When the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations gave its NAACP Human Relations Award to R. Grayson McGuire Jr. recently, it was just one of the many honors bestoved upon the man whom the Washington Urban League calls "a model for minority entrepreneurs."
The popular funeral director, one of about 20 black funeral directors in the city, has been recognized repeatedly for his participation on more than 20 city boards and committees representing minority business development, citizens against crime, and citizens for the education of black youth.
McGuire is often credited with founding the Voice of Informed Community Expression in 1969, a civic group created in the aftermath of the 1968 riots. He has been a member of several boards of organizations such as WETA-TV and the Red Cross, has been an active fundraiser for the National Capital Area Boy Scouts, and was president of the Washington Urban League from 1962 to 1965.
McGuire, 71, a tall, affable man, has also been a prominent figure in business and political circles. He was a presidential appointee to the Federal City Council in 1969 before the city won the right to elect its own representatives. Former mayor Walter E. Washington said he often called on McGuire's level-headedness for numerous advisory committees during the 1960s.
McGuire was rumored to be a candidate for mayor some years ago. But he dismissed the notion, saying, "I had no inclination towards that. . . . Besides, my family, they're too thin-skinned."
Now president of the Northwest funeral business that bears his name, McGuire follows the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, George H. Richardson, a physician and civic activist who wrote in support of civil rights and edited several now-defunct black publications.
The McGuires own one of the city's oldest and most prestigious funeral businesses. And they have a family tree whose branches are intertwined with the history of old Washington.
The business was founded in 1912 by Robert Grayson McGuire, an independent Dartmouth College graduate who worked in his father's pharmacy for a short time before striking out on his own.
In the segregated society of the early part of the century, there were few professions to which blacks could aspire and be successful. Those were limited to teacher, preacher, doctor and undertaker of blacks--jobs not particularly relished by whites. Respect for undertakers in the black community stems as much from their social status as from superstitious folklore about their intimate connections with the world of the dead.
The first undertakers in Washington were usually carpenters or livery owners who rented horses and wagons. Later, they accommodated viewings in their own parlors, and in the early part of this century, funeral homes as we know them were developed.
The McGuire funeral business began as a storefront undertaker's shop and livery service on H Street in Northeast, moved to Eighth Street and Florida Avenue NW for a time and settled for six decades in a series of row houses on the corner of Ninth and Westminster streets in Shaw. Grayson McGuire's father was often called to tend to the dead late at night. Family members say the short, warm but serious man would pack his bag full of chemicals, put a folding preparation board under his arm and jump on a streetcar to reach his destination.
Today, Grayson and his son John, who now manages the business' daily affairs, tend the dead at their seven-year-old parlor in a square, modern building at 7400 Georgia Ave. NW. The business has grown to a $500,000-a-year enterprise that conducts about 300 services annually.
McGuire said he was disappointed that the business had to move out of the old Shaw location. "But I found that our clientele were staying away in droves," he said, because of the deterioration of the Ninth Street neighborhood after the "civil disturbances" of the 1960s. Although he's happy with the new location, McGuire is quick to say that he would move again if the business were jeopardized.
Washington historian Louise Hutchinson, 53, who remembers the McGuire family, grew up in a row house next door to the old funeral business. Her older brothers drove McGuire's hearses.
During the 1930s and '40s, Hutchinson said, many notables lived along this part of Ninth Street, including Mary McLeod Bethune, a renowned educator and founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy.
"It was always a foregone conclusion that if you were black and Catholic, the McGuires had the last word," said Hutchinson, whose parents insisted on being buried by McGuire.
The names of those for whom the McGuires handled funeral services reads like a list from the book, "Who's Who Among Black Americans": Dr. Charles Drew, civil rights activist Medgar Evers, historian Carter G. Woodson, educator Nannie Helen Burroughs, former Liberian ambassador Samuel Westerfield, opera singer Madam Evanti, several Howard University presidents and a few high-ranking Catholic Church clerics.
Grayson's father, whose ancestors came from Mount Jackson, Va., was active in charitable work at the old St. Augustine's Catholic Church on 15th and L streets NW.
Hutchinson, the research director at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, says Grayson's father "was like a foster grandfather in the neighborhood. You could sell him tickets to anything."
Like his father, Grayson McGuire also attended Dartmouth College, although he was tempted to go to a small school in Maine because he'd heard that its debate team had gone to Australia. McGuire said he was happy to follow his father into the funeral business despite the elder McGuire's wish that he become a doctor.
McGuire says he cannot remember the early days when his father ran the business using horse and buggy. But he recalls washing the old Chryslers that his perfectionist patriarch would inspect with white gloves.
Despite the family's community stature, "I wouldn't say everything has just fallen into place," McGuire said. His mother often reminded him that his father came home worried about how he would pay his employes that week. Nowadays, McGuire says, he's not sure whether success is due to the family's "stick-to-itness or dumb luck."
McGuire said he inherited his sense of civic duty from his maternal grandparents, George and Ida Richardson. George Richardson attended one of the first undergraduate classes at Howard University, receiving his law degree in 1876 and a medical degree in 1890.
Alhough his grandfather drove a horse and buggy to visit patients, McGuire said the doctor's first love was the life of a scholar and spokesman for blacks. He was editor for the Bee, a Washington newspaper, and he wrote articles for John Cromwell's People's Advocate and the Sentinel, another black newspaper of the day. Through the Bethel Literacy Society, Richardson visited churches around the city, speaking out against bigotry.
Richardson was appointed to the District's first integrated board of education, created in 1900. This legacy he passed on to his daughter Virginia, Grayson McGuire's mother. She served on the board in 1939, when blacks at Howard University fought the city for use of the Central High School (now Cardozo High) Auditorium and DAR Constitution Hall for a 1939 concert by famed black singer Marion Anderson.
McGuire's wife Elinor remembers how her mother-in-law joined D.C. blacks protesting the Marion Anderson affair. She also recalls how, as a teen-ager, she and her friends were organized by "Mother" McGuire to canvass local theaters, collecting change in cups to support the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black Alabama teen-agers who were imprisoned in the 1930s for allegedly raping a white woman in Tennessee.
The family has faced its share of sorrow and pain. Their oldest son, Robert Grayson McGuire III, was killed in a car accident in South Carolina in 1975. His parents called him "Mickey." Mickey was a Dartmouth graduate and a scholar much like his great-grandfather Richardson. He taught at Howard University and was a fellow at the Joint Center for Political Studies here. His widow, Georgianna McGuire, is treasurer of the funeral home. They have two teen-aged sons.
There are now four generations associated with the McGuire funeral business. McGuire is the president; his wife Elinor is vice president and family historian. Their son John, 35, a lanky, almost shy man, is executive vice president. His wife Lynne teaches mortuary science at UDC and often helps out at the funeral home.
The generation that will run the business in the future will likely do things differently. Although old, monied and established Washingtonians were often community-oriented and active in city politics, their children are less so. McGuire believes that the '60s brought in a wave of grassroots activists from other cities who became involved in city politics and eventually overtook the ranks of old city leaders.
But the change in city leadership may have as much to do with changing aspirations of the offspring of the city's old-line black middle class.
John McGuire, a motorcyclist and aspiring pilot, says that, unlike his father, "I am not a joiner."
A tightly knit family, the McGuires "keep a rather low profile," said Lloyd Genus, longtime family friend. They do not travel the popular party circuits. And though they are well-established and financially "comfortable," according to Genus, the McGuires are "certainly generous to charity and circumspect in the way they've handled it."
The family is said to have invested its money wisely over the years. They own land in West Virginia and a beach hideaway in Maryland. Along with community leader ViCurtis Hinton, land developer Theodore Hagans and others, the McGuires own gospel station WYCB, which is currently up for sale.
Although the McGuires lived for many years in the posh "gold coast" off upper 16th Street, acquaintances like Hinton said the family does not deserve any "uppity" image that might be associated with such an address.
"We don't believe in that kind of stuff," McGuire said.