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A Final Farewell: African-American-Owned Funeral Homes.

African Americans have lived in Detroit longer than the United States has been a nation and Michigan has been a state. They contributed mightily to the economic and cultural buildup of Michigan's largest urban area by founding organizations, houses of worship, and a plethora of businesses--including funeral homes, such as the 100-year-old James H. Cole Home for Funerals and the historic House of Diggs.

One hundred years ago in Detroit, African Americans and European Americans played in separate professional baseball leagues, a housing shortage relegated families to doubling and tripling up in miniscule dwellings in poor sections of town, the Ku Klux Klan routinely recruited political candidates who supported its racist agenda, and women voted in state elections for the first time.

That same year, African-American Detroiter James H. Cole Sr. founded the James H. Cole Home for Funerals on St. Aubin Street in Detroit's bustling Black Bottom neighborhood. During that time, more than a thousand African Americans were moving to Detroit each month to secure employment in the city's multitude of industrial plants and ancillary businesses.

Former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Hard Stuff, that "Black Bottom, which was not named for the color of its inhabitants but for the rich, dark soil on which the early settlers farmed, was in [a] transitional state when my family arrived [in 1923]....It had long since passed from agrarian to urban but by the early 1920s the neighborhood was in the process of turning over again, from European to black."

Addressing death with dignity in a community fraught with racial discrimination, the Cole family business is today considered the oldest African-American-owned and -operated institution of its kind in Michigan. The family's pioneering efforts helped pave the way for the establishment of the Barksdale, Cantrell, Chenault, Ellis, Fritz, House of Diggs, Jeter, McFall, Murdock, Pye, Stinson, Swanson, Thompson, and Trinity Chapel funeral homes--all of which are also owned by African Americans.

Detroit's African-American population skyrocketed during the early twentieth century, climbing from 5,741 individuals in 1910 to 120,066 in 1930. Beginning in approximately 1914, most of the city's African-American residents lived between the lower east side boundaries of Rowena, Hastings, Macomb, and Brush Streets.

It is believed that James H. Cole Sr.'s grandfather, also named James H. Cole, first arrived in the Detroit area in the mid-1850s after being freed from enslavement in Mississippi. While his descendants do not have all the answers, Kimberly Crafton, one of his great-great-granddaughters, says that genealogical and U.S. Census records confirm his arrival in Detroit at that time and prove that he soon became quite successful in business--a rarity for an African-American man during that period. Shortly after his death in 1907, the Detroit Free Press stated that Cole, "Detroit's richest colored citizen who died May 20, left no will and his estate, said to be worth between $100,000 and $200,000, will be divided, according to statute, among his heirs-at-law."

The James H. Cole Sr. who founded the James H. Cole Home for Funerals was born in Detroit in 1894 and raised in the Second Baptist Church, where his grandfather was a trustee. He learned the business of mortuary science from an older European American, which led to the opening of his funeral home in 1919. In 1962, the business moved to West Grand Boulevard on Detroit's west side, operating next door to Motown Records' famed Hitsville U.S.A. studios.

After James H. Cole Sr. passed away in 1970, his son, James H. Cole Jr., was made president of the funeral home. The younger Cole had earned a degree in mortuary science from Wayne State University in 1949 and joined the family business soon thereafter. He was also active with the Booker T. Washington Business Association and the Detroit branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). He operated the business from 1969 until his passing in 1991.

Following James H. Cole Jr.'s death, his daughter, Karla Cole, who had entered the business in 1975, became president of the company, a position she retains today. She has since been joined by her sons, Antonio and Brice Green, both of whom are licensed morticians. Now owned and operated by the family's third and fourth generations, the James H. Cole Home for Funerals is celebrating its centennial this year. Charles C. Diggs Sr., the son of a church leader and a schoolteacher, was born in Issaquena County, Mississippi, on January 2, 1894, and made his way to Detroit in 1913. Angry at the blatant discrimination displayed by European Americans toward African Americans, he opened a funeral home in 1921 in a tiny storefront located on St. Antoine Street and East Adams Avenue in the heart of Paradise Valley, a popular business section of Detroit. The business later moved to 1391 Mullet Street in the Black Bottom neighborhood. Although the James H. Cole Home for Funerals holds the distinction of being the first African-American-owned and -operated funeral home in Detroit, the House of Diggs soon joined it as one of the most recognized.

During the 1920s, African Americans faced widespread discrimination and racism when it came to securing burial grounds for themselves and their loved ones. To address that inequity in Detroit, Diggs, a one-time follower of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, and other prominent African-American businessmen co-founded the Detroit Memorial Park cemetery in 1925. Diggs, ever the businessman, also created the Detroit Metropolitan Mutual Assurance Company, a full-service life insurance firm, and would later operate a realty business and a flower shop.

By the early 1930s, Diggs had become more politically active. He grew concerned about African Americans placing a large share of their votes in the hands of the Republican Party--even if it was the party of Abraham Lincoln. With that thought in mind, and after becoming more familiar with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's African-American-friendly New Deal policies, Diggs--along with Joseph Coles, Harold E. Bledsoe, and Joseph Craigen--formed the Michigan Federated Democratic Clubs and convinced thousands of African-American voters throughout the state to join.

In 1936, Diggs became the first African-American Democrat--and only the second African American of any political party--elected to the Michigan State Senate. He immediately championed historic civil rights and fair and equal employment efforts in Lansing. His signature legislation, passed in 1937 and known to many as the "Diggs Law," made discrimination on the basis of race, color, or creed a misdemeanor. Six years later, Diggs announced that the first privately funded housing project financed and built by African Americans in Detroit's history would occur in the city's Conant Gardens neighborhood.

In 1944, Diggs was convicted of bribery in connection with his role as a state senator. He maintained his innocence, and many of his constituents believed that he was framed. After serving a sentence at the Michigan State Prison in Jackson from December 1948 to March 1950, he again won a seat in the Michigan State Senate in November 1950, but the state's upper chamber refused to seat him.

Diggs and his wife, Mayme, had only one son, Charles C. Diggs Jr. The younger Diggs became the first African-American man in Michigan's history to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, joining Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York and William L. Dawson of Illinois as the only 3 African-American members on the 435-person House. Diggs served as a U.S. representative from Michigan from 1955 to 1980.

Charles Diggs Sr. died in 1967 after he fell out of a fourth-floor hospital window, having suffered a severe stroke several days before. According to several published reports, his death was ruled a suicide by medical examiners. Following several financial challenges, Charles Diggs Jr. sold the family's House of Diggs funeral home in 1975. So that the family's business tradition would not be forgotten, his daughter, Denise, and her husband, Raymond, opened a new Diggs Funeral Home in 1985.

While there are many African-American-owned and -operated funeral homes in Detroit and throughout the state of Michigan, the James H. Cole Home for Funerals and House of Diggs were among the oldest-established and best-known in the Great Lakes State for years. Those funeral homes helped impact the economic, social, and cultural makeup of the greater Detroit area for a century--and they and businesses like them will continue to do so in the future.

By Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman is an author and journalist who has written extensively about the African-American experience in Detroit.

Caption: James H. Cole Sr., founder of the James H. Cole Home for Funerals in Detroit. (Photo courtesy of the Cole family.)

Caption: A historical rendering of the James H. Cole Home for Funerals, circa mid-1900s. (Photo courtesy of the Cole family.)

Caption: James H. Cole Jr., who served as president of the James H. Cole Home for Funerals from 1970 to 1991. (Photo courtesy of the Cole family.)

Caption: Charles C. Diggs Sr., founder of the House of Diggs funeral home in Detroit and a Michigan state senator. (Photo courtesy of Douglass Diggs.)

Caption: Charles C. Diggs Jr., pictured as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Congress.)

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Title Annotation:James H. Cole Home for Funerals and House of Diggs
Author:Coleman, Ken
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Mar 1, 2019
Words:1546
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