African-American owned mortuary in San Antonio marks 100 years

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by San Antonio Express-News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:47 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 12:30 PM

SAN ANTONIO - As funeral director Tony Hendricks escorted the family of the late Rev. James L. Sanders into his office at Lewis Funeral Home, Sanders' youngest daughter, Stephanie Morris, was crying.

"It's just hard to accept this," she said of her father, the pastor of Memorial Missionary Baptist Church on the West Side for 33 years. "I felt like it would never end. I thought it would end a different way."

Hendricks handed Morris a box of tissues. Before the rustle of contracts, casket selection and other arrangements took place he offered some advice.

"The reverend was a good man," Hendricks said. "I lost my mother and father, and I didn't know what I was going to do. Pray. Prayer soothed me."

His reassuring manner echoed back to the early 20th century, when founder Frank E. Lewis comforted clients at a two-room house on the East Side. He did the embalming and gravesite preparation himself and taught the trade to his stepson and successor, Vernon E. Larremore, who passed the lessons to later generations.

The owners recently marked the 100th anniversary of what they say is the oldest family-owned African-American business in San Antonio.

A centennial is a rare occurrence for a black-owned mortuary, said Gregory Burrell, vice president of the National Association of Funeral Directors and Morticians.

"It's a milestone for any black business to be around for 100 years and still be viable," said Burrell, who runs the Terry Funeral Home in Philadelphia. "That's the kind of succession plan we'd like to see in the African-American community."

Much has changed since the era when funeral homes were almost as key an institution as churches in black neighborhoods. Back then, a funeral cost $20, and cremations were rare. Today, a funeral costs between $3,500 and $5,000, and it performs up to 60 cremations a year.

Lewis' business grew as it moved to locations on North Center and South Hackberry streets. It also weathered the wave of corporate buyouts of smaller funeral homes in the 1990s and the migration of clients across the city.

The one constant over the years, said Robert Washington, president and nephew of Larremore's wife, is that the business has always been "an open door to the black community."

Many employees have worked together for decades. Washington started as an apprentice at age 19 in 1960. He hired chief embalmer James Bryant Sr. in 1973. His right-hand man, manager Clarence Baines, started in the early 1970s at the age of 14.

They consider what they do a calling.

Bryant, who trained Hendricks, has wanted to be a mortician since he was 5. On Saturday mornings he'd slip on his Sunday suit and bow tie to conduct services for the dearly departed insects and birds in his backyard. His tricycle was his hearse.

As an adult, he favors blue scrubs. His eyes widen when he talks about his job and the people he works with, and his mission to "leave families with an image of loved ones that match their memories."

Bryant said he's proud to have a hand in preparing the next generation of morticians. For 29 years, he's trained interns from the San Antonio College Mortuary Science program. His colleague, Deborah "Dee" Osuna, is a former intern.

The clientele at Lewis includes families who have been repeat customers since the firm's founding. Staffers know many of the deceased as old classmates, neighbors and church members.

As Sanders' family gathered at the funeral home to make arrangements last January, a son-in-law, the Rev. E.J. Morris, pastor of Memorial Missionary Baptist Church, said one reason they chose Lewis is that Hendricks knew Sanders' history in the community.

In the next room, Sanders' goddaughter Delores McClure hugged one of Sanders' granddaughters as the family chose a smoky gray casket.

"He's not going to be laying in this," McClure said. "He's already laying in the presence of the Lord."

More than 350 people packed West End Baptist Church on Culebra Road for Sanders' funeral. Hendricks guided the family to the open coffin and Stephanie Morris lingered, gently touching her father for the last time.

"Some of us are here because somebody died," Morris said from the pulpit, backed by three dozen pastors in the choir section. "Most of us are here because somebody lived."

As the eulogy continued, Morris snapped small jabs in the air that grew to a wide sweeping of his arms. The pastors cheered him on, shouting, raising their arms.

Below the pulpit, Baines quietly lifted a palm, a signal for Hendricks and Rodrigus "Baby Boy" Knight to prepare the casket for the hearse.

Hendricks drove the lead limousine as the procession wound through the city. A woman waiting for a bus bowed her head and made the sign of the cross. Motorcycle police blocked traffic as cars turned onto Fredericksburg Road. A man on Hildebrand Avenue pulled off his hat and pressed it to his heart.

The procession entered Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

"Thank you for allowing the Lewis Funeral Home to be a part of this home-going celebration." Hendricks said at the close of the funeral. "It was truly a blessing."

Days before, Hendricks had leaned over the remains of an older man in a gray suit, dabbing brown makeup with a brush. He applied foundation to the man's face, eyeing a photograph to match the color.

"He looks good," Bryant said, smoothing the man's white hair back with his hand. "Thank you sir," Hendricks added as Osuna straightened the man's tie.

It was the same type of care they extended to Sanders, quibbling over details such as the right height of the body and placement of fingers on the Bible. It was the kind of care that brought the ultimate compliment from his family.

"They did my father justice," Stephanie Morris said. "Everything was in place. I was happy to see his final resting place and that he was taken care of, because we took care of him."

Vincent T. Davis,

San Antonio Express-News

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