By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It was nearly older than Leak and Sons and AA Rayner funeral homes combined. Today, the historic Charles S. Jackson Funeral Home is gone; its remains left to rot at 7350 S. Cottage Grove. Faded plywood covers the windows of the handsome gothic facade. Weeds have taken over the lot where mourners parked their cars. A portion of the roof in the back of the building has collapsed.
For nearly a century-and-a-half, the funeral home was the enduring national symbol of America’s Black funeral business. Founded by a slave two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, it operated in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood and was the nation’s oldest Black-owned funeral home.
In 2012, after nearly 145 years in business, the funeral home closed its doors, ending an era spanning multiple generations. Four blocks north of another venerable funeral home, Leak and Sons, the Charles S. Jackson Funeral Home suffered a quiet death that went largely unnoticed in the community and unreported in the press. All that’s left is a massive, deteriorating, red brick building that has become an eyesore in the neighborhood.
Time and neglect have taken their toll on a place that was once a significant part of Black history. While few mourn the loss of the once proud institution, perhaps fewer care about a decaying, abandoned building whose future remains uncertain.
Now, the defunct Charles S. Jackson Funeral Home has joined a growing graveyard of Chicago funeral homes that have closed over the years because of a changing industry where consumers are looking for less expensive ways to give their loved ones an affordable send-off.
The problems are more severe in Black neighborhoods in Chicago and across the country. Black-owned funeral homes are struggling as families forego traditional burials for the more modest costs of cremation. Membership at the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, the largest group of Black morticians, has fallen to 1,200 from 2,000 over the last two decad- es.
In the past decade, while some have managed to stay afloat, several once prominent Black-owned funeral homes have closed their doors. Miller, Major and Ockleberry and the Metropolitan Funeral Home are among the departed. In 2007, Griffin Funeral Home in Bronzeville closed after 60 years in business.
Despite its household name, national reputation, historical significance and decades in business, the Charles S. Jackson Funeral Home closed in 2012. It was established in 1867 in Philadelphia by Emanuel Jackson and his three sons. The business was called the first “Negro Funeral Home business” in the U.S. according to the Bronzeville Historical Society and a 1972 article in Ebony magazine.
At a time during the Civil War when embalming gave rise to funeral homes, white funeral directors refused to serve Black families and Blacks had little capital to open their own businesses. Emanuel Jackson was one of very few documented Black funeral homes in the mid-1800s. Up until it closed in 2012, the Charles S. Jackson Funeral Home proudly displayed the year it was founded at the top of its building on Cottage Grove.
Charles S. Jackson moved his father’s business to Chicago in 1910. Charles and his brother, Daniel M. Jackson, owned two funeral homes in Bronzeville as part of the Charles S. Jackson Funeral System. In 1932 in an article in the Chicago Defender, Charles was described as a prominent undertaker who bought thousands of individual packages of ice cream to give to children attending the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic.
Charles eventually moved the operations of the family’s two funeral homes to the location at 7350 S. Cottage Grove, bringing his loyal patrons with him. The building sits next to St. Mark A.M.E. Zion Church, founded in 1796, which is still operating.
Charles died on Sept. 29, 1962, leaving his wife, Mattie S. Jackson, as the principal owner and four associates as shareholders. According to an old article in Jet magazine, Charles left his wife with the bulk of his estate that was valued at $30,000, which today is equal to $237,805 when factoring in inflation adjustments. When Mattie died two years later on April 14, 1964, Herschel Latham, a 41-year-old businessman, purchased and operated the funeral home until his death in 1974. His wife, Shirley, ran the funeral home until it closed in 2012.
No other Black-owned funeral home in Chicago or in America had been around as long as the Charles S. Jackson Funeral Home. Leak and Sons is 85-years-old. AA Rayner is 71. The Charles S. Jackson Funeral Home was 145-years-old when it closed.
In the final years, Shirley and her children lived on the upper floors of the funeral home. One online source said Shirley closed the business because she couldn’t keep up with the maintenance costs as the building aged and fell into disrepair. The iconic retro black and green Charles S. Jackson marquee in front was sold to a Michigan company after inspectors forced the family to take it down. New building codes prohibited older signs to protrude out over the sidewalk.
According to city documents, the building is on a list of city demolition orders, but Bill McCaffrey, Chicago’s director of Public Affairs for the city of Chicago’s Department of Law, said the building was repossessed by the Cook County Land Bank, a public agency created to reduce vacant properties in Cook County. The agency sold the building to Martin Memorials, LLC at the end of 2015. McCaffrey said the building is not scheduled for demolition. The Crusader tried unsuccessfully to reach Martin Memorials, LLC for this story.
Two years after the company purchased it, the building remains boarded up, empty and in disrepair. The beam that once held the marquee still protrudes out over the sidewalk. An old, white parking sign leans against the building. Inside, a portion of the roof has collapsed exposing the interior to the elements.
In the last several decades, vacant buildings that once housed venerable funeral homes in Black neighborhoods have been given a new purpose as the headquarters of other Black businesses, namely Black newspapers. The Chicago Defender operates out of the former Metropolitan Funeral Home at 4445 S. King Drive. The Final Call operates out of the former Miller, Major & Ockleberry Funeral Home at 734 W. 79th St. The building that housed the Griffin Funeral Home has been vacant for 10 years since it closed in 2007.
The vacant Charles S. Jackson Funeral Home building is not a Chicago landmark, and thus, is not protected from demolition. Restoring it would likely be very expensive to repurpose it as a new business.
After it closed five years ago, some 120,000 burial records from 1923 to 1990 were given to the state before the Bronzeville Historical Society lobbied successfully to get them. The rest of the burial records were lost after the funeral home closed, but the organization had 400 original documents from the Charles Jackson Funeral Home. The documents include information on World War I veterans and Blacks who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. Most of the rich records were processed by volunteer members of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago.