It can’t be completely surprising. The business closed in 2008, and the nearby community has undergone dramatic change in the past few years. The influx of condominium buildings and swanky restaurants — with names like Bistro Bohem and the Brixton — to the west and an increase in young professionals moving to the east are harbingers that the neighborhood that grew around Frazier’s is gone and a new day has come.
In fact, Frazier’s serves as a dire symbol for black-owned funeral homes in quickly changing Northwest. For decades, owning a funeral home was a steady, well-paying job with a guaranteed stream of customers. These days, with a smaller customer base, changing tastes and a cutthroat economic climate, many of those funeral homes are struggling to find their footing.
“That had been an upstanding funeral home,” said Mechelle Baylor, 60, a third-generation LeDroit Park resident. “Now they’re saying they’re going to put condos there, and I just can’t see it.”
Thomas Frazier, a licensed mortician, established his funeral home on T Street NW in 1917. Twelve years later, he moved to the LeDroit Park location. The building, an 1890 confection by quirky English architect Charles Burden, was three rowhouses fused into one, and Frazier and his wife, Willie Mae, lived upstairs. A flier printed at the time lays out the business’s amenities: the slumber rooms, where families could visit the deceased in private; the motorized funeral coach; the smoking and lounging room for men.
The next several decades were a golden era for Frazier’s and the area’s black funeral homes. To the west, at 1432 U St., was Jarvis Funeral Home, catering to Washington’s well-heeled African American population; nine blocks east on Florida Avenue, Hall Brothers looked after more-modest families in an ornate rowhouse. Later, many funeral homes moved north to serve middle-class black families in areas including Petworth and Brightwood.
While quantitative data on black funeral homes that existed at the time is impossible to find, longtimers in the business can talk about the institutions in the area that have disappeared. There was Montgomery Brothers on Kennedy Street, Smith Funeral Home near Mount Pleasant, and Morrow and Woodford on 11th Street. They’re all gone now, mostly the result of ineffective succession plans as their founders grew older, and limited business strategies that didn’t take into account changing tastes and spending patterns.
At the time, though, they thrived. Customers were loyal, sticking with a particular funeral home the way they would a church. “People relate to funeral homes through family members that have passed through,” said Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Museum and a LeDroit Park resident. And funerals were major affairs, with days-long visitations capped by lavish ceremonies.