Economic Detour and the Business of Black Death: African American Funeral Home Owners in Southern Cities

Beverly Bunch-Lyons

The concept of economic detour first gained real traction in the 1940s as a theory and discourse about blacks and business when Merah Stuart used it to explain the challenges faced by African American entrepreneurs seeking to grow their businesses. This paper uses the theory of economic detour in the context of a specific business enterprise, namely the funeral business, to provide one explanation for why African American funeral homes developed as small, family-owned enterprises during the post-Civil War era, and remain largely that way today. African American participation in the funeral business as owners began in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, coinciding with the codification of Jim Crow practices in the South. While the number of African American owned funeral homes in operation has grown tremendously since that time, individual businesses remain relatively small in scale. Personal narratives obtained from interviews with funeral home operators in several southern cities and towns shed light on specific economic, social, and political forces that have shaped, and continue to shape the nature of this business endeavor.