ATLANTA — It was a place to honor the victims of lynchings, give the community an opportunity to pay respect to the legacies of Civil Rights leaders and bury Black bodies when no one else would. That history caught fire and on Monday, crews were cleaning up the aftermath at Atlanta's historic Cox Brothers Funeral Home.
As of Monday afternoon, the scent of fire still lingered. There were burnt vehicles and remnants of tombstones in the midst of all the rubble.
The funeral home, which was started by a mother and her two sons 15 years after the Civil War, was originally located on Pryor Street. It eventually found a home on Atlanta's historic Auburn Avenue in 1940.
Dr. Clarissa Myrick-Harri is an Africana studies professor and co-founder of the Cultural Heritage Preservation and Digital Humanities Initiative at Morehouse College. She said the funeral home moving to Auburn Avenue is a hint to the history of how the Black community was growing and thriving in Atlanta.
“That was a prime location, as far as Black businesses and Atlanta were concerned because just a decade and a half later, Auburn Avenue actually would be called the richest Negro Street in the world," she said. "Not just America, in the world by Fortune magazine.”
Myrick-Harris explained that the building, which is in close proximity to several cemeteries, helped Black families bury their loved ones at a time when white-owned funeral homes would not.
"This is the days of Jim Crow, when it was established; after the Civil War; after Reconstruction and the turn of the 20th century," the historian said. "During most of its existence, it was a business that operated within a segregated system. So whether in life or death -- there was segregation.”
She said beyond its cultural impact, Cox Brothers was the first funeral home in Atlanta to use a motorized hearse.
The Atlanta Fire Department said no one was hurt in the fire and the cause of it is still under investigation.
Myrick-Harris said while parts of the building are now gone, the role this funeral home played in the Civil Rights movement lives forever.
“You had Black funeral homes that were actually essential to the Civil Rights movement -- whether for the victims of lynching or the burial of Civil Rights leaders or just contributing to Civil Rights movement organizations," she said. "The Cox Brothers contributed to these things. So they are essential not only to preparing people for death, but they have been essential over time for continuing the existence with all the survival of the Black community.”