Today’s post was authored by a Guest Contributor, historian, folklorist, and ethnomusicologist Dr. Kristine McCusker.
At first glance, the E. A. Harleston Funeral Home and Mickey Funeral Home ledgers, housed in the remarkable Avery Research Center, may seem like dry tomes. But these rich documents tell a variety of stories about being black in Charleston and in the South. The stories found in the ledgers range from reflecting a common death experience to the truly unique and, quite frankly, horrific. Consider this mystery woman who died in 1936 for whom there are but two notations in Harleston’s ledger: first, that she was sent home for burial from Columbia, Georgia, where she had most likely migrated during the Great Migration, and second, that she had died after swallowing a safety pin, a horrible way to die (Reel 3, Page 393). We know nothing else. Was it an accident? Did she commit suicide? The ledger, unfortunately, remains silent at this point.
The ledgers are evidence, too, of the secure elite status conferred upon funeral directors like Harleston and Mickey. In the Jim Crow South, the physical separation of black and white in life required deceased bodies to be embalmed, “funeralized,” and buried racially separate as well, at least in large cities like Charleston. This provided an exclusive business for motivated and entrepreneurial people like the Harlestons and the Mickeys who owned livery stables first and then began to include embalming services with their livery stock. Moreover, that exclusivity provided them an economic buffer against segregation since their clientele was all black and they were, therefore, not subject to white control or whim.
For their customers, “being put away decent” (to use local vernacular) came to mean purchasing goods and services from the Mickeys and Harlestons. At first, it was just a casket; then, embalming; and later, clothing and a hearse to the cemetery. To purchase those goods from a black funeral director was more than simply an evolving consumer relationship, however. Funeral directors conferred on their customers a dignity denied them by whites. In an era when fewer African Americans owned a car and/or were segregated to the back of city streetcars, a hearse ride to the cemetery (in June 1915, that ride cost $10) with cars filled with family members trailing the deceased meant that poorer blacks could access the latest modern consumer items without worrying about segregation or affordability. In an era when only whites were accorded the courtesy title of Mr. and Mrs. (“respectable” blacks were referred to as “aunt” or “uncle”), funeral ledgers wrote their customers’ names with Mr. and Mrs. added in. Ledgers also describe the consequences of that segregated, very unhealthy world; namely, that black infants died at a very high rate at or soon after birth and that black Charlestonians died from tuberculosis, pneumonia and other ailments much earlier than whites did.
The Harleston funeral ledger is a more traditional ledger that records customer transactions exclusively. The Mickey funeral ledger is a rarer, more business-oriented document that records transactions with other funeral homes rather than simply with the customers. It recreates the world of professional black men and women who rented hearses, referred clients (for which they received a fee), and sold insurance to the black maids, cooks, porters, and others who labored in an insecure white world. Poignant among these listings are the children who had multiple insurance policies when they died. 14-year-old Geneva Harrison had four insurance policies in force when she died in 1918 (Box 4, Folder 1, Page 130). The $107 Geneva left most likely paid for her funeral and left her mother some money after.
For more information, visit the Avery Research Center and check out these remarkable documents.
Kristine McCusker earned a Ph.D. in American History, Folklore and Ethnomusicology from Indiana University and is an associate professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University. She is the editor of A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music (2004) and the author of Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels: The Women of Barn Dance Radio (2008). She is working on a book, tentatively entitled Just Enough to Put Him Away Decent: Death and the South, 1900-1950, research that is funded by the National Institutes of Health.