Tuesday, June 18, 2013

African American obituaries

As the Dead Librarian, people often ask me questions about newspaper obituary policies, particularly in regards to African American newspaper obituaries. There is never a good answer because obit policies changed as frequently as editors changed, however, in our local newspaper it was obvious that African American obituaries were not published until sometime in the 1960's.  It was difficult to tell exactly when because they would publish a few obits for prominent people but we could tell from our research that very few African American obits were published in general.

We recently found the answer when our newspaper database vendor offered to send us a digital sample of our local newspaper.  We asked for the years 1963 and 1964 because it was a time period that we needed for civil rights research. 

As an obituary experiment I searched for a local funeral home in 1963 called Leevy's. I wanted to see if any obits would pop up.  Nothing! Not a single obit in 1963 was published for African Americans.  There were plenty of classifieds for Leevy's Funeral Home but not obits that would indicate Leevy's was handling the arrangements.  I repeated the search in 1964 and suddenly, as though a water spigot was opened, there were obits.  Take a look at the image below and you will see several classified listings for the Leevy's Funeral Home and then on October 9, 1964 the first obit is published.  There are not alot of obits but they are definitely being published.  (We still had a black newspaper until 1967ish and that was probably the publishing venue of choice.  Unfortunately no issues of that newspaper remain after 1957.)

One of my volunteers who is very knowledgeable about the civil rights era hypothesized that it was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that allowed the publication of African American obituaries.  It makes very good sense to me so I am going to use that as my answer and it may also be the answer to other southern newspapers that you may be using for research.

Note to self:  when trying to figure out why some trend is occuring check major historical events!


William said...

Suggestion: Ask current Leevy's owners -- or other longtime African American funeral homes -- if they know why the obits weren't published. It may have been the policy of the newspaper owner/editors, most of whom reflected the segregationist/superiority views of their times. In my research, I found a rare front-page African American obit in the 1935 Marion (SC) Star newspaper that lamented "a good Negro is dead." I found no other obits of African Americans while searching for him in that time period.

Anna Richte said...

I dont think it had anything at all to do with the Civil Rights Act; it was simply a reflection of the changing times and attitudes on the part of the newspaper publishers and editors.
I have seen a number of AA obituaries in the State newspaper in the years 1900-1923, of the "good/respectable negro" variety, or former slaves fondly remembered. I've seen one or two for especially well known blacks, like a bishop or educator.
Anna Richter