Bridget Wright ’01 is a lovely woman, but you do not want to meet her. At least not professionally. At least not yet.
She is the owner and director of the Wright Funeral Home in York, S.C., and seven years ago, she left the practice of law to take over a now century-old, family-run business that is a cornerstone of York’s African American community. Death makes many of us uncomfortable, but death is her business — and not in a stereotypical way. In popular imagination, funeral directors are somber, sonorous, and solicitous. True, much of Bridget Wright’s work wardrobe is black, but dour she is not. Her drawl is honeyed and her speech is peppery.
The funeral business is a mix of the planned and the unplanned, in all cases calling for patience and care. Families often come to her “a ball of guts and grief — and I get that,” she says. Most of those she serves had been living in the area when they died, but she also cares for those who had moved away decades ago to New York, Chicago, or even the West Coast, part of the exodus of African Americans from the rural South.
“I get a fair amount of Great Migration ship-ins,” Wright explains matter-of-factly. As one York native living in Los Angeles told her: “When I go home, bring me back home.”
York is a town of about 7,700 people, now something of a bedroom community for Charlotte, N.C. Historically, it has been a place people passed through — most famously, according to a marker, Jefferson Davis in his desperate flight after Appomattox.
As far as the funeral home goes, Wright explains, “We just kind of fell into this business.” The pun is intended. Still, Wright’s family has been in the area since shortly after the Civil War. Her great-great grandfather was a stagecoach driver from Virginia and met her great-great grandmother, a freed slave, who wanted to leave her plantation not far from York. Their daughter married Ike “Bub” Wright.
Recently emancipated slaves often were too poor to afford a decent burial, Bridget Wright explains; many were simply wrapped in a sheet and laid in the ground without a service or marker. Bub Wright, a master craftsman, began building pine caskets for those who wanted to send their loved ones off with dignity, eventually opening the funeral parlor in 1914. That building still stands next door to the new funeral parlor, which was built in 1985.
Providing consolation at a time of emotional and financial vulnerability, funeral parlors have long been important in the African American community. The first black-owned funeral home opened in Savannah, Ga., in 1876. Just a few decades later, Booker T. Washington wrote, “It is a curious fact that with the exception of that of caterer, there is no business in which Negroes seem more numerously engaged or one in which they have been more uniformly successful.”
The rise of African American funeral homes owed much to the persistence of segregation after Reconstruction. Most Southern towns of any size had at least two funeral homes, one to service the white dead and one to service the black dead. Black-owned funeral parlors also offered the type of service that many African Americans wanted, one with deep African roots.
“Historically,” writes George Mason University professor Suzanne E. Smith in her 2010 book, To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, “death in the African American cultural imagination was not feared but rather embraced as the ultimate ‘homegoing,’ a welcome journey to a spiritual existence that would transcend the suffering and injustices of the mortal world.” Such homegoings, Smith writes, included a wake, “a highly emotive and usually lengthy funeral service punctuated by spirited gospel music and numerous eulogies,” and a sumptuous post-funeral banquet.
These are features of many funerals Wright provides today, but she believes that the demand for them is as much regional as racial. For both blacks and whites, she says, “there is a Southern idea of what a funeral is that just doesn’t match what happens up North. There is a certain idea of respect for the dead that is not exercised everywhere else.”
Bub Wright died in 1919, but Wright’s great-grandmother continued to manage the funeral home as well as the family’s 125-acre cotton farm while sending 11 children to college. Wright’s grandfather, the ninth of those children, was named Fine because his mother pronounced him “the finest baby I ever birthed.” A Marine who fought on Iwo Jima, Fine Wright earned a master’s degree from Boston College and taught biology at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., before he, too, took over the family business, eventually passing it on to Wright’s father, Ike.
Like his father and grandfather, Ike Wright insisted on helping anyone who came in, sometimes bartering services for farm animals or eggs. His children were drafted at an early age. Wright’s older brother, who now serves in the Air Force, was called upon to play “Taps” at burials, and both children were pressed into service driving the hearse and limousine. Some mornings, Wright would drive the limousine to high school, go to class, and then take it to a funeral after school. “As soon as we got our driver’s license, we were funeral-ready,” she says, laughing.
She aspired to go to Duke, but a high school teacher advised her to aim lower. “It really just ticked me off,” Wright recalls. “Why would you say that to a young teenager who had studied hard and worked hard? It lit a fire under me, so I said, ‘I’ll show her.’”
Wright applied to as many top colleges as she could; her father, who was even angrier about the slight than she was, cheerfully paid the application fees. She chose Princeton, where she majored in English with a certificate in African American studies and worked at the CVS pharmacy on Nassau Street to help support herself. After graduation, she went to law school at Wake Forest University and began practicing law in Atlanta.
Although Wright obtained her funeral-director license while she was in law school in order to assist her father, she had no intention of following in his footsteps. She was determined to run away from York and the family business — “I’m talking roadrunner fast” — but her father’s declining health brought her back home in 2008. By the time he died five years later, Wright had taken over.
Though race relations in South Carolina are much better these days, there were some bad times in York. Wright readily acknowledges this, though she hesitates to discuss them in detail. The South Carolina branch of the Ku Klux Klan was founded in York in 1868 and still exists, she says, although it is now disdained by most York residents, both black and white. In family lore, Wright’s grandmother once hid a young black man accused of accosting a white woman and scared off a Klan lynch mob with a shotgun. The funeral home sits less than a block from Rose Hill Cemetery, which long was segregated and in June was the subject of protests over the practice of placing Confederate flags on some of its graves.
If Wright is bitter about this legacy, she does not express it. “My grandfather lived while Jim Crow was the rule,” she recalls, “but he still had white friends and people in the [white] community who would seek him out and ask his advice about things.” Today, she estimates that 80 percent of her business is African American, largely because of the pull of tradition. Funeral homes don’t get repeat customers, of course, but they do get repeat families. Particularly when death takes them by surprise, the easiest phone call for a grieving family to make is to a place they know, the place that buried grandpa.
“And you want that,” Wright says. “That’s reputation, that’s business you can bank on.”
Death is expensive, though. A stripped-down service with a fiberboard casket — the legendary pine box is considerably more expensive — costs about $7,500. A lavish funeral can run $20,000 or more. (Wright says cremations, though cheaper, are unpopular among African Americans, particularly in the South and in small towns, where families still seek the comfort of a traditional funeral service: “Got to see them in the casket to know they’re dead, right?”) Still, more families want personalized touches — such as a slide show at the viewing and the release of doves at the graveside. “Everything now is about ‘Have it your way’ — like Burger King,” Wright observes.
Across the country, local funeral homes are going the way of the local drugstore. National chains are buying them up. Wright has received several such offers and admits that they are tempting. She could sell, stay on as a licensee, and let the home office worry about all the headaches, she concedes. “But you’d have to follow their rules.”
Now, if someone asks to have a document notarized, she’ll do it. If someone wants basic legal advice, she’ll offer it. If someone needs to spread their payments over a few months, they can try to work something out. Legacies are hard to find these days, but her business is into its fourth generation and Wright hopes to pass it down to a fifth. Of course, her 7-year-old son doesn’t have his driver’s license yet. “But you wait ’til he does,” she says.
“When you’ve got over a century of legacy sitting on your head and that legacy is, ‘Help the people, help the people,’ you’ve got to help the people,” Wright insists. “Because if no one else out there will help, they know that they can come right here.”
The phone rings. Another customer is on the way, so it is time for Wright to get back to business.
“I might never be rich, moneywise,” she says as she leaves, “but I certainly think there are more ways of being rich and living a fulfilling life.
“Even if you’re doing something slightly weird.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.