The Civil Writer Magazine

Concerns about how black bodies were laid to rest by white undertakers fueled the desire among African Americans to have their family members buried by black undertakers whom they believed would bury their dead with care and dignity. For more than a century, black funeral directors have been serving black communities in the United States, keeping African American funeral traditions alive. But in the 1950s those institutions, which withstood segregation supported the traveling negro who didn't have hotel accommodation.

Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination by private business owners, it was often hard for African Americans to find hotels that would serve them as they traveled. Travelers who didn't happen to know people along the route had to sleep in their cars or the alternative were southern Black funeral homes. During the years before the Civil Rights movement got underway, Black American funeral homes helped give birth to a musical touring circuit called the Chitlin circuit they helped provide sleeping accommodations for hundreds of black musicians on the road with no place to sleep. When traveling across state lines, it was the only safe space where you could sleep. The owners of the parlor, would delight in making people sleep in the same room as the caskets as told by Smokie Robinson when they traveled the southern Chitlin circuit.

Dr. King and Correta once slept in a funeral home. This was not by choice; the South had no hotel accommodations for black people in those times. Coretta recalled Martin making a joke of this throughout their marriage: “Honey, do you remember we spent our honeymoon at a funeral parlor?” Black funeral homes worked as a contributing passage for the underground railroad. When the Underground Railroad was one of the few lifelines available to those fleeing slavery, undertakers smuggled escapees in coffins. Black funeral homes also hosted dance parties for the residents of their towns.