The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When a black-owned funeral home in a gentrifying city has no one left to bury

This week, Richard Ables finalized the sale of the building that housed Hall Brothers Funeral Home for nearly 80 years. His was the last black-owned funeral home in the U Street-Florida Avenue corridor in Northwest Washington. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The thick, dusty ledgers were scattered about the cluttered office, 18 of them, their pages filled with neat script documenting the deaths of thousands of black Washingtonians over the course of a half-century.

Open a volume to Page 123 and there is Lawrence Monroe Ryles, 39, a “colored” postal worker who on Sept. 13, 1947, was “run over by a train.” Turn the pages and find Melvin Bailey, of 1406 Third St. NW, a 6-year-old who died the same year of meningitis. Deep inside another book is Leon Anthony Porter Jr., 18, whose 1990 death occurred after a bullet pierced his skull.

This compendium of fatal heart attacks, seizures, neck fractures and bullet wounds belongs to the Hall Brothers Funeral Home, whose owner was shutting down the business after nearly 80 years and preparing to sell its Florida Avenue headquarters, a gracious Victorian rowhouse across from the historic Howard Theatre.

The demise of Hall Brothers — the last of a half-dozen black-owned funeral parlors along the U Street-Florida Avenue NW corridor — is another marker in the evolution of a neighborhood once at the core of African American life in Washington.

Now the strip embodies the demographic and economic shifts that have redefined the city, with young professionals, a preponderance of them white, replacing black families, many of which relied on Hall Brothers for “sympathetic service” — as the funeral home once advertised on hand fans that mourners used to cool themselves.

At its peak, from the 1950s through the 1980s, Hall Brothers performed as many as 140 funerals a year.

In 2018, it handled four.

“They moved out or died out,” the owner, Richard Ables, 77, whose uncles founded the funeral home in 1941, said of his lost clientele.

When the furnace gave out last fall, Ables didn’t bother calling a repairman.

“What’s the point?” he said one afternoon in his second-floor office, every inch a jumble of files, stray tombstones, unused urns, blank death certificates and business cards once given to prospective clients. “In the event of my death, please notify: Hall Bros. Funeral Home,” the cards read.

At the entrance, an announcement board, typically lined with dates and times for viewing the dead, was bare.

“I’m sitting in here dying with the business,” Ables said, his face framed by a white beard and round tortoiseshell glasses. “It’s time to go.”

On Wednesday, Ables sold the property for about $2 million, more than twice the assessed value. That figure was unimaginable 75 years ago. Land records show that his uncle Ocy D. Hall paid $10,000 for the rowhouse near Seventh Street and Florida Avenue.

Ables said he has not met the buyer, negotiating only through a real estate agent, Amy Harasz. Harasz, citing a confidentiality agreement with her client, said in a text message that she was unable to divulge the buyer’s identity, details about the sale or plans for the property.

The view beyond Hall Brothers’ front stoop — a new condo tower to the right, another rising to the left, a former Wonder Bread factory turned into a WeWork space down the street — in no way resembles what Ables remembers from childhood. In those years, he spent afternoons and weekends hanging out at the funeral home, stowing himself in emptycaskets during games of hide and seek with his cousins.

In later years, they befriended a worker at the Howard Theatre who sneaked them in a side entrance to see the likes of Smokey Robinson and the Temptations, Chuck Brown, James Brown and Aretha Franklin.

“If we saw a white person, we’d ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” Ables said of the neighborhood. “Now it’s the opposite.”

In recent months, he sold the hearse, a bright-white 1994 Cadillac. He figured he would scrap the metal “Hall Brothers” sign above the entrance — the “B” fell off long ago — along with stacks of American Funeral Director magazines, a TV that hadn’t been turned on in years, and his embalming tools.

He planned to seek guidance from the District’s Board of Funeral Directors about what to do with a dozen or so containers of unclaimed cremated remains, four of which were beneath a stack of files on the floor to the left of his desk. Another, holding the ashes of Yvonne C. Henley, who died in 1988, was on his office mantel.

“Her daughter came down from New York to order it,” he said. “We haven’t seen her since.”

Ables seemed most concerned about those 18 ledger books scattered around his office, and preserving a record of people such as Lonnie Burton, a “laborer” who died of “congestive heart failure” May 7, 1947; Sarah Lee Rush, 37, whose 1981 death occurred after a “gun shot wound of the chest”; and Clyde Gossett, 29, a “counselor” who died of AIDS eight years later.

“All of this should go to a museum or somewhere,” Ables said. “I just don’t know where to send it.”

As Hall Brothers’ phone rang less frequently over the years, Ables was torn over whether to close the business that his uncles had started after migrating from Mississippi in the 1930s. On Sundays, he liked to drive to a Maryland cemetery to contemplate the future at the graves where his mother, father, brother, aunt and Uncle Ocy are buried.

In his wallet, as always, he carried his parents’ newspaper death notices and his father’s Social Security card — documentation that makes him feel connected to them no matter the number of years since their passing.

“Do what you gotta do,” he could hear them telling him, he said.

When he took over Hall Brothers in the late 1990s, Ables had promised to “keep it going as long as I could and pass it on.” But no one in the family was interested. Not his children. Not his cousins, nieces or nephews.

Macy Hall Jr., 76, the founder’s son, had gone to medical school, an interest inspired during childhood when he accompanied his father on funeral calls.

“I was 5 and I’d ask him, ‘Why are they dying?’ and he’d say, ‘Because their heart stopped,’ ” Hall Jr. said. “And I’d say I wanted to become a doctor to keep those hearts from stopping.”

Macy Hall Jr. said he loved hanging out at Hall Brothers as a child. Ocy Hall, his favorite uncle, lived upstairs. On Halloween, trick-or-treaters ringing the bell at Hall Brothers could find themselves greeted at the front door by youngsters popping out of a coffin.

Everyone had chores. Macy Jr. polished the brass rails at Hall Brothers’ entrance and, when he got his driver’s license, drove the hearse during funerals. “It gave me a sense of power and control that traffic would stop to let the hearse through,” he said.

He became a plastic surgeon instead of a funeral director because “the business wasn’t for me,” he said, lapsing into mortician shtick. “Too dead.”

Ocy and Macy Hall Sr. started their enterprise at a time when blacks — often shut out of medicine and other professions — found prosperity and prestige in mortuary science.

By the 1920s, after African Americans had settled in neighborhoods such as Shaw and Ledroit Park, black-owned funeral parlors opened along the area’s main thoroughfares. The Jarvis Funeral Home was at 14th and U streets from 1920 until it shut down in 1985. Frazier’s was at Florida and Rhode Island avenues from 1929 until 2008, after which a developer turned the building into condominiums.

After the 1968 riots, which started at 14th and U streets, McGuire Funeral Service moved north from Shaw to Georgia Avenue NW. R.N. Horton’s relocated from 13th and U streets to Kennedy Street NW, where it still operates, always looking for ways to draw new customers, including by recently purchasing a $100,000 replica of a 1932 hearse.

“This kind of thing makes your phone ring,” said Randolph Horton, the son of the business’s founder, Rufus, who himself attracted patrons by leading funerals in a tuxedo and wide-brimmed hat.

Hall Brothers never went anywhere. Ocy and Macy eventually turned the business over to William Ables, Richard’s brother. When William died of a heart attack in 1998, Richard arranged his brother’s funeral and then took over.

He tried to draw new clientele, placing ads catering to Hispanics, Ethiopians and Indians, but there was little, if any, response.

Since 2000, Hall Brothers presided over 446 funerals, or about a quarter of the 1,816 it conducted from 1980 to 1999.

“We got stuck in time,” Ables said.

As funeral director, he orchestrated the rituals of mourning, helping families pick caskets, shrouds and plots. He especially enjoyed embalming, when, alone with a corpse in a prep room, his radio tuned to classical music, he used his tools to “put that smile back on their face.”

“It’s an art, man,” he said. “We’re practicing an art.”

As he worked, he often found himself thinking about how little he knew about his own family’s history and hoped that the person before him had “shared their story,” the names of their ancestors and the details of how they had lived.

“Otherwise, all that they know is going into the ground,” he said.

His final “case,” as he likes to refer to the dead, was Fannie Lomax, 82, of Northeast Washington, a mother of five and grandmother of eight, who died March 16. After her funeral, the only one he performed this year, Ables made sure to log her address, religion, date of birth, date of death and burial site.

As always, he said, he considered it not just his obligation to record the spare details of a life at its end, but also his privilege “to leave behind a legacy for folks to reflect on.”

As Ables was negotiating with a potential buyer earlier this year, his assistant, Derrick McArthur, got an idea.

Perhaps the D.C. Public Library would want to preserve Hall Brothers’ registries of the dead. A few emails and phone calls later, and Derek Gray, a library archivist, went to Hall Brothers to inspect the records.

“A gem for genealogists,” Gray declared after looking through the books.

In addition to the registries, the library system took assorted memorabilia — samples of the hand fans, funeral programs and the brass-coated “Hall Brothers” name plate that was in the side window of its hearse.

When Ables started telling stories about the neighborhood and performers he saw at the Howard Theatre, Gray said, “We knew we needed to pull out a tape recorder.”

The archivist hopes Ables will make himself available for an oral history, something he may have time for in retirement, when he’s not listening to John Coltrane or Miles Davis and contemplating the future, including, as it happens, his own burial.

“Don’t want to be buried in a suit,” Ables said on a recent afternoon, relaxing in Hall Brothers’ parlor. “I want a nice pair of silk pajamas and a smoking jacket. A jazz trio playing at the service. A solid wood mahogany casket.

“Something that will last,” he said.