Homegoings: The Role of the Funeral Director in the African American Community

Last week I attended a wonderful program sponsored by the S.C. African American Heritage Commission at the SC Department of Archives and History.  Titled Homegoings, the program consisted of a panel and the premiere of a documentary by the same name which will be broadcast on public television on POV, the evening of June 24th.

Owens

SC native and NYC funeral director Isaiah Owens

The documentary focuses on SC native and NYC funeral director Isaiah Owens, who attended with his wife.  Panelists included funeral directors Herbert Fielding of Charleston, Chris Leevy Johnson of Columbia, James Flemming of Chesterfield, Samuetta Marshall of Holly Hill, and Marshall Parks of Greenwood.  I particularly wanted to hear Mr. Fielding, a prominent former state legislator, and Chris Johnson, who I had met years before when he was researching his dissertation.  The event was well attended, and the details of the funeral industry shared by the panelists were fascinating.  I attended a funeral conducted by Johnson several years ago and it was remarkable for its grace, solemnity and beauty.

While everyone on the panel contributed to the evening, Johnson and Marshall were particularly interesting.  The next morning, I requested Johnson’s 2004 dissertation from the USC annex.  It was done here at USC under the direction of Prof. Lacy Ford and is titled Undertakings: The Politics of African-American Funeral Directing.   In it, Johnson focuses on the history of three families, including his own, to showcase the role of the funeral director as a leading force in the African American community, particularly in the realm of politics.

white hearse

This majestic hearse, owned by the Hines Funeral Home of Hartsville, was parked immediately in front of the Archives entrance. The unique vehicle was built by the Minnesota based Dakotah Prinzing Motor Coach Co.

In the chapter on the Leevys, Johnson presents a definitive treatise on the history of the Republican Party during that odd time from the 1940s to the late-1950s when the South Carolina Republican Party was chiefly a patronage organization, and Johnson’s grandfather, I.S. Leevy, one of its leaders.

Johnson’s father, I.S. Leevy Johnson, is entrusting his papers to SCPC.  The collection will document his education and his leadership in the Bar Association, the community, and state government.

~ Contributed by Herb Hartsook

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