The House of Campbell
Rebuilding My Family’s History and the Significance of Black Death, Wealth, and Discovery
Perhaps we aren’t our ancestors’ wildest dreams? This question recurred to me throughout summer 2020. I didn’t watch the video of George Floyd’s murder. I didn’t need to see it to understand that he died in vain at the hands of a system that time and again fails to serve and protect its non-white citizens. I avoided seeing the video, but social media and poorly chosen thumbnail images would force me to see it in pictures instead; despite the world’s seemingly universal condemnation of this murder, no arrests had been made. For me, officer Derrick Chauvin became a symbol of every racist and hateful act I’ve experienced in my Black life. Whenever I see the image of him kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck with his hands in his pockets, staring directly into Darnella Frazier’s camera lens— I feel as though he stares through me. He’s telling me that people who look like me do not belong in this world. The almost obsessive way the video blazed around the world, while other Black people continued to suffer at the hands of police, felt devastating. Where was the consideration for Black people who have suffered generational trauma at the hands of people like Chauvin? Where was the sensitivity for Mr. Floyd’s family or other Black families who suffered the same tragic injustice?
The more stories I saw of Black families grieving their loved ones unjustly killed by the police, the more I thought of my great-grandfather, James Cubert Campbell. He also lived through a pandemic and was famously unknown as the first Black undertaker and first Black city councilman in Charleston, West Virginia. At the time, those little-known facts and pieces of family history were all I knew about my late ancestor. His work as an undertaker in a segregated market made him one of the richest Black men in Charleston. Until summer 2020, I’d never considered the significance of my great-grandfather, known as Campbell, and his role in the community or the care he provided for grieving Black families. As I thought about the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, the dignity they were denied in their deaths overwhelmed me.
Inspired by the few details I knew about my great-grandfather, someone who provided dignity to Black folks in times of tragedy, I dug into my family history. I started with his obituary, which my mother’s cousin, Nicky, keeps framed in his study. Though he didn’t grow up knowing my great-grandfather, Nicky often shares the few stories passed down to him with immense pride. The obituary mentions my great-grandfather worked as a newspaper columnist before he went to mortuary school. Therefore, I began reaching out to archivists at the various libraries in Charleston, West Virginia, to see if I could get copies of his work. Despite an ongoing pandemic, the archivists quickly responded with an overwhelming amount of articles, not only ones written by my great-grandfather but others mentioning him and his accomplishments from 1902 through 1956, the year he died. Reading my great-grandfather’s words in print felt like oxygen. I could not live the rest of my life without reading every word I could find. Through conversations with my family members (some of whom I’d never even met), historians, archivists, and librarians, and several months of research, I exhumed a vital history about my family and Charleston, overlooked not only by history.
My great-grandfather was the first free man born in his family. His father, General James Alexander Campbell, was a slave from Virginia who fought in the Civil War when he was about 20-years-old. General Campbell achieved the rank of a brigadier general — a rare position for a Black man. After the war, General Campbell settled in the newly established state of West Virginia, where he worked as a barber. During Reconstruction, Black barbers cut both white and Black men’s hair. Establishing himself as a business owner, General Campbell flourished as a wealthy and respected entrepreneur.
Campbell was born around 1876, just as Jim Crow laws came into effect to stifle the developments by people like his father. Under Jim Crow, Black people lived with the constant threat and reality of disenfranchisement and violence. Despite these obstacles, my great-grandfather worked his way through school and graduated from Howard University Law School in 1904. He understood the importance of being an educated Black man and uplifting as many Black people as possible. However, he encountered another obstacle — most Black folks could not afford lawyers, and most white folks would not hire a Black lawyer. So, he began writing as a newspaper columnist in Washington, D.C., covering politics to supplement his income. He was a fervent supporter of the “Party of Lincoln,” the Republican party. He encouraged Blacks to vote straight Republican tickets as a way to combat disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws. He often traveled back to West Virginia to campaign for various Republican candidates. On November 22, 1902, The Colored American wrote:
“Mr. James Cubert Campbell…made one of the best speeches of the West Virginia campaign at the final rally at the Court House (sic) in Charleston. It was a complete and logical presentation of the issues from a republican standpoint, (sic) and contributed largely to the success of Congressman (sic) Joseph H. Gaines, who received a heavy vote at the hands of the colored people of the Charleston district.”
In the summer of 1908, Campbell returned to his hometown — a trip that changed the course of his life. One late afternoon in July, he and his friends, Arthur Jackson and Thomas Nutter, attempted to save a neighborhood boy, Roy James, from drowning. The Advocate reported, “…Jackson, Nutter, and Campbell plunged [into the Kanawha river], the last named (sic) without disrobing. [Roy’s] body was found…fastened in the mud, which was very deep at that point.” Despite their efforts to resuscitate him, Roy sadly perished. Moved by the incident, my great-grandfather enrolled in the Cincinnati College of Embalming in Ohio around 1909. In 1912, he returned home and opened his undertaking business, The House of Campbell, the first in Charleston, WV, to be owned by and for Black people.
A traditional African-American funeral is called a Homegoing, which emphasizes dignity for the deceased and celebrates the person’s life. Homegoings originated in African tradition and still occur today, with pageantry playing an essential part in the ritual. Silk-lined caskets, ornate floral arrangements, elaborate programs, and mourners garbed in colorful or white outfits instead of black characterize homegoings.
To understand the impact of my great-grandfather’s role as an undertaker during his time, particularly within the Black community of Charleston, I reached out to Dr. Suzanne Smith, author of To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African-American Way of Death. She explained how a funeral director facilitated the arrangements for a homegoing. Undertakers acted as grief counselors for the deceased's family, and through this, they garnered respect, wealth, and a stable business. Being an undertaker also served as the launching pad for many men into influential positions in politics. Paradoxically, segregation played an essential part in securing wealth for Black undertakers due to the guaranteed client base. Throughout the remainder of 2020, as the death toll of unarmed Black Americans climbed, my heart broke thinking about the family members who couldn’t have homegoings for their loved ones. A traditional funeral was not possible because of the intense and necessary COVID-19 restrictions.
Another irony for Campbell — his business boomed during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which claimed about 675,000 American lives and 50 million worldwide. My Uncle Bill told me my great-grandfather poured all of his money back into the business after the 1918 pandemic. Dr. Smith writes:
“…black funeral directors were perhaps the most successful entrepreneurs in America’s segregated economy.”
Based on my family members’ descriptions of the House of Campbell, it seemed my great-grandfather did quite well for himself. He constructed a new funeral home from the ground up, complete with a chapel attached. According to my Uncle, the funeral home’s design drew inspiration from the Parthenon, complete with enormous white columns in front. My great-grandfather even commissioned a custom Cadillac ambulance and hearse to be shipped from Ohio, only adding to his prominence in Charleston.
Campbell drew a lot of attention as a prominent community member, though not all of it positive. Around the same time, as his business grew more prosperous, First Baptist Church — one of the first Black churches in Charleston — kicked him out. He had been moved by the spirit one too many times during worship — he enjoyed singing and dancing during the quiet services — and so was asked not to come back. In retaliation, he built the St. James Episcopal Church. I asked my mom’s cousin, Murtala, if “St. James” was a way for my great-grandfather to name the church after himself, to which he replied, “I wouldn’t put it past him.”
In the 1920s, Charleston, West Virginia, existed as a different city than it is today. People regarded it as a metropolis, similar to Washington, D.C., with a prime location separating the North and the South; it was a destination for Southern Blacks during the Great Migration and a stopping point along the way to cities like Chicago. As a result, several politicians and civic organizers across the country looked to West Virginia as an example for legislation regarding race.
The Campbell family lived in a neighborhood known as The Block. Bordered by brothels and considered undesirable by the white citizens of Charleston, Black residents settled into the area. They created businesses, headquarters for fraternities/secret societies, a public high school, and an elite hotel. Though they lived in a thriving, prominent neighborhood, residents knew everybody and their business. Neighborhood kids played in the street, and community events bustled with energy and life. These institutions made Charleston a cultural hub for entertainers and intellectuals. Everyone from W.E.B. DuBois, a personal friend of my great-grandfather’s, to Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, stopped in Charleston. Throughout the 1910s-1950s, the Block existed as a lively area for Black enterprise and entertainment.
In 1922, Campbell married my great-grandmother, Mattie Marie Martin, who was about 20 years his junior. She was the reason our family calls him Campbell, though it’s uncertain if she referred to him on a last name basis because of her school teacher background or because she became his employee once they married. At the funeral home, she became the “First Lady.” Her duties involved bathing, doing the hair and makeup, and dressing the corpses. My Uncle Bill recalled my great-grandmother being a very religious woman, so much so that when funk music came onto the scene, she thought the name was blasphemous. As the last person to offer the deceased any physical sense of tenderness, I imagine her taking a lot of pride in her role as First Lady. Each morning, my great-grandfather went over “Mattie’s To-Do” list for the home and the business while my great-grandmother administered his insulin shots.
Despite the family’s outward success, there were problems not everyone saw. As a father, Campbell held high expectations for his children to excel in school and become independent. For example, he taught my grandmother, Charlotte, and my great-aunt Marjory to drive because he didn’t want them to sit in the back of the bus. As my great-grandparents’ marriage went on, my great-grandmother became resentful and felt unacknowledged for the work she put into the business. Murtala said my great-grandmother would often lament, “everyone always talks about Campbell” loud enough for anyone within earshot.
Even as his business thrived, Campbell still held his convictions about advancing Black folks’ lives. He sat on several committees that sought to protect and uplift the Black and immigrant communities of Charleston. These groups fought for and achieved the desegregation of the public library, the implementation of an anti-lynching law, the creation of West Virginia's first Blacks-only 9-hole golf course, and the legislation restricting the showing of D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation — all before 1935. Campbell’s community involvement grew over the years, and by 1931, he became Charleston’s first Black city councilman, a seat he held for 25 years.
While balancing his funeral business and his political career, Campbell groomed my great-uncle James Jr. to take over the House of Campbell. However, as racial tensions grew throughout the 1940s, my great-uncle and his siblings lived in fear of the future. My mom’s cousin, Murtala, said it was difficult for them as educated Black people to be told that they had to “know their place” in society. African-American Historian, Ancella Radford Bickley, writes:
“I think West Virginia has a kind of mixed history. I believe that Blacks were encouraged to move in certain directions, but they would bump into that invisible wall if they stepped outside of the things that were supposedly correct.”
Those invisible walls began to close in on the Black community in Charleston. The city’s pivotal role in politics was dismantled and replaced with the agenda of the KKK and white supremacists. Today we can see how successful white supremacists were in pushing forth their agenda; let’s not forget a representative from Charleson was arrested for the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
When my great-grandfather died in 1956, the family closed the House of Campbell after 44 years of service. The funeral home and other prominent Black-owned businesses on The Block were sold to the state and razed flat due to redlining and “urban renewal” projects like an Interstate Highway, similar to other Black cultural centers like Tulsa, OK, and Detroit, MI. My great-uncle moved his family to Ohio. My great-aunt Marjory followed. My grandmother Charlotte took her inheritance and built a family home in rural New Jersey. My great-grandmother Mattie moved in with her beloved younger brother, John, and his wife, Sarah. She spent her remaining days as a socialite as the Black high society in Charleston faded away alongside decades of hard work and Black history, the exact opposite outcome my great-grandfather had centered his life around.
During conversations with my family members lucky enough to remember Campbell, they each came to the same conclusion — he was born at the wrong time. Although my great-grandfather led a remarkable life, he never felt like he accomplished enough. Despite his wealth, respect, and prominence in his community, he was frustrated that he could not take his political ambitions beyond his city council seat. He always felt resentment from the white businessmen in Charleston, whom he knew would not elect him to a higher office. Despite his tenacity in business, he was oppressed by Jim Crow laws and the ideology of the time.
With so much Black history lost because of slavery, racism and the whitewashing of American history, I never knew I had the right to search for my family history. I didn’t think there would be anything to find. As a young Black girl living in the suburbs of Philadelphia and attending predominantly white school systems, the Black history I learned was limited to Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. I’ll never forget the in-class essay assigned in elementary school about what day-to-day life would have been like for me pre-Civil War. While my white classmates worked diligently on the prompt, I wrote through tears that I would have been a slave. When I got to college, I met someone whose ancestor signed the Declaration of Independence. I was so envious they knew their ancestor's name; they knew names beyond their grandparents. Discovering the rich details of Campbell’s life have been profound. I believe his remarkable insight into the power of the press was one of his greatest assets. His intimate relationship with the media allowed his story to be preserved and now passed down through our family. On March 21, 1907, my great-grandfather wrote in The Advocate:
“The people, those who own the press, have the arms that rock the universe. And it is such cogent arms as these that the colored people in this country, today, need and need badly. In other words, these people are sadly in need of newspapers to create public sentiment in their favor and to fight adverse sentiment which is submerging them beneath a relentless contempt and merciless caste hatred.”
It saddens me that the America I live in is not more progressive than the America he was trying to change; that Black people are still combating relentless contempt. Though the tragic events of summer 2020 made me skeptical that our country is making progress in dismantling systemic racism, I don’t think my great-grandfather would want me to feel that way. Instead, I think he would encourage me to use my voice, build community, and challenge my oppressor—maybe then I’ll realize my ancestor’s wildest dream.