Jarnigan & Son: Knoxville’s oldest Black-owned enterprise
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Death is forever. It seems so is Jarnigan & Son Mortuary.
The Knoxville funeral home has existed since 1886, making it the city’s oldest black-owned company. As the world around them has changed, the morgue has remained a constant propelled forward by one of the only sure things in life: it ends.
“Your situation about death itself is positive,” said owner Beal Bourne II. “The best way to face this is to face it because it won’t go away. I buried my son. I buried my sister, my brothers. I buried my mother, my stepmother, my stepfather. It’s just something to face. You can’t get over it, you get through “
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first – and probably not the last – challenge the funeral home is facing. Jarnigan & Son is the only black-owned company that survived moving to town today. A number of construction projects from 1959 to 1974 destroyed black houses, churches and shop windows to make way for the Knoxville Civic Coliseum and the James White Parkway Interstate Loop. The effects of the upheaval are still expected today.
Bourne, 74 and president of Jarnigan & Son for four decades, has performed more funerals than he can count. He attributes the company’s longevity to its guiding principles: treat everyone with dignity, give something back to the community and not turn anyone away.
“You don’t bury strangers in the funeral business,” he said one Saturday in a small room at the funeral home. He spoke softly over lively organ gospel music so as not to disturb a visit to the chapel. “You bury your friends. This is the one who knows and respects you – and you respect them. “
All in the family
The exact date Clem Jarnigan founded Jarnigan & Son Mortuary may have been lost in history, but the company records are from 1886.
Jarnigan, a black man raised in Knoxville, opened his own funeral home on State Street and Commerce Avenue after working as an apprentice for Lazarus C. Shepard. Shepard was an undertaker, embalmer, and councilor who presided over the funeral of former President Andrew Johnson in Greeneville in 1875.
Clem Jarnigan was the founder of Jarnigan & Son Mortuary.
Jarnigan and his son Clark grew their business steadily. They moved to a facility on Nelson Street where they made their own caskets and then to a larger building down the street. Before his death, Jarnigan buried 5,000 people and, thanks to “his integrity and ability to assume responsibility,” made Jarnigan & Son the largest black-owned morgue in the area, the News Sentinel reported on his death in a 1927 article.
“His last funeral was the biggest he has ever had anything to do with,” the article concluded.
One of Clem Jarnigan’s four daughters, Goldie Mae, took control of the business after her father and brother died. She was a “mover and shaker” serving on national boards and associations at a time when women were rarely allowed to take command, Bourne said. Ownership passed to her husband Wilbur Tate after her death in 1950.
Tate then married Annabelle Moss. The couple later lived above the funeral home where they hosted friends in bridge games. The two were “day and night,” said Bourne: he was loud and rough, at the same time a “Bible scholar and hellraiser”. She was calm and hardworking and would fill the void when he got grumpy.
Cross Country Ski Tourers, circa 1914. Members of this cross country tour group who visited a variety of famous tourist attractions in the western United States were also part of the business community on Vine Avenue in Knoxville in the 1920s. Everyone poses in front of the long-standing home of Knoxville’s oldest African American company, Jarnigan & Son Mortuary, which is now across from Austin-East Magnet High School on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The undertakers were at what was then 401 Nelson Avenue near Morgan outside Vine.
“He didn’t get enough”
Then came the bulldozers.
Mountain View’s so-called “Urban Renewal Project” in the 1960s, along with the federally funded construction of the interstate loop, forced a disproportionate number of blacks out of their homes and businesses.
The government paid residents to pack and undress, but the program’s early guidelines did not require independent valuations or market value payments for real estate. Entrepreneurs, families and teachers left with all the money they could get and found after the move that they could not afford housing, find customers and recover financially.
One hundred and seven black-owned companies – including cinemas, restaurants, barbershops, hotels and grocery stores – had to move. Some had been in business for generations. Most failed within a few years.
“Jarnigan & Son was one of five to build a new structure,” said Robert Booker, a local civil rights leader and former director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. “Everyone else who moved has either gone out of business or moved into old buildings.”
The funeral home had been on 401 Nelson Ave., near the Black business district in what is now Old Town, for half a century when the Tates relocated in 1969. They built a new facility on McCalla Ave. 4823., now Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., where the business remains today. Even so, Jarnigan & Son did not emerge completely unscathed from the city move: Owner Wilbur Tate went into debt, Bourne said.
“He didn’t get enough for a deal,” said Bourne. “He got enough to buy a joint, a house, and call it a funeral home. He refused to do that. He wanted his families to be treated the way he treated them, and that was with a funeral home, not a house. He wanted standards. “
A yellowed News Sentinel excerpt tells how Tate was investigated for reporting his moving expenses to the government. When he said he “failed to see the seriousness of the deal,” he was given parole. He was far from the only accused and the case was never considered a flaw on his behalf, Bourne said.
A 1917 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows 410 Nelson Ave. with the label “Undertaker”. Jarnigan & Son Mortuary was there until the company had to move to town in 1969 due to the move.
“I do not reject anyone”
Bourne moved from Kentucky to Knoxville in the 1970s, where he attended the morgue. He decided to become a mortician after seeing his father in a coffin struck him in a way he could never fully explain.
As a young black man from out of town, Bourne was an outsider, and it helped toss Wilbur Tate’s name around. He was related to Tate’s wife through a previous marriage and said the couple accepted him as if he were their grandson. When Tate died in a car accident in 1980, Bourne took over the running of the family business.
Bourne is no longer an outsider. The main entrance to Jarnigan & Son across from Austin-East High School is a revolving door for staff, friends, family, volunteers, and customers. The staff described it as a sitcom with a group of characters quickly releasing a joke or a joke.
Beal Bourne II, undertaker at Jarnigan & Son Mortuary at 2823 MLK Jr. Ave. in East Knoxville, Tennessee on Saturday, January 30, 2021. The black-owned company is also the oldest publicly traded company in the city. Originally located at the current location of Weigel’s gas station on Summit Hill and Hall of Fame Drive, it is also the only company to survive urban removal in the 1960s.
“It’s (crazy),” said Bourne’s wife, Peggy, also a licensed undertaker. She taught herself how to do funeral programs after buying a typewriter against her husband’s wishes in the 1970s. “You have so many personalities and then I can see them walk through the door and I say, ‘Oh oh.'”
Bourne was recognized for his generosity and work in the community. In 2016, the city was renamed Milligan Street after him between Magnolia and Martin Luther King Jr. Rev. Harold Middlebrook, who urged the dedication, said, “We have had several years where children or individuals have died and the family had no money. And (Bourne) went on to see that they were buried with dignity. “
Although COVID-19 has dramatically changed funeral services, making them smaller and visits sparse, Bourne said the government’s stimulus checks have boosted his business. Families who cannot prepay their funeral expenses are allowed to pay in installments over time. Some of those with longstanding bills have been able to use their checks to repay more than they had in years before, Bourne said.
“I don’t refuse anyone,” he said. “I have faith in people and I hope and trust and believe that they will do what they say they will do. Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I’m right. It’s just part of life. “
A company cannot survive for 135 years without a sense of humor. To remind a customer of a pending bill, Bourne sometimes said he would send them a card. One he used shows a picture of a man in a suit sitting alone on a bench.
“To our overdue CREDIT CUSTOMERS,” it says, “if you die, please let us be your pallbearers. We’ve carried you for so long that we’d love to quit the job! “