In 1900, John Stewart Sr. borrowed money from his brother to buy a casket and a gravesite and then walked to a Northeast Washington home and arranged the burial of a child.
This marked the beginning of the Stewart Funeral Home, one of the oldest and largest black funeral businesses in Washington.
Since the days when John Stewart Sr. walked from him store-front office to arrange funerals in Northeast Washington, the Stewart Funeral Home has evolved from horse-drawn hearses to Cadillac Limousines.
And through two generations of undertakers, it has developed what some say is the backbone of the black funeral business-a tradition of family ownership.
The Stewart business-which averages three funerals a day-is now run by John Stewart Jr., who took over after his father died in 1941.
In those 38 years, Stewart has managed to parlay the small business on H Street into a luxurious facility at 4100 Benning Rd. NE.
"It was a memorial to his father," according to one family member, who said Stewart cried during the groundbreaking ceremony in 1964.
Ironically, the move to the larger facility, was one of the family's greatest challenges.
"We weren't sure whether or not people would travel this far to do business with us. We were worried about leaving our downtown location," said Stewart's wife, Margaret, who explained that the family was forced to change their location when a federal agency acquired their land to build an office building. "But people have really supported us . . . far better than we imagined."
The new facility, which opened 17 years ago, was the dream of John Stewart Jr. It has the large viewing rooms he envisioned and the essence of peace and serenity in its lobby and chapel.
"It had always been a dream of mine," he said, "to have a good facility for blacks."
But the dream nearly came to an end 10 years ago when Stewart-who had singlehandedly managed the business since his father's death-became seriously ill.
His oldest son, John Stewart Ill, who was studying architecture at West Virginia State College, left college to attend a mortuary school so he could help with the business. His mother, Margaret Stewart gave up her teaching career to help out. Later, Stewart's youngest son, Carlin, joined the rest of the family in running the business.
"That was about the toughest time for us," said Margaret Stewart. "We really didn't know what was going to happen. We pulled together and got through it."
John Stewart Jr. said he remembers the first time his son went with him to pick up a body.
"He grabbed the man's arm and wouldn't let go. I had to pry my son's hand loose because he was so nervous."
Like other black funeral home, the Stewart firm is a family business that caters to the black community. The Stewarts, as well as other owners of black funeral homes, say about 95 percent of their business comes from the black community, and that competition is especially fierce because black funeral homes depend upon word-of-mouth referrals, rather than advertising, for business. There are approximately 40 black-operated funeral homes in the Washington area.
"We bury very few white people," said 64-year-old John Stewart Jr., who was born in his father's funeral home and learned the business from him and an employe. "People just want to be handled by their own kind."
The cost of funerals at the Stewart home begins at about $1,000, according to the Stewarts, who would not estimate the cost for their most expensive funerals. However, owners of homes approximately the same size as the Stewart say funeral cost generally can be as high as $3,000 to $6,000.
The Stewarts say that the kind of services provided, more than costs, are the most important aspects of a funeral business.
At the Stewart home, according to relatives and friends, the attitude of "caring for the dead and their families" is a tradition that stems bck to the founder.
"John Stewart (Jr.) is at all of the funerals despite being in a wheelchair," said Alice Bell Finlayson, a cousin who has helped with the business from time to time. "And he almost always calls a family a few days after the funeral to ask how they are doing and if there is anything he can do to help."
That personal concern, Finlayson said, is evident even when it comes to preparing a body for burial.
"When John Stewart (III) works on a body," she said, "he keeps his voice lowered and tells everyone he passes with the body to lower their voices as well."
Margaret Stewart said she believes one measure of the firm's success is that a number of employes-past and present-have stayed with the home 30 years or more.
The Stewarts' service to their clientele is spelled out in a number of ways. For instance, the Stewarts said, they do not only send limousines to take families to the viewing of the body and graveside services, but they also send limousines when families are coming to the funeral home to make burial arrangements.
Finlayson said the introduction of Cadillac limousines to the Stewart Home came with her suggestion.
Cadillac limousines, according to several large black funeral home owners are still "a must" in their business. Although some say there are changes taking place, most say they would rather put up with the high costs of the Cadillac limousines than risk losing business.
One black funeral home operator put it this way, "Black folks feel that if their relatives have never gotten a chance to ride in a Cadillac while they were living, they should get that chance on the way to the grave."
Finlayson said Stewart fought the notion that blacks could not get buried in anything but Cadillacs, but reluctantly changed after she made her suggestion.
"John Stewart would not make the change at first because he thought Chryslers took hills better," said Finlayson, "but I told him black people wanted Cadillacs, and he said if that is what black people wanted, that is what black people would get.
"A day later some black kids were standing on the corner and one of them yelled. 'Hey man, did you see those Cadillacs?' That same day John came to me and told me I was right."
The Stewarts' dedication to service, along with some shrewd real estate investments, said Finlayson, have contributed to the family's financial success.
"They have always had property throughout Washington," Finlayson said. "And it is uncanny, the type of luck they have said."
John Stewart Jr. and his wife live in affluent North Portal Estates in Northwest Washington and vacation with their family at their summer home in Eagle Harbor, Md.
Their two sons live in Prince George's County. John Stewart III has three daughters, and Carlin Stewart has a young son. Both brothers said they have not pushed their children into the business.
The Stewarts, although admittedly "comfortable," apparently avoid flaunting their wealth or possessions. Mrs. Stewart, when asked about their extensive land holdings as well as the business' financial success said, "We just don't talk about it."
"Margaret Stewart could drive five Mercedes, but she chooses to drive a Buick because if suits her style," said Jessye Hershaw, a longtime friend of the Stewarts. "She and the rest of the Stewarts are low-key about their wealth."
For many years, the Stewart family has been active in community affairs, with memberships in groups such as the D.C. Mental Health Board, the Asbury United Methodist Church, the Stoddard Baptist Home, the Industrial Bank of Washington, the Washington Saturday College and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. Margaret Stewart is the national treasurer of the National Council of Negro Women.
When asked about the Stewarts' community contributions, Hershaw replied, "It would take a day to explain every detail of what the Stewarts have done for Washington."
One concern of the Stewarts is the general image of the funeral industry, which recently has been attacked for what consumer groups say are unnecessary and expensive costs.
"The best indication of our honest service," said Margaret Stewart, "is the fact that most of our customers are referred by family members who have been with us before."
John Stewart III, when asked about the District's policy for dealing with families of the dead who cannot afford to pay for funerals, said service should be an important consideration when the city grants its contract to a single Chambers Funeral Home, a non-black funeral home which has the District contract to bury the poor and was recently criticized in the press for its lack of sensitivity toward black families.
John Stewart III said there should be another way of handling contracts.
"The District government should give money to the families instead of one funeral home so black families can choose their own funeral home," said Stewart. "That way blacks will be treated with dignity."
His father, who patiently listened to his son's opinion, smiled and said: "I thought you'd give the right answer." CAPTION:
Picture 1, The Stewarts: John III, Margaret, Carlin and John Jr. By Craig Herndon-The Washington Post; Picture 2, John Stewart Sr., the founder of the Stewart Funeral home. Courtesy of the Stewart Funeral home