Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Chandos M. Brown


This study examines the socioeconomic aspects of ethnicity as a way to understand African-American entrepreneurship in the early twentieth century. In an attempt to separate the influence of ethnicity from the social and environmental elements that restrained many African-American entrepreneurs, the study focuses on the African-American funeral industry. The funeral industry provides a rare example of an industry that successfully operated on a voluntarily segregated basis. Sheltered from discrimination and racism, African-American funeral directors not only survived and surpassed their white counterparts, but also organized a national fraternity of economic and political elite who wielded significant power in the United States.;This reinterpretation of the African-American community's economic system and power structure in the early twentieth-century begins by portraying the achievements of two funeral directors located in Richmond, Virginia. The study uses their own statements to explain their commercial and social successes. The remainder of the study places their pattern of achievement in the larger context. This context includes the history of funeral directing in America, death rituals and their origins in African-American culture, folk beliefs, and African-American insurance enterprises.;The African-American insurance industry provided the financial support for the funeral directors' activities. African-Americans purchased at least one billion dollars worth of insurance by the end of the 1930's. Most insurance money entered the community through direct payments to the funeral director. By being the gatekeeper for a substantial flow of capital into the community, the funeral industry supported and financed many auxiliary community businesses.;In the African-American community, death rituals both created a sense of community and provided the economic basis to support that community. This study points out that the funeral business created by African-American entrepreneurs became an economic and cultural institution of wide significance in African-American business and social history. In this rare industry where racism did not place an economic cost on conducting business, this study proves African-American entrepreneurs experienced unprecedented success that scholars have been slow to recognize.



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