“In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an industry developed that became a path to economic independence for many African-American funeral directors. With segregation firmly in place, black undertakers performed services for their own communities that whites refused to offer, strengthening racial bonds and lending black funerals a cultural significance that was uniquely African-American.” From the study guide to accompany the film "Homegoings"
As we travel through Saginaw, it is easy to overlook links to the community’s heritage. A few years ago, in a special exhibit, we highlighted the history of black-owned funeral homes in Saginaw. In 1946, the Saginaw City Directory listed three African American-owned Funeral Homes:
Browne’s Mortuary, 400 Potter Street
Harold Browne studied engineering at Michigan State University. However, frustrated with the racism he confronted, he returned to Saginaw and went to work at Grey Iron Foundry. After attending mortuary school, he opened his own funeral home at 400 Potter in 1941, later he relocated his business to 441 N. Jefferson. Even after opening his funeral home, he remained active in labor and regional politics.
Evans Funeral Home, Originally located at 909 Farwell
Founded by George W. Evans, Evans Funeral Home opened about 1933. Born in Columbus, Ohio, he studied engineering at college but eventually was forced to quit because of prejudice. Evans moved to Saginaw in 1929 and worked at Grey Iron. He apprenticed at local funeral homes and in 1933 opened his own business. In 1949 he moved his business to 630 N. Jefferson.
Westbrook Funeral Home, 1106 N. 6th Street
Born in Lockport, Illinois, Thornton H. Westbrook started his mortuary business in 1929 and became Saginaw’s first African American Mortician. The business was taken over by his daughter, Elsie Westbrook Black, and was later known by her name. In 1982 the Saginaw News reported that she was “Saginaw’s only female licensed Mortician."
In 2006, Evans-Smith Funeral Home and Browne’s Mortuary merged. Located at 441 N. Jefferson Avenue, the website notes the two firms became “one, with a combined total of 144 years of service. The new name is Evans & Browne's Funeral Home.”