William Howard Taft, second left, who owned Mercy Funeral Home, stands in front of a hearse with his sons Wendell, left, Harlan (Billy) and Donald.

The Willard and Taft families played a significant role in the development of Beaumont’s African American community, especially in the Gladys Street area.

David Willard’s grandfather, Elmo Willard Jr., opened Willard & Willard Funeral Home in 1929 with his brother, Joseph Willard. David’s wife Kim Willard’s grandfather, William Howard Taft, opened Mercy Funeral Home in 1929.

“For Black-owned businesses, Gladys Street was second only to Forsythe Street with barber shops, restaurants, grocery stores all down the street,” David Willard, whose family owned property in the area, said.

Mercy Funeral Home owned its own ambulances.

The two families owned several businesses and residential property around Gladys Street.

“Weirdly enough, it’s kind of strange,” David said. “(My father) would always make a distinction between old and new Gladys, because this had been here long before there was a West End. A good deal of the land along the street, and even in this general area, was primarily owned by the families of the two people at this table.

“Before I was even born, the Willards owned the majority of the property along this area. And when Mercy Funeral Home became a thriving business and built the location they’re in, they started purchasing a lot of property along this street, and along this area as well,” he said.

“These two families, the Tafts and the Willards, have been integrally involved in this area for a long time.”

Kim’s father, Harlan William “Billy” Taft, owned Taft Plumbing as well as the funeral home.

“My grandfather had three sons,” Kim said. “My grandfather hoped that all of them would work in the family business. However, the youngest, Wendell, was in the Air Force and he was not interested in being in the funeral business whatsoever.

“That left my dad and my uncle Donald here. My dad didn’t really have an interest in that business and opened his own plumbing company. That left Donald, his eldest son, who followed in his father’s footsteps.”

Billy and Donald opened a restaurant, Pit Stop BBQ, on the corner of MLK and Gladys Street, so everything was along the street with Mercy Funeral Home, Kim said.

“My dad had his headquarters right down the street there on Oakland,” Kim said. “And then right on this block was the family flower shop, where my aunt Gloria was the second African American to open a flower shop in this town. She had this teeny little building right across the street. And then they opened this flower shop right down there.”

The couple is keenly aware of their families place in Beaumont’s history. They still live in the first African American built brick home in Beaumont on Gladys Street.

This story originally ran in the Feb. 20, 2022, The Beaumont Enterprise.

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