Mis­sis­sippi's old­est black-owned busi­ness: Fu­neral home turns 123 years old

South Florida Times - - BUSINESS - By The Vicks­burg Post W.H. Jef­fer­son Fu­neral Home

JOHN SURRATT

VICKS­BURG, Miss. - Mis­sis­sippi's old­est black­owned busi­ness and old­est reg­is­tered black fu­neral home turned 123 years old in De­cem­ber.

Wil­liam H. and Lucy C. Jef­fer­son founded W.H. Jef­fer­son Fu­neral Home in 1894, and it has re­mained in fam­ily hands since.

“They had no chil­dren,” said James Jef­fer­son Jr., who now man­ages the com­pany.

“Wil­liam Jef­fer­son died in 1922, and Lucy ran the busi­ness un­til she got up in age, and then she turned it over in 1953 to my fa­ther and un­cles, Wil­liams H. Jef­fer­son, James H. Jef­fer­son Sr., and Ge­orge L. Jef­fer­son Sr.

“They ran the busi­ness un­til Un­cle Ge­orge re­signed and left the busi­ness. They brought in their lit­tle brother, Robert J. Jef­fer­son. He is the last sur­viv­ing brother. He's 96 and still get­ting around a lot.”

When Wil­liam and Lucy Jef­fer­son opened their busi­ness in 1894 in the 1100 block of Grove Street, Jef­fer­son said, “It was more of a wooden frame house front type busi­ness.”

The busi­ness moved to its cur­rent lo­ca­tion at 800 Mon­roe St. in 1909. It sur­vived the 1953 tor­nado with lit­tle dam­age, and the build­ing was re­mod­eled to its cur­rent state in 1965. Some of the wooden struc­ture is still in the build­ing that was in the orig­i­nal chapel, and the build­ing had a full base­ment, he said.

At the time the fu­neral home opened, and through its early years, the area around it was the cen­ter of the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity in Vicks­burg.

Jef­fer­son grew up in the busi­ness, spend­ing his child­hood at the fu­neral home.

``I've been here all my life. I prob­a­bly saw my first body when I was 8 or 9 years old. It was a homi­cide. The po­lice were down here. Mom couldn't leave me in the house, so she brought me with her. I didn't go in the morgue, but I saw them roll him in.

“Grow­ing up, we played on the grounds and played bas­ket­ball in the back. Death scares a lot of peo­ple, and they (his friends) couldn't han­dle it. A lot of times they wouldn't go in­side.”

He said he went on his first death call with his fa­ther when he was 13.

“If you pick up a body a cer­tain way, you can cause air to ex­pel through the lungs. The first time it hap­pened, I was ready to break and run, but my fa­ther told me what it was and it was nat­u­ral, and it's been fine since. And I ex­plain that to some­one help­ing me; it's just know­ing how to do it.”

He said Jef­fer­son Fu­neral Home has stayed in busi­ness by be­ing fair, hon­est and com­pas­sion­ate.

“We've served the com­mu­nity through many a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter,” Jef­fer­son said. “When the tor­nado hit, I re­mem­ber my fa­ther and un­cles run­ning am­bu­lances back and forth all night.”

The com­pany has been an ac­tive part in many facets of the com­mu­nity from busi­ness to pub­lic ser­vice boards. Jef­fer­son's fa­ther was on the Vicks­burg War­ren School Dis­trict Board and on the city's hous­ing devel­op­ment board.

“We did burial in­surance, and we were one of the first fu­neral homes to have two burial in­surance com­pa­nies.

“And we do ser­vices for peo­ple in the mil­i­tary. We've re­ceived bod­ies from all over over­seas. It's al­ways some­thing spe­cial to pay honor to sol­diers and to be able to take care of them who have served our coun­try.”

Fu­neral Home has re­ceived a lot of com­pe­ti­tion, with other African Amer­i­can fu­neral homes start­ing in the city like Dil­lon-Chis­ley, Robbins, F.H. Wil­lials, Lake­view and most re­cently, C J Wil­liams.

Jef­fer­son said he con­tin­ues do­ing busi­ness the way his fa­ther and un­cles have.

“They set the ground­work and the base from which I came from, and I learned watch­ing them.

“Treat them like you would like to be treated and be­ing hon­est, open and fair with them.We have es­tab­lished that rap­port (with peo­ple). My fa­ther was a hum­ble man; he was never ex­trav­a­gant and helped peo­ple, and that's what I re­mem­ber most.”

He said op­er­at­ing a fu­neral home is a 24/7, 365 days a year busi­ness, “And some of the sad­dest calls are the ones you make on the hol­i­days or right be­fore. I've ac­tu­ally on Christ­mas day had to go pick up peo­ple.”

“It's that crush­ing hurt you see in the fam­ily's eye when you pull up, and my heart goes out to them. Some­times it brings tears to my eyes, be­cause more than likely, I know them and have known them for a while. Whether it be ice on the ground. It's hard for me to get a lit­tle time off be­cause this job takes your time.”

He said he en­joys his work and en­joys help­ing peo­ple and be­ing there for them.

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