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50 years, still going: Black mortician talks industry, says he'll never stop working

Jerrie Whiteley
Herald Democrat
James Smith

James Smith, of Waldo Funeral Home in Sherman, has helped generations of Grayson County residents bury loved ones. For more than 50 years, he has helped people through some of the most emotional losses of their lives. Along the way, he has watched what was once one of the most highly segregated professions in America break away from those practices and integrate.

Born at Madonna Hospital in Denison on Aug. 4, 1948, Smith became a mortician in 1970, but he started working at funeral homes way before that.

"When I was a kid, there was no allowance at my house so I had to figure out somewhere to go to work," he recently recalled.

He found that work at a McDonald funeral home. At age 13, he was too young to do much besides clean the floors and wash the cars, but each day he kept going back. He liked the way the profession helped people, he said.

James Smith with the bad he used to pick cotton in his youth.

So when it was time to pick a career, he decided to go to mortuary college. Though he attended all 12 grades of public school at Terrell in Denison which was segregated, his college, Common Wealth College of Mortuary Science in Houston, was not.  He graduated third in his class. 

From there he found that the industry itself was not so open minded. 

"Early on, primarily the funeral homes and the churches were the most segregated entities in America," he said. "You know people went to church because that was their choice. The black people went to the black church and the same with the white people. It was the same way with the funeral homes. That's just the way it was."

But that is not the way it is anymore, he said. He added that every culture has its own traditions and customs with regard to burying the dead. In mortuary school, students learned them all and that the basics of the business are all the same regardless of the race. Now people build relationships with the individual provider based on service to the community and other things 

"(People) don't look at it as a racial issue now. They look at it as here is professional — that we need the services of that individual," he said.

James Smith as pictured in his college year book

At age 24, he started Smith Memorial Chapel and he was the youngest owner of a funeral chapel in the state of Texas at the time.

Over the years, he has worked at McDonald Funeral Home in Denison, Grayson Funeral Home in Sherman, Fairchild-Purnell Mortuary in Houston, Cedar Crest Funeral Home in Dallas, Smith Memorial Chapel in Denison, and Boyd, Smith, & White Mortuary in Sherman.

Smith married Barbara Kinney-Smith on June 2, 1964. They have three children, Kevin, LeQuita and Tiffany.

He has been with Waldo Funeral Home since 2016.

"But I am not a new person at Waldo," Smith said he and Waldo owner David Bedgood go way back.

"David and I met in 1972, and we formed a relationship. We became professional comrades. David would help me when I got in a bind and I would help him when he got in a bind," Smith said.

But back then, no one told the public that. 

Now, they work as a team to serve clients, and decades later, they are still at it.

. Just how long he will continue to work to serve those clients remains uncertain. Smith said he tried to retire when was 55 and just work as a consultant. But he will be 75 in August and he is still working. Part of the problem, he said, is that he just can't really tell people "no" if they ask him to help.

"I have formed relationships over the years where I have buried the great granddaddy and great grandmother, then the granddad and the grandmother, then the mother and the father and now I am serving the fourth generation."

He said the work sort of became part of his life. And, he likes the folks he works with at Waldo. "It's not 'I'. It's 'we'. We work as a team. He said that sure beats the times when he was doing it all by himself.

He said he is happy that things have changed both for the industry and for himself. And those changes are worth celebrating.

Black history month, he said, is a time to recognize the hardships that people of color had to endure in the past. "And each year we see somewhat of a difference in the society of America," he said.

However, he said, there is still racism in America and it is in all of the races. "But is is not as bad as it was 50 years ago or 60 years ago," he said.

That might be hard for people in their 30s and 40s to understand particularly given the recent events in this country. He said those people are shell shocked by those events but people his age and older know how much worse it once was. 

A family photo of James Smith from the 1990s.

"But what I look at now is with more interracial dating and marriage and from those marriages comes the children. America is going to be better because I have always maintained that people with power – and I am talking about people with money – have always ruled America. But, that is changing. Money doesn't buy everything, but at one time it practically did."

When he isn't working, Smith likes to watch old westerns on television and take trips to the lake. He also likes to provide fun facts about his profession. For instance, the first funeral purveyors were cabinet makers. They were called furniture stores and undertakers because they made coffins in addition to furniture. A family would call those folks when there was a death in the family and the furniture maker would deliver a coffin to the home.

And, he said, funeral homes are called that because generally they were big homes that were converted for the purpose of funerals where as mortuaries are buildings that were built specifically for that purpose. 

And memorials services are services held without the deceased person present. 

In addition to working in the funeral home business, Smith was involved in a number of civic organizations over the years. He was also one the first board of directors for the Texoma Regional Blood Bank. Smith said that was a tricky assignment because Fannin and Cooke counties each wanted the blood bank to be located in their communities but the contingent from Grayson County was able to convince them that if the blood bank were placed in Grayson County, people from the other two counties would only have to drive about 30 minutes to get blood.