KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Death is forever. So too, it seems, is Jarnigan & Son Mortuary.
The Knoxville funeral home has been around since 1886, making it the city’s oldest Black-owned business. As the world around it has changed, the mortuary has remained a constant, propelled ever onward by one of the only sure things about life: It ends.
“Your situation, about death itself, is positive,” said owner Beal Bourne II. “The best way to face it is to face it, because it’s not going away. I buried my son. I buried my sister, my brothers. I buried my mom, my stepmother, my stepfather. It’s just something you have to face. You don’t get over it, you get through it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first _ and it will probably not be the last _ challenge endured by the funeral home. Jarnigan & Son is the only Black-owned business operating today to survive urban removal, a series of construction projects from 1959-74 that saw Black homes, churches and storefronts razed to make room for the Knoxville Civic Coliseum and the James White Parkway interstate loop. The impact of the upheaval is still being reckoned with today.
Bourne, 74 and president of Jarnigan & Son for four decades, has been to more burials than he can count. He attributes the business’ longevity to its guiding principles: treating everyone with dignity, giving back to the community and never turning anyone away.
“In the funeral business, you don’t bury strangers,” he said in a small room at the funeral home on a recent Saturday. He spoke softly, over lively organ gospel music, so as not to disturb a visitation going on in the chapel. “You bury your friends. That’s who knows you and respects you _ and you respect them.”
All in the family
The exact date Clem Jarnigan founded Jarnigan & Son Mortuary might have been lost to history, but company records date back to 1886.
Jarnigan, a Black man who grew up in Knoxville, opened up his own funeral home at the corner of State Street and Commerce Avenue after serving as an apprentice for Lazarus C. Shepard. Shepard was an undertaker, embalmer and alderman who conducted the funeral of former President Andrew Johnson in Greeneville in 1875.
Clem Jarnigan was the founder of Jarnigan & Son Mortuary.
Jarnigan and his son, Clark, steadily grew their business. They moved into a facility on Nelson Street, where they made their own caskets, then into a larger building down the road. Before his death, Jarnigan buried 5,000 people and _ thanks to “his integrity and his ability to take charge” _ made Jarnigan & Son the largest Black-owned mortuary in the region, the News Sentinel reported in a 1927 article about his death.
“His last funeral was the largest he ever had anything to do with,” the article concluded.
One of Clem Jarnigan’s four daughters, Goldie Mae, took control of the business after her father and brother died. She was a “mover and shaker” who served on national boards and associations at a time when women rarely were allowed to take charge, Bourne said. Ownership passed to her husband, Wilbur Tate, after she died in 1950.
Tate then married Annabelle Moss. The couple later lived above the funeral home, where she would host friends in games of bridge. The two were “night and day,” Bourne said: He was loud and rough, simultaneously a “Bible scholar and hellraiser.” She was quiet and hard-working and would pick up the slack when he grew grouchy.
Cross country travelers, circa 1914. Members of this cross-country traveling party, who visited a host of famous tourist attractions across the western United States, also belonged to the Vine Avenue business community of 1920s Knoxville. All pose before the long-time home of Knoxville’s oldest African-American established and owned business, Jarnigan & Son Mortuary, today located across from Austin-East Magnet High School on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. The undertakers were located at what was then 401 Nelson Avenue near Morgan off Vine.
`He did not get enough’
Then the bulldozers came.
The so-called Mountain View “urban renewal” project of the 1960s, together with the federally funded construction of the interstate loop, forced a disproportionate number of Black people from their homes and businesses.
The government paid residents to pack up and move out, but the program’s early guidelines didn’t require independent appraisals or market-value payments for properties. Business owners, families and teachers left with whatever money they could get, then found after moving that they couldn’t afford housing, find customers and recover financially.
One hundred and seven Black-owned businesses _ including movie theaters, restaurants, barber shops, hotels and grocery stores _ had to relocate. Some had been in business for generations. Most failed within a few years.
“Jarnigan & Son was one of the five that built a new structure,” said Robert Booker, a local civil rights leader and former director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. “All the others that moved either went out of business or moved into old buildings.”
The funeral home had been located at 401 Nelson Ave., near the Black business district in what’s now called the Old City, for half a century by the time the Tates had to move in 1969. They built a new facility at 4823 McCalla Ave., now Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., where the business remains today. Still, Jarnigan & Son didn’t emerge from urban removal totally unscathed: Owner Wilbur Tate went into debt, Bourne said.
“He did not get enough for a business,” Bourne said. “He got enough to buy a joint, a house, and call it a funeral home. He refused to do that. He wanted his families to be treated the way he was treating them, and that was with a funeral home, not a house. He wanted to have standards.”
A yellowed News Sentinel clipping tells how Tate found himself under investigation for overreporting his moving expenses to the government. Saying he “didn’t realize the seriousness of the transaction,” he received probation. He was far from the only one charged, and the case was never considered a blemish on his name, Bourne said.
A 1917 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows 410 Nelson Ave. with the label “undertaker.” Jarnigan & Son Mortuary was located there until the business was forced to move due to urban removal in 1969.
`I don’t turn anybody away’
Bourne moved to Knoxville from Kentucky, where he went to mortuary science school, in the ’70s. He decided to become a mortician after the sight of his father in a casket struck him in a way he’s never been able to fully explain.
As a young Black man from out of town, Bourne was an outsider, and it helped to throw Wilbur Tate’s name around. He was related to Tate’s wife by a previous marriage and said the couple accepted him as if he were their grandson. When Tate died in a car wreck in 1980, it was Bourne who took the reins of the family business.
Bourne is an outsider no more. The front entrance to Jarnigan & Son, across the street from Austin-East High School, is a revolving door of employees, friends, family, volunteers and customers. Staff described it like a sitcom, with a cast of characters who are quick to let loose a joke or a jab.
Beal Bourne II, funeral director at Jarnigan & Son Mortuary at 2823 MLK Jr. Ave. in East Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. The Black-owned business is also the oldest listed business still in operation within the city. Originally located at the current location of Weigel’s gas station on Summit Hill and Hall of Fame Drive, it is also the only business to survive the urban removal of the 1960s.
“It is (crazy),” said Bourne’s wife, Peggy, also a licensed mortician. She taught herself how to make funeral programs after buying a typewriter in the ’70s against her husband’s wishes. “You got so many personalities coming in, and then I can see ’em walk in the door, and I say, `Uh oh.”’
Bourne has been honored for his generosity and his work in the community. In 2016, the city renamed Milligan Street, between Magnolia and Martin Luther King Jr. avenues, after him. The Rev. Harold Middlebrook, who pushed for the dedication, said, “We’ve had several years when children or individuals have died and the family didn’t have any money. And (Bourne) has gone on to see that they were buried with dignity.”
Although COVID-19 has dramatically changed funeral services, making them smaller and visitations sparser, Bourne said the stimulus checks from the government have given his business a boost. Families who can’t pay their funeral expenses up front are allowed to pay in installments over time. Some of those with longstanding bills were able to use their checks to repay more than they had in years, Bourne said.
“I don’t turn anybody away,” he said. “I have faith in people and hope and trust and believe that they will do what they say they’re going to do. Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I’m right. That’s just part of life.”
A business doesn’t survive for 135 years without a sense of humor. Sometimes, to remind a customer of an outstanding bill, Bourne said he’ll mail them a card. One that he’s used shows a picture of a man in a suit, sitting on a bench alone.
“To our past due CREDIT CUSTOMERS,” it reads, “when you DIE please let us be your pallbearers. We carried you so long that we would like to finish the job!”