Cole Centennial Part I: The founding of Detroit’s oldest black-owned funeral parlor

The history of the James H. Cole Home for Funerals dates back to 1856, when James Henry Cole I arrived in Detroit via Yazoo City, Mississippi. He was a mulatto slave that lived on the farm of Richard Swayze. A yellow fever epidemic swept through Yazoo County in 1853, possibly causing the death of his mother. But on her death bed, she requested that her son be freed.

He was granted his freedom at age 15 and during his travels north, he made a stop in Livingston County, Kentucky, where he met a farmer and attorney named Chester Cicero Cole.

“The family story goes, my great-great-grandfather was working on Chester Cole’s farm and when my great-great-grandfather decided to leave, Chester Cole told him that he couldn’t leave without a name,” said Kimberly Cole-Crafton, who is the family historian. “And he gave my great-great-grandfather the name James Henry Cole.”

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James Henry Cole I was a freed slave from Yazoo City, Mississippi.

Chester C. Cole later became a Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court and the Chief Justice in 1869.

James H. Cole I (1838(?)-1907) went on to build his wealth through livery stables and real estate in Detroit. He had a number of children, including James H. Cole II (1866-1937), who managed some real estate himself and was a clerk for the Department of Public Works. He is the father of James H. Cole III (1894-1970), who founded the James H. Cole Home for Funerals, Inc. 100 years ago.

It is unclear why James H. Cole III started his own funeral home. Maybe because black families were not treated as fair during the burial process by white undertakers. Racism and discrimination ran rampant in early 20th century Detroit, so that is possible. The family even told a story about him attempting to bury a body at a cemetery in Oakland County and he was turned away because of the color of his skin. But he was an apprentice for an unknown undertaker in the city, which is where he got his start.

Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, James H. Cole III opened his own funeral home in 1919 in the heart of the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Black Bottom at 1710 St. Aubin.

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James Henry Cole III founded his own funeral home in 1919 in Detroit.

Hastings street was the main thoroughfare that ran through the former Black Bottom neighborhood. The predominately African-American neighborhood and Hastings Street (now the I-75 freeway) were both razed in the late 1950s for urban renewal.

During the Great Depression, many businesses were affected by the economic crisis that rocked the nation from 1929–1939, including the Jams H. Cole Home for Funerals. But they continued to grow and persevere, moving the business to two different locations on East Warren Avenue in Detroit. Then in 1962, they settled at the current location on West Grand Boulevard.

“The parking lot next door is actually where the Cole Funeral Home stood when we moved on West Grand Boulevard,” Karla Cole, president of the James H. Cole Home for Funerals said. “That was at 2640 West Grand Boulevard. It was a regular home and we actually lived there. In 1982, we moved into the current facility at 2624 West Grand Boulevard.”

The James H. Cole Home for Funerals moved to West Grand Boulevard right around the time Berry Gordy and Motown Records did in 1959. The two establishments are right next door to each other.

“I remember seeing Stevie Wonder walk down the street,” Kim Cole-Crafton recalled.

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The James H. Cole Home for Funerals has served the Detroit community since 1919.

PHOTO: Annistique Photography

Although James H. Cole III did not go to mortuary school, he was still able to grow his business into a well-respected funeral home business in the city of Detroit.

By 1950, James H. Cole IV (1928-1991) joined the family business,  receiving his license of Mortuary Science from Wayne State University. The business thrived and continued to set the standard for funeral service in the Detroit community. When his father passed in 1970, he succeeded him as president of the company. He also opened up a second location on Schaefer and Puritan in 1972.

Karla M. Cole-Green, the youngest daughter of James H. Cole IV, began working at the funeral home in 1975, graduating from Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science and becoming a licensed mortician in 1979. She has been president since 1991, when her father passed away, continuing to operate the business with her two sons, Antonio and Brice Green.

“We’ve always given good service,” said Karla Cole, on why the business that carries her family’s last name has been around for 100 years. “We’ve always taken care of our families, looked out for people, and it’s been in our DNA for the last century. It’s because of the community that we are still here.”

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James Henry Cole IV took over the family business after his father died in 1970.

James H. Cole Home for Funerals has been dedicated to building a legacy of professionalism, dedication, compassion, and affordability in the Detroit community and has a full year of activities and events planned for its centennial anniversary in 2019.

“To really mark this momentous occasion, we wanted to include a number of celebrations that involved the community,” said Jocelyn Allen, Co-Founder and CEO, The Allen Lewis Agency. “There are three milestone events that we are going to do: a legacy breakfast April 18 at the Northwest Activities Center, July 21 is the family festival that’s going to be here at the funeral home, and the gala will be September 14 at the Roostertail. It’ll be the culmination of the year-long celebration.”


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