This week, demolition crews began pulling down the stately home at 680 South Lauderdale that housed the T.H. Hayes Funeral Home, considered the oldest African-American-owned business in Memphis.
Frances Hayes, the last proprietor, died November 21, 2010, and there was apparently nobody left to take over the family-owned business. The property is owned by the First Baptist Church next door, which filed a demolition permit in June.
A Tennessee Historical Commission marker in front of the stately house tells its story: "Founded in 1902 by Thomas H. Hayes, Sr., T.H. Hayes and Sons Funeral Home is Memphis' oldest black business. Originally on Poplar, the business moved to Lauderdale in 1918. Hayes was active in the National Negro Business League, founded by Booker T. Washington. In 1933, he was co-founder of the Union Protective Life Insurance Company. A son, Thomas Jr., owned the Birmingham Black Barons, of which Willie Mays was a member. Taylor, another son, was president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association."
Commercial Appeal reporter Chris Conley interviewed Frances Hayes in 2002. She had married Taylor Hayes at the age of 23, and even though she had no funeral-home experience, quickly learned the trade and helped run it for almost 70 years, keeping it going after the death of her husband in 1968. "Everybody who was anybody," she says, "We buried them." According to the CA article, she was "quite prominent in social and civic realms" and was a member of the Memphis Dinner Club, "once described as one of the most exclusive black social clubs in America."
It seems that a rather amazing life went on behind the walls of a Memphis funeral parlor — and in its day, a very handsome building, too. What a shame that neither the 109-year-old business — or the 111-year-old house — could survive. In a few weeks, that impressive historical marker will stand in front of a vacant lot, like so many similar markers in our city.