arrangements to a former rival, Evans-Smith Funeral Home, 508 S. Washington in Saginaw. The families have a connection that dates to the 1920s: Before striking out on his own, the founder, George Evans, learned the business from Elsie Black's father.
When George Evans died in 1995, Black's agreed to drive hearses for the Evans family as it grieved.
The two oldest black-owned businesses in Saginaw, the funeral parlors date to the Great Depression.
"You don't have any businesses that come close to that as far as longevity," said Alonzo Betts, funeral director at Browne's Mortuary, 441 N. Jefferson.
The three funeral homes were bunched together within seven blocks of each other. The city's Zoning Board repeatedly denied Black's attempts to relocate the business, minutes show.
Competition was fierce. Elsie Black started out without cars and with old equipment her father left behind. After her mother's death, he remarried and returned to Detroit, their hometown.
The former Elsie Westbrook came home crying many nights. Competitors denigrated her, her husband recalled.
"I'm sure it was hard for women back then, because it's still that way now," said Lois Dale, who runs Evans-Smith with her sister, Carla Smith. "She paved the way."
Black won people over with a combination of grace, gumption and willingness to work with families short on cash, competitors and her husband agreed.
"She was a hard worker, honest on the job, respected people and their values," her husband said. "She would always treat people as good Christians would."
The family name just doesn't carry the cache it once did. She helped bury thousands, but many a pew sat empty at her funeral.
"I thought this place should have been full today," a family friend told the crowd. "When you fall off, people forget about you."
'Heart and desire'
The Blacks were pioneers in the city's First Ward.
Fishing buddies, Elsie Westbrook and Joseph Black Sr. would pitch horseshoes at state parks during summer drives to Idlewid. They met in 1937 at Mount Olive Baptist Church.
When he left Saginaw to serve in the South Pacific during World War II, he never forgot about her. The couple married in 1950, several years after Elsie Black took over and re-named her father's business.
Joseph Black Sr. was a trailblazer, too. The city's first black firefighter, he spent 31 years on the force. He served the last 15 at the Norman Street Fire Station, across the road from his flat above the funeral home.
The former firehouse is now home to a halfway house, one of two in a half-mile stretch. Burned out, boarded up homes and weed-choked lots dot the once-thriving neighborhood, but the Blacks never left.
"They didn't want to give up on the neighborhood," said their son, Joseph Black Jr. "Their heart and desire were still here."
Last June, a killer gunned down their grandson, Curtis Clayton, as he left a late-night cookout. He died at North Fourth and Kirk, less than three blocks from the funeral home.
Deflated foil balloons and plastic bouquets hang limp from a telephone pole at the murder scene.
A marching band member at Saginaw High School, Clayton wanted to earn a college scholarship, study mortuary science and join the family business.
Overcome with grief, Joseph Black Sr. couldn't bring himself to attend the funeral. He doubts his wife knew what was going on. She was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
As pallbearers carried their grandson's casket out to the hearse, the couple looked down from an upstairs window.
The murder remains unsolved.
Picking up the pieces
In the months after her son's shooting death, Janice Black racked up a cocaine posession charge and two drunken driving arrests. She is locked up at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti until at least 2011. State corrections officials didn't grant her a release to attend her mother's funeral.
Her brother, Joseph Black Jr., fell prey to many of the same vices. His parole for petty theft and drug charges ended July 20.
Though both children have mortuary science degrees, their criminal records are a hurdle to securing a license, said Ann Millben, licensing administrator with the state's Bureau of Commercial Services.
With his 88-year-old father suffering from prostate cancer, Black Jr. is guardian of the family business.
He wants to relocate it to a plot the Blacks own on South Park between Remington and Holland, but times are tough, and money is tight.
Joseph Black Sr. longs for the days when business boomed and the art of embalming mattered more than the size of the chapel or the sparkle on a hearse.
"It's not about who can ... put a smile on a body anymore," he said. "Elsie, Joe and my daughter could really fix them up."
'It's hard to see'
During his last days, George Evans told the Blacks, "it's enough business for everybody."
Business boomed in the golden days, when black families migrated north for auto jobs. Families stuck with Black's for decades.
Well into the early 1990s, the business did as many services as Browne's and Evans-Smith combined, Betts said.
Times have changed. There's another black-owned funeral home in town, as well.
Paradise Funeral Chapel, owned by longtime Browne's employee Ivan Phillips, opened in January on prime real estate: at 3100 S. Washington bordering Forest Lawn Cemetery.
It's the same place family members buried Elsie Black. She had one request for her service: She wanted a wood casket.
"Nothing fancy," her husband said. "She was a simple and down-to-Earth girl."
The Blacks still are searching for a licensed person to manage the business.
Until they find one, they're prohibited from doing work. The business license expired the day Elsie Black died.
"They worked hard to keep that business going," Betts said. "It's hard to see it go down like that."
Family members still hold out hope the 80-year-old business can rise again.
"I often think about what will happen to my castle," Elsie Black told The Saginaw News in 1982. "After I retire or die, will it survive?"