City’s 1st Black-owned mortuary built on legacy of service
David Willard’s grandfather, Elmo Willard Jr., and his brother, Joseph Willard, opened Beaumont’s first Black-owned funeral business, Willard & Willard Funeral Home, which was incorporated in 1929. The business was located at 470 Forsythe St. in a converted white, two-story home.
“Because of segregation, white funeral directors certainly wouldn’t pick up Black bodies and bury Black bodies and things of that nature,” David said. “So, (they) stepped into the fray and decided, well, we’ll do it for ourselves, because somebody had to do it.”
The company had its own ambulances. If somebody was sick or dead, they could pick the body up, get it from the morgue or get it from the home, and go about the business of preparing the body for the funeral.
Of the businesses that Black people could get into coming out of slavery, the funeral business was where one could really make some strides, because everybody dies, David said.
“My great-great-grandfather started out as a barber, but that’s not something that you really pass on to your kids,” David said.
“But there was something about the mortuary business that you could really build and grow something from. Before we even get to the funeral home portion, you have to kind of realize that the Willard family had achieved quite a bit in extraordinary circumstances.
“They came out of slavery here in Beaumont. Elmo Riley Willard I managed to achieve unbelievable amount of success for an African American at that time,” he said.
“Elmo had amassed quite a bit of property. He started off as working for the Sabine Lumber Co. in Beaumont, which was the main business back in the day. From there, he managed to open his own barber shop.”
In the early 1900s, Elmo I built rent houses and facilitated African Americans to be able to buy their own homes. The house David and his wife, Kim Willard, live in now was the first Black-built two-story brick home in the city.
“Elmo was the was the head of the clan, everybody else followed suit,” he said. “He managed, along with his siblings and cousins, to amass a bunch of property.
“He was very well respected in the Black and the white community, even to the point of being asked to sit on juries here in Beaumont, which was absolutely unheard of for a Black person.”
Elmo I married Sarah Adams, who came from a prominent family herself. Her father Elijah “Cap” Adams was one of the first Black educators in Beaumont and began educating people out of slavery shortly after emancipation, David said. Adams Elementary was named for him.
The couple had eight children, one of whom was Elmo Willard Jr.
Elmo Jr. was the father of noted civil rights activist and lawyer, Elmo Willard III, and grandfather of David, who is dean of students at All Saints Episcopal School and a Commissioner for the Port of Beaumont.
“It was just sort of a continuation of what the Willard family had been doing all along. Providing for themselves, but also providing for the Black community in Beaumont,” David said.
Elmo Jr. died at the age of 40 in 1954. Elmo III, the aforementioned lawyer, moved back to Beaumont in 1954 with a degree from Howard University Law School and opened up a law practice while continuing to run the funeral business. Elmo III was an only child, and found it difficult to establish a law practice and run the funeral home, and gave up the business in 1966-67.
“My mom always said that he really regretted having to close it, but it was one or the other, because there was nobody else that he could turn it over to,” David said. “But if he had had his druthers, it might still be operating today.”
But the funeral profession has another link to David and his family. This is where Kim Willard’s grandfather joins the story.
Kim’s grandfather, William Howard Taft, moved his family from San Antonio to Beaumont in the early 1950s where he met David’s grandfather. Taft worked with Willard & Willard Inc., learning the mortuary business and doing some day-to-day operations.
In 1957, he decided to branch out on his own, and started Mercy Funeral home in the old Fleming Funeral Home building at 1081 Gladys St. They moved to the current location at 1395 Gladys St. in 1963.
Like Willard & Willard, Mercy had its own ambulances and a couple of cemeteries on Magnolia and Pine streets, which are still in the family today, Kim said. The Willard cemetery is no longer operational. It still has headstones, but the bodies were moved some while ago.
Both families had other businesses as well. Kim’s aunt Gloria had the second Black-owned florist in Beaumont.
“My cousin and I worked at the flower shop for years,” Kim said. “Families would go to the funeral home to do the funeral part of it, and they’d walk right over here and sit with us and talk about flowers.
“And then we would take flowers over there for the funerals, and it was just this whole back-and-forth thing. It was wonderful.”
Although the Willard and Taft families had been close, for decades, David and Kim did not know each other. Ironically, it was a funeral that brought them together.
When David’s brother died in January 2005, the family went to Mercy Funeral Home for the arrangements. When David went to order flowers, Kim was working on the arrangements. One thing led to another and the pair married.
“The two families had been intertwined, not only professionally, but just intertwined as friends and things of that nature,” David said. “(Kim’s father, Billy) couldn’t believe that his daughter was actually marrying Elmo’s child when we were dating and getting together. He was like, ‘Wow! Talk about things coming full circle. It’s a small world.’”
Mercy Funeral Home is now owned by Gregory Cantue. Kim said her grandfather was a mentor to Cantue, and Mercy was his first job out of mortuary school.
“Even though the funeral home now belongs to Greg, I still feel a sense of pride, you know, and I feel like I want to help him succeed,” she said. “I feel like he’s carrying the torches.”
David said he is proud of what his family has accomplished, and that it forms a foundation for what he wants to accomplish.
“It’s just a matter of luck that I was born into the family that I was born into,” he said. “But I want to try to instill in other young African American children that regardless of what their personal family experiences might be — their mother, their father, maybe their grandparents — that they have traditions, and a sense of accomplishment, by being African American that they can pull from in order to do what they want to do in this world.”
This story originally ran on page 1 in the Feb. 20, 2022, The Beaumont Enterprise.