Posts Tagged ‘Death Care’

The Myers Legacy of Caring and Community

July 11, 2010 2 comments

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Myers Funeral Home is an institution in northeast Omaha‘s African-American community, and like with any long-standing family business there is a story behind the facade, in this case a legacy of caring and community.  My article originally appeared in the New Horizons.

The Myers Legacy of Caring and Community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Strictly speaking, a funeral home is in the business of death. But in the larger scheme of things, a mortuary is where people gather to celebrate life. It’s where tributes are paid, memories are recalled, mourning is done. It’s a place for taking stock. One where offering condolences shares equal billing with commemorating high times. In a combination of sacred and secular under one roof, everything from prayers are said to stories told to secrets shared. It encapsulates the end of some things and the continuation of others. It’s where we face both our own mortality and the imperative that life goes on. Perhaps more than anywhere outside a place of worship, the mortuary engages our deepest sense of family and community.

Besides organizing the myriad of details that services encompass, funeral directors act as surrogate family members for grieving loved ones, providing advice on legal, financial and assundry other matters. It means being a good neighbor and citizen. It’s all part of being a trusted and committed member of the community.

“It’s more than just being a funeral director. It’s like I used to tell people, ‘Look, you called me to perform a service, and I’m here to do it. Think of me really as a part of the family. We’re all working together because we have a job to do. My role is to see it goes the way it’s supposed to go,” said Robert L. Myers, former owner and retired director of Myers Funeral Home in Omaha. The dapper 86-year-old with the Cab Calloway looks and savoir-faire ways lives with his wife of 54 years, Bertha, a retired music educator, guidance counselor, choir director and concert pianist, at Immanuel Village in northwest Omaha. After the death of his first wife, with whom he had two daughters, he married Bertha, who raised the girls as her own. They became educators like her.

For Myers, community service extended to social causes. Much of his volunteering focused on improving the plight of he and his fellow African-Americans at a time when de facto segregation treated them as second-class citizens.

He learned the importance of civic-minded conviction from his father, W.L. Myers, the revered founder of Myers Funeral Home — 2416 North 22nd Street — Nebraska’s oldest continuously run African-American owned and operated business. Since the funeral parlor’s 1921 Omaha opening, three generations of Myers have overseen it. W.L. ran things from 1921 until 1947, when his eldest son, Robert, went into partnership with him. Then, in 1950, W.L. retired and Robert took over. He was soon joined by his brother, Kenneth, with whom he formed a partnership before they incorporated. In the early ‘70s, Kenneth handed over the enterprise to his son and Robert’s nephew, Larry Myers, Jr,  who still owns and operates it today.

The Myers name has been a fixture on the northeast Omaha landscape for 84 years. From its start until now, it’s presided over everyone from the who’s-who of the local African-American scene to the working class to the indigent.

W.L. saw to it no one was turned away for lack of funds. He assisted people in their time of need with more than a well-turned out funeral, too.

“Families come in helpless. They’ve had a death. It’s a traumatic event. They don’t know what to do. They’re upset. They need some guidance. Dad was more interested in counseling and guiding people than he was in the financial part of it,” Myers said. “He’d tell them which way to go. What extra step they should take. How to handle their business affairs. How to dispose of their property. They’d plead, ‘What am I going to do, Mr. Myers?’ He’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it. You just ask me anything you want.’ I’d say the same thing. That’s where I learned a lot from him. Be fair and be truthful. He was that, so people would call him because they knew he would lead them in the right way. Money was secondary.”

Myers said his father’s goodwill helped build a reputation for fairness that served him and the funeral home well.

“A lot of times, people couldn’t pay him, especially back in the Depression days. He did a lot of charity service. He would talk to Mom about it. ‘They don’t have any money,’ he’d say. ‘Well, go ahead and give ‘em a service,’ she’d tell him. He’d try and reassure her with, ‘It’ll come back some way or another down the line.’ And as a result, he got a lot of repeat business. The next time those people came back, why they were able to pay him. They’d say, ‘I remember you helped me out. I’ll never forget that and I want to employ you again, and this time I’ll take care of it myself.’ Word of mouth about his generosity built his business.”

The Golden Rule became the family credo. “Compassion. That’s what we learned from Dad. He wouldn’t let anybody take advantage of our people. He looked out for our people and saw that they were treated fairly,” he said.

“Back in those days, a lot of our people couldn’t read and write and were afraid of dealing with white collar types, who were usually Caucasian and liked to assert their authority over minorities. Dad used to take folks to the insurance office or the social security office or the pension office, so he could talk eyeball to eyeball with these bureaucrats. That way, our people wouldn’t be intimidated. If the suits got confrontational, he would take over and intercede. He’d say, ‘Wait a minute. Back off.’ He’d speak for the people. ‘Now then, she has what coming to her?’ He’d do the paperwork for them. We’d carry people through the process.”

Myers said his father rarely if ever made a promise he couldn’t keep.

“The word is the bond. That was my dad,” Myers said. “And that’s what I developed, too, in dealing with people. If I say something, you can go to the bank with it.” That reputation for integrity carries a solemn responsibility. “People reveal confidences to you that you would not divulge for love of money. Everything is confidential. You appreciate that type of trust.”

His father no sooner got the funeral home rolling than the Great Depression hit. W.L. plowed profits right back into his business, including relocating to its present site and making expansions. He never skimped on services to clients.

In an era before specialization, Myers said, a funeral director was a jack-of-all-trades. “We did everything from car mechanics to medicine to law to vocal singing to counseling to barber-beautician work to yard work.” Keeping a fleet of cars running meant doing repairs themselves. W.L. graced services with his fine singing voice, an inherited talent Robert shared with mourners. Robert’s mother, Essie, played organ. His wife, Bertha did, too. Describing his father as “a self-made and self-educated man,” Myers said W.L. enjoyed the challenge of doing for himself, no matter how far afield the endeavor was from his formal mortuary training.

“He was very hungry for knowledge. He read incessantly. Anything pertaining to this line of work, to business, to the law…He sent off for correspondence courses. He just wanted to know as much as he could about everything. He knew a lot more than some of these so-called educated people. He could stand toe-to-toe and converse. Doctors and lawyers respected his intellect.”

The patriarch’s “classic American success story” began in New London, Mo., a rural enclave near Hannibal. He sprang from white, black and Native American ancestry. His folks were poor, hard-working, God-fearing farmers. His mother also ran a cafe catering to farmers. Born in 1883, W.L. enjoyed the country life immortalized by Mark Twain. Myers said his father felt compelled from an early age to intern the remains of wildlife he came upon during his Huck Finn-like youth. “He just felt every living thing should have a decent burial. That was his compassion. He just loved to funeralize — to speak words and what-not in a service. I think he had the calling before he realized what he was doing. That just led him into the real thing.”

But W.L.’s journey to full-fledged mortician took many hard turns before coming to fruition. As a young man he found part-time work burying Indians for the State of Oklahoma. Later, he worked in a coal mine in Buxton, Iowa, a largely-black company town that died when the coal ran out. He eventually scraped together enough money to enter the Worsham School of Embalming in St. Louis. When his money was exhausted, he took a garment factory job in Minneapolis, where he was gainfully employed the next eight years. He made foreman. In 1908 he married Essie, mother of Robert, Kenneth and their now deceased older sisters, Florence and Hazel.

The good times ended when W.L.’s black heritage was discovered and he was summarily fired — accused of “passing.” With a family to support, he next made the brave move of picking up and moving to Chicago. There, he worked odd jobs while studying at Barnes School of Anatomy in pursuit of his mortuary dream.

Upon graduating from Barnes in 1910 he was hired as an embalmer at a Muskogee, Ok. funeral home. After a long tenure there he was again betrayed when the owner, whom he taught the embalming art, fired him, saying he no longer needed his services. It was a slap in the face to a loyal employee.

Tired of the abuse, W.L. opened the original Myers Funeral Home in 1918 in Hannibal, where Robert was born. When slow to recover from a bout of typhoid fever he’d contracted down south, doctors ordered W.L. to more northern climes. So, in 1921 he packed his family in a touring car en route to Minneapolis when a fateful stopover in Omaha to visit friends changed the course of their lives.

It just so happened a former Omaha funeral home at 2518 Lake Street was up for grabs in an estate sale. W.L. liked the set-up and the fact Omaha was a thriving town. North 24th Street teemed with commerce then. The packing houses and railroads employed many blacks. Despite little cash, he rashly proposed putting down what little scratch he had between his own meager finances and what friends contributed and to pay the balance out of the proceeds of his planned business. The deal was struck and that’s how W.L. and Myers Funeral Home came to be Omaha institutions. As his son Robert said, “He wasn’t heading here. He was stopped here.” Character and compassion did the rest.

Myers admires his parents’ fortitude. “Dad was a school-of-hard-knocks guy. He was determined to do what he wanted and to make it on his own, and he succeeded in spite of many obstacles. I always appreciated how our mother and father sacrificed to give us advantages they did not have. They put all four of us through college.”

Old W.L.’s instincts about relocating here proved right. Under his aegis, Myers Funeral Home soon established itself as the premiere black mortuary in Omaha.

“He had a little competition when he came in, but it all faded away,” Myers said. “Some of the black funeral homes were fronts for whites. They didn’t have the training, the skills, the know-how, nor the techniques Dad developed over the years. Plus, he was very personable. People took to him. The clientele came to him, and he ran with it.”

The Near Northside, as it was called then, was a tight, prosperous, heterogeneous community whose commercial and residential players were a mix of professional and blue collar African-Americans, Jews, Italians, et cetera.

“Everybody was pretty much in the same boat. But we had community. We had fellowship. We had a bond through the church and what-not. So, everybody kind of looked out for everybody else,” Myers said.

As youths, Robert and Kenneth had little to do with the family business, but since the Myers lived above the mortuary, they were surrounded by its activities and the stream of people who filed through to select caskets, seek counsel, view departed. Their mother answered the phone and ushered in visitors. The boys were curious what went on in the embalming room but were forbidden inside. They knew their father expected them to follow him in the field.

“It was kind of understood. When I was in school, I looked into other areas like pharmacy and law and this, that and the other thing, but it didn’t go anywhere,” Myers said. “I guess Dad’s blood got into me because there was really nothing else I wanted to do. Besides, I liked what he was doing and the way he was doing it. I always felt the same way he did with people.”

A Lake Elementary School and Technical High School grad, Myers earned his bachelor’s degree from prestigious, historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Kenneth followed him. After graduating from San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, he worked in an Oakland funeral home three years. He intended staying on the west coast, but events soon changed his mind. Frustrated by an employer who resisted the modern methods Robert tried introducing, he then got word that W.L. had lost his chief assistant and could use a hand back home. The clincher was America’s entrance in World War II. Robert got a deferment from the military in light of the essential services he performed.

From 1943 until the mid-’60s, Myers had a ringside seat for some fat times in Omaha’s black community. Those and earlier halcyon days are long gone. Recalling all that the area once was and is no more is depressing.

“It is because I can think back to the Dreamland Ballroom and all the big bands that used to come there when we were kids. We used to stand outside on summer nights. They’d have a big crowd out there. The windows would be open and we could hear all this good music and, ohhhh, we’d just sit back and enjoy every minute of it. Yeah, I think back on all those things. How at night we used to stroll up and down 24th Street. Everybody knew everybody pretty much. We’d stand, greet and talk. You didn’t have to worry about anything. Yeah, I miss all that part.”

The northside featured any good or service one might seek. Social clubs abounded.

“We had a lot of black professional people there — doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists. They intermingled with the white merchants, too,” he said. Then it all changed. “Between the riots’ destruction and the North Freeway’s division of a once unified community, it started going down hill. And, in later years, after the civil rights movement brought in open housing laws and our people had a chance to better themselves, many began moving out of the area’s substandard housing.”


















He said northeast Omaha might have staved-off wide-spread decline had blacks been able to get home loans from banks to upgrade existing properties, but restrictive red lining practices prevented that. Through it all — the riots, white flight, the black brain drain, gang violence — Myers

Funeral Home remained.

“No, we never considered moving away from there. Even though North 24th Street was pretty well shot, the churches were still central to the life of the community. People still came back into the area to attend church,” he said.

Emboldened by the civil rights movement, Robert and Bertha put themselves and their careers on the line to improve conditions. As a lifetime member of the NAACP and Urban League, he supported equal rights efforts. As a founder of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties) he organized and joined picket lines in the struggle to overturn racial discrimination. As a member of Mayor A.V. Sorensen’s Biracial Commitee and Human Relations Board and a director of the National Association of Christians and Jews, he promoted racial harmony. As the first black on the Omaha Board of Education (1964-1969), he fought behind the scenes to create greater opportunities for black educators.

With blacks still denied jobs by some employers, refused access to select public places and prevented from living in certain areas, Myers was among a group of black businessmen and ministers to form the 4CL and wage protest actions. The short-lived group initiated dialogues and broke down barriers, including integrating the Peony Park swimming pool. In his 4CL role, he went on the record exposing Omaha’s shameful legacy of restrictive housing covenants.

In a 1963 Omaha Star article, Myers is quoted as saying, “The wall of housing segregation” here is “just as formidable as the Berlin Wall in Germany or the Iron Curtain in Russia.” Labeling Omaha as the “Mississippi of the North,” he said the attitudes of realtors is “one of down right ghetto planning.” He and Bertha raised the issues of unfair housing practices in a personal way when they went public with their ‘60s ordeal searching for a ranch-style home in all-white districts. Realtors steered them away, some discreetly, others bluntly. The Myers finally resorted to using a front — a sympathetic white couple — for building a new residence in the Cottonwood Heights subdivision. When the Myers were revealed as the actual owners, a fight ensued. Subjected to threats and insults, they endured it all and stayed.

“That’s what my dad gave me an education for — to not accept these things. To see it for what it’s worth and to do something about it,” said Myers, who replied to a developer’s offer to move elsewhere with — “You don’t assign us a place to live.”

In a letter to the developer, Myers wrote, “Let me remind you that this is America in 1965 and…you must accept the fact there are some things money, threats or circumstances cannot change. We knew we could expect some trouble, we just figured it was part of the price we have to pay for living in a new area.”

Myers also worked for change from the inside as a member of the Omaha school board. The board had a lamentable policy that largely limited the hiring of black teachers to substitute status or, if hired full-time, placed them only in all-black schools and blocked promotion to administrative ranks. Even black educators with advanced degrees were routinely shut out.

“That was my wife’s situation. After she finished Northwestern University School of Music she couldn’t get a job here. She had to go to Detroit,” he said. Bit by bit, he got OPS to relax its policies. “The majority of school board members were in the frame of mind that they saw the unfairness of it. I was the catalyst, so to speak. All my work was done in the background in what’s called the smoke-filled back room.”

Advocating for change in a period of raging discontent brought Myers unwanted attention. He got “flak” from blacks and whites — including some who thought he was pushing too hard-too fast and others who alleged he was moving too soft-too slow. “I became something of a hot potato,” he said. “I thought I was independent and could do what I wanted because I didn’t have to rely on whites for business, but I found out people in my own community could get to me.”

The experience led Robert to retreat from public life. At least he had the satisfaction of knowing he’d carried on where his father left off. An anecdote Myers shared reveals how much his father’s approval meant to him.

“I handled a service one time when Dad was out sick. This was before my brother had joined us, so everything fell on me. I was scared,” he said. “There’s a lot to deal with. The mourners. The minister. The choir. The pallbearers. The employees. And you’re in charge of the whole thing. The whole operation has got to jell with just the right timing — from when to cue the mourners to exit to what speed the cars are to be driven. It’s all done silently — with expressions and gestures.

“Well, we went through the whole service OK. Later, a friend of the family told me. ‘Your old man told me to keep an eye on you and to watch everything you do and report back to him.’ He said he told my dad “everything was perfect — that I handled things just the way he would have’ and that my dad said, ‘That’s all I wanted to know.’ So, in that respect, Dad was still watching over me. It made me feel good to know I’d pleased him.”

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