THE HISTORY OF THE FLORIDA MORTICIANS ASSOCIATION, Inc.
And it’s Leaders -Yesterday and Today -“Progress The Activity of Today and The Assurance of Tomorrow Must, For The Sake of Permanence Have It’s Roots Embedded In Yesterday.”
During the early 1900’s when our pioneers were seeking and education in embalming they had to travel some distance from home. The only good thing about having to go out of state to attend a training facility was that most programs only lasted a minimum of six weeks and a maximum of nine months.
It was the vision of Mr. R.R. Reed and his visionaries, a group of young energetic black undertakers, trained in the art of embalming who felt they should be governed and organized by a common bond and goal and a high standard of ethics to provide quality care to our own Negro people. They felt it was not the job of White people to bury Negroes but that we should take care of our own. The vision came to him and for three long years they met at different locations, exchanged ideas, planned and organized until they increased in numbers and gained strength from each other at the various meetings.
The first city for Black Funeral Service in Florida had its roots in the city of Jacksonville. Most of the early pioneers in embalming were originally from the Jacksonville area or had worked there for some length of time before venturing out to other parts of Florida.
Under the leadership of James E. Whittington of Jacksonville, Florida, this newly formed organization met formally taking on the name of the “Florida Negro Embalmers and Morticians Association” and elected him its first President. They acknowledged the strength and unity needed to come together and pledged to work for the betterment of this new association with the ideas of growth and professionalism and the excellence in care for the Negro race.
Our founding forefathers of this Association included R.R. Reed, Japhus M. Baker, James E. Whittington, Lawton Pratt, Delia J. Brown, Kelsey Pharr, Mary and Edward Lawson, Wyatt J. Geter, Charles Chestnut, St., George Styles, M.E. Hughes, James Austin, J.H. Bonner, George W. Benton, Andrew Huff, Garfield D. Rogers, Sr., The Stone Family, Edward W. Stone, Sr., and Richard Stone. Each added a special knowledge and experience needed for a newly organized group. Allowing for others to attend the meeting, the first meeting was held in Jacksonville, the second annual meeting was held in St. Petersburg and the third was scheduled for Orlando, Florida where the Second President, Kelsey Pharr was installed.
Most of our prominent pioneers attended the Renouard Training School for Embalmers in New York and the Cincinnati School of Embalming in Cincinnati, Ohio. But in the 1930’s there were two Black Schools available, the Welch School of Embalming in Birmingham, Al and the Atlanta College of Mortuary Science, Atlanta, Ga. where black local doctors, lawyers and licensed embalmers taught at this school. We had the best instructors teaching our pioneers and many of our present day embalmers were students of this prestigious school.
Japhus M. Baker, an organizer was known as The Father of Black Embalmers and the First License Black Embalmer in the state of Florida. His uncle, Wyatt J. Geter opened up Jacksonville’s first Black Undertaking Business in 1895.
In 1974, we saluted Past President George Benton of Fort Lauderdale on his Fiftieth Anniversary in the Funeral Profession, as well as the service he had rendered to his community. In all those Fifty years he took the time and made a commitment to his mortuary Association. Certainly, Mr. Benton is a part of the yesterday when they used the horse drawn funeral coacher, when money receipts were poor and you had to be paid in food and goods. But he was never discouraged and took the challenges of yesterday and made them the promises of tomorrow. He told us to act now so that we can realize the dreams of “yesterday” and “today” and build for “tomorrow.”
The 1980 theme of our Past President, Samuel Gaines of Fort Pierce was “Facing The New Era Thru Unity and Strength.” In his greetings to our Strong and Ever growing membership was “This is the beginning of a new decade and we as morticians must project our thoughts and ideas into ahead of us, This is our day. It is here and with faith in God, who had promised to be with us, we are able to grasp courage for whatever is before us – for whatever is to come. We must recognize leadership and condone good fellowship. We must encourage aggressiveness and condemn restlessness. With this awakening, we will be ready to move into the New Era of Funeral Service with Unity and Strength.” Past President, Gaines accepted these challenges and went on to become one of our National Presidents.
The Florida Morticians Association added to the arena a class of National Presidents that could not be touched with Past President, Samuel Gaines, we must add the distinguished others Dr. William Bryant of Tampa, FL. and The Great Willie J. Bruton of Orlando, FL.
Now we are moving in the Direction of the Twenty First Century with our 31st President of the Florida Morticians Association, Inc., where we are still on track with high ideals, increased membership, highly educated professionals, promised for a even greater future, premises of a state headquarters office, legislative funding, scholarships and more because of unified Strength and Good Leadership; leadership that had a vision and helped develop a group of visionaries like our forefathers in 1921, to move in the right direction, leadership who supported and envisioned as the Great Association that we are, leadership that said we must stay on board the Florida Morticians Association, Inc., so that the history for the next 70 years will be as great or greater that it has been in the past.
In a 1993 message from our 31st President, Sherman Milton of Dade City he stated that “We as the Members of This Great Association Must Become our Brothers Keepers, and We Must Support Each Other in Every Way We Can.” He acknowledges that we must meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Can we get on board and continue to stay afloat? Can we keep our Association strong for our future generation? The Answer is YES….It started yesterday and it continues today with you and the continued support that our forefathers and the early pioneers instilled in us when they organized 70 plus years ago.
We salute the Past Presidents of the Negro Embalmers and Funeral Directors Association and the Florida Morticians Associations, Inc.
We salute the organizer of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Florida Morticians Association the late Mrs. Preston M. Pughsley of Tampa.
We salute the officers and Executive Board as well as the Entire Membership, Past and Present, who through dedication, loyalty, commitment, friendship, unity and professionalism have made us the number one association that we are.
James E. Whittington was the First Registered Apprentice Mr. Baker had and he was the first President of our newly formed and growing Association. Mr. Whittington opened up his business and was known for burying the most prestigious Negroes of that Era.
Lawton L. Pratt of Jacksonville opened his business in 1900, and was the Second Licensed Black Man in the State and was the first competitor of Geter and Baker Funeral Home. He attended the Cincinnati School of Embalming and graduated in the Class of 1910. His funeral home was the meeting place of the First Organization Meeting of the Florida Negro Embalmers & Funeral Directors Association. Mr. Pratt was well beyond his time and he went on to be the Third President of our growing Association, He took the first step forward for assuring a place for women in the field of embalming. He permitted Delia Joan Brown the opportunity to serve her apprenticeship here in Florida to qualify for the State Board. She attended the Renouard School in New York. She had a natural calling for the field and was a very quick learner. She was in James Whittington’s Class and was the only female in their class. She was a gifted student and finished the nine month program in 2 months. She was one of our early organizers and can be labeled the Mother of the Female Embalmer. Following in her footsteps and to share the responsibilities of the newly formed Edward Lawson Company of Palatka, FL., Mary J. Lawson enrolled into the Renouard Training School in 1915. She was an incredible woman who went before the State Board in Jacksonville, to become the First Black Licensed Lady Embalmer in the state, in 1917.
In 1928, our organization received sub-charter no. 9 that would lead to permanent membership into the National Association once they were able to get through their organizational problems.
The 1930’s and the 1040’s rolled around and the growth of this new profession affirmed the need for more education. In 1935, the new statue passed that created the licensed funeral director and required high school education, or an equivalent certificate from a reputable college of embalming approved by the State Board. These new rules were not a handicap to our early pioneer licensed embalmers, but it did pose a threat to the undertakers already in the business. Since they could not meet those requirements and because they were into the businesses of conducting funeral, 300 or more “Undertakers” were granted complimentary license, thus the term “Grandfathered In” came to be Fifty Seven of the 300 were Black Undertakers.
The 1950’s approached our Association with New leaders, New ideals and New Directions, In the President’s Message at the 34th Annual Convention in Miami, Florida, our leader at the helm, President Oscar I. Hillman of Jacksonville had the first order of business was the change name from the Florida Negro Embalmers & Funeral Directors Association to the Florida Morticians Association. This was the era of change and because of the challenges of the day; we were ready to cove in a positive direction and to take our proper place amongst the finest group of well trained well educated Morticians. This meeting supported our eloquent President and saw that we were moving in the right direction. President Hillmans Address titled “What of Funeral Service 25 years Hence” brought the conventioneers to their feet. He stated “Thirty Four years ago, stalwart leaders of our profession in Florida envisioned a great oak tree to shield our posterity form the onslaught of bigotry-mistrust-and the economic status in free enterprise. Step by Step they planned and trudged along until we became big and strong enough to take over the helm. They set a good pace and pointed to a goal which inspired us to come this far along the road of progress, but where do we go from here? Where will we be or What status will our mortuary profession and particularly our association be in 16 to 256 years hence?