O’Neil D. Swanson
Dr. O’Neil Swanson has not only been one of the most prominent undertakers Detroit, but he has consistently been a leader in the community. He has also cared for the likes of David Ruffin of the Temptations, C.L. Franklin, and Rosa Parks, among others.
Swanson, like many others, came north to find his way in the world, originating in Alabama, and growing up in Dayton, Ohio. He moved to Detroit after receiving a degree in mortuary science from Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science. Two years later, in 1958, he opened the first Swanson Funeral Home in Detroit on East Grand Boulevard.
After creating a successful business, Swanson decided to give back to the community, and created the Swanson Foundation to give scholarships to needy African American students. At times, he has also been the Director of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Like many of the other funeral directors, Swanson’s children have followed him into the business. While Swanson still runs the business, his son O’Neil Swanson Jr., and daughters Linda and Kimberly, are all licensed morticians and continue to work with their father.
Rebecca Holland Barksdale
While many women have taken up the helm in their family business, Rebecca Holland Barksdale was the trailblazer in hers. She knew she wanted to be a funeral director from the age of 14, and apprenticed at the Robinson-Chandler Funeral Home in Flint, before going to work for the House of Diggs for 11 years. She was an important fixture in that funeral home, but she left in 1963 to fulfill her dream of opening her own business. She joined with another mortician to create the Barksdale-Pope Funeral Home, then five years later, she finally achieved her goal of opening the Barksdale Funeral Home.
An important fixture in the Detroit community, Rebecca Barksdale established scholarships in her name and was a member of the Booker T. Washington Business Association. Mrs. Barksdale passed away in 1998, and her son Peter Floyd Barksdale, who had taken over the business, passed away unexpectedly in 2014. The business is currently run by daughter Francine “Bunny” Barksdale Neal.
Joseph B. Thompson
Another Southern implant, J.B. Thompson was born in North Carolina and grew up in South Carolina, before moving to Detroit to find employment with the Detroit Stove Works and Detroit Memorial Park in 1938. He graduated from Wayne State’s School of Mortuary Science in 1945, and along with his wife Hildreth, opened his first funeral home at East Forest and Brush in 1949. Soon, he was able to expand into a bigger location on Dexter.
Thompson was an active community member, establishing a scholarship fund called the Joseph B. Thompson “Mr. Esquire Scholarship Fund” through Shaw College in Detroit, where he was a trustee. In the course of 5 years, he was able to hand out 50 scholarships.
Thompson and his wife had three children that were trained from an early age to take over the business: William, Edward, and Rose Marie. William died at a young age, but Edward currently runs the business, Rose Marie is Chief Executive Officer, and their mother Hildreth still provides counseling and helps with arrangements. J.B. Thompson passed away in 1989, but through them his legacy lives on.
Raymond E. Cantrell
At nearly 95, Raymond Cantrell is easily the oldest funeral director in Detroit. He managed Bristol & Bristol after Vollington Bristol’s retirement, before opening his own funeral home in 1968. He continues as President of Cantrell Funeral Home, and while his children are not part of his business, they have opened another funeral home in Eastpointe, the Q.A. Cantrell Funeral Home, to honor their father’s service. Cantrell Funeral Home is located on Mack Avenue, where it has been since 1968.
Moses Fritz began his career working with Samuel W. Franklin of Franklin Funeral Home on East Ferry in 1927, becoming a partner in 1931, and taking over the funeral home in 1937.
When Fritz was asked about the problems he experienced with white-owned cemetery, he remembered that when Ossian Sweet, a prominent doctor and historical figure in Detroit, tried to bury his young wife at Roselawn Park on Woodward, he was stopped at the front gate of the cemetery and was not allowed through. Rather than go to the back gate, Sweet pulled a pistol on the attendant and threatened to shoot if he was not allowed through. The same kind of incident took place when Sweet tried to bury his daughter.
Fritz was followed into business by his son James, who helped him for many years, before taking over for this father after Moses’s death in 1995. James’s daughter Christina also worked for the business. James died in 2012, and the Fritz Funeral Home no longer exists.
The McFall Brothers
The McFall brothers, James and Ben, began as farmhands on their parents farmland in Hahira, Georgia. They were the eldest of seven boys and five girls, who, after the death of their father in 1921, moved to Detroit with their mother to find work off of the farm. As the eldest sons, James and Ben went to night school to be trained as funeral directors, working at the Hudson Motor Car Company during the day.
In 1927, James and Ben were able to afford a five-room frame house on East Canfield and opened the first McFall Brother Funeral Home. They continued to expand, first into larger quarters in Detroit, before also expanding into the River Rouge community in 1955.
Their younger brother George became a funeral director as well, and in 1935 he opened his own funeral home on East Palmer. After fifteen years of running his own successful operation, George merged with his brothers, maintaining the McFall Brothers name.
Brother James died in 1966, and Benjamin followed in 1976. George B. McFall, Jr., who had already grown up in the firm, was promoted to partner in 1977, joining his father, as well as a long-time employee, John A. Anderson. While I can find evidence of this funeral home until very recently, it appears to have closed after the death of George B. McFall, Jr. in 2013.
Brother Benjamin rather notably marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Walk to Freedom in Detroit as the director of the Detroit Council for Human Rights, along with C.L. Franklin. The DCHR were the organizers of the march, which was the first time that King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Sulee Stinson and her husband Joseph were among the first funeral directors in Detroit, running their business out of their home on Tillman Ave beginning in 1935. They moved into a storefront on West Grand Boulevard in 1948. Sulee died in 1963, and after her husband’s death in 1972, son James “Sonny” Stinson took over the business.Under his leadership, the Stinson Funeral Home became a national firm, expanding as far as Wisconsin and Massachusetts. Sonny’s son James also played a role in the funeral home. The business is no longer family owned, and is currently run by the Rev. Gleo Wade under Concord Family Services Inc.
Importantly, Sulee Stinson is remembered as both the first woman and first African American to be appointed to the Michigan State Board of Examiners of Mortuary Science by Governor G. Mennen Williams in 1960.