114-year-old funeral home sees change in segregated industry

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- You know what they say. Only two things in life are certain, death and taxes. Here in Jacksonville, the connection to one of these things is especially strong.

Anthony Walton knows about the business of death in Jacksonville. He runs the historic, 114-year-old Hillman-Pratt Walton Funeral Home in the 500 block of West Beaver Street.

"I'm a creator of illusions. I create a memory of picture," he described of his profession.

Walton said he knew at a young age he would be a funeral director. "I was 8-years-old. My best friend drowned. I looked at him in the casket and he looked like an old man."

At that precise moment, Walton said he promised himself he would never allow another grieving family to experience the same thing.

Now, Walton runs one of the most historic businesses in the entire city.

It has so much character, in fact, there are obvious signs it has not changed much. The two-story brick funeral home contains many of its original artifacts, including a Bible and the wooden pews inside the chapel.

"We've been trying to preserve history, but you also have to upgrade a little bit because we are living in a different time," Walton said.

Hillman-Pratt Walton Funeral Home opened in 1900.

Lawton L. Pratt was one of the first African-Americans in the state of Florida to become a licensed funeral director.

"He was a visionary. He actually made his own caskets. He had a casket factory upstairs," Walton said.

At the time, Pratt was considered a pioneer for the African-American community.

Much like many other industries, segregation was a stronghold among funerals and burials.

Walton said, "There was a time when a white funeral director would not hire a black funeral director." It was also uncommon for a member of the African-American community to be serviced by a white funeral home.

Pratt's business became a model for all African-Americans dealing with the death of a loved one. He was also highly regarded as an instructor for mortuary students.

"Every funeral home in the state of Florida, at one point, or another, came through us," Walton said.

Jacksonville also saw the addition of many other funeral homes that catered specifically to the African-American community.

Today, Walton is one example of a business owner who is carrying Pratt's legacy into a different time.

The funeral industry is now legally integrated, but remains heavily segregated through religion, tradition and cultural practices.

But Walton believes this trend will continue to evolve. He said finances and a funeral home's reputation are now playing major roles in end of life planning.

"It's not over yet. We're still making history."


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