New Home for an Old Window

The Pink Palace’s newest acquisition is a stained glass window from T.H. Hayes & Sons Funeral Home, Memphis’s oldest continually operated African American business.  Thomas H. Hayes, Sr. began his career as a grocer before he founded the funeral parlor in 1902. It was originally located on Poplar Avenue, but it moved to 680 South Lauderdale in 1918. The family lived on the second floor of the building. The funeral parlor closed after the death of Frances Hayes, the daughter-in-law of Thomas, Sr., in 2010.

 The window1

The emergence of funeral homes in the early twentieth century was one of the most significant advancements in the modern funeral industry. This development made the business more efficient because it took the mostly decentralized and multistage funeral process and turned it into a uniform experience in one building. Funeral homes themselves also put “a positive face on funeral directing.” Funeral directing offered African Americans social respectability as well as financial security. However, the success of their businesses was also a direct result of Jim Crow segregation. This segregation created a paradox; discrimination limited their ability to succeed economically, socially and politically, but it also provided them with a “clearly defined consumer market.” Funeral directors also had the financial means and the social prestige within their communities to be leaders in the civil rights movement, which made many of them complex leaders.

T H  Hayes postcard courtesy of Birch Harms

T H Hayes postcard courtesy of Birch Harms

The Hayes family was undoubtedly Memphis leaders. The eldest son, Thomas Jr. (Tom), was an owner of the Birmingham Black Barons, a Negro League baseball team, from 1939 to 1951. He also served as Vice President of the Negro American Baseball League. The other son, Taylor, was a president of the Cotton Makers Jubilee, the segregated counterpart to the all-white Cotton Carnival. He was also a president of the National Funeral Directors’ Association and coached football at LeMoyne College from 1945-1952. Frances, his wife, earned her funeral director’s license and became one of the first licensed black women in the profession. The entire family was active in social and civic clubs.

From right to left: Thomas H. Hayes, Jr, Mrs. Thomas H. Hayes, Sr., Thomas H. Hayes, Sr., Taylor Hayes. Courtesy of Memphis and Shelby County Room.

From right to left: Thomas H. Hayes, Jr, Mrs. Thomas H. Hayes, Sr., Thomas H. Hayes, Sr., Taylor Hayes. Courtesy of Memphis and Shelby County Room.

When the building on South Lauderdale was torn down, architectural salvage companies bought some of the windows and pieces of the façade. During the demolition, a round stained glass window was discovered enclosed in a wall. The museum acquired the window from a firm specializing in antique stained glass. When it arrived at the museum, conservator Laurel Albrecht began to get the window ready for display. While the glass itself was in good shape, the frame was not. Laurel began by cleaning off roofing tar before moving on to repainting areas of the frame. The window’s new home will be in the redesigned mansion galleries and will be used to interpret African American businesses.

Information for this post came from Suzanne E. Smith’s To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, Memphis Magazine’s “Crews Demolish Hayes Funeral Home,” the August 8, 1968 Jet Magazine, and Rep. Steve Cohen’s remembrance of Frances Hayes.

Caroline Mitchell Carrico works in the Exhibit Department at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. She has a graduate degree in history from The University of Memphis, and her favorite artifacts are the Cold War civil defense supplies.

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