"A Community Institution"
Alexander Funeral Home, Inc., is the oldest African American owned and managed business in Mecklenburg County. It owes its existence to the imagination, foresight and determination of its founder Zechariah Alexander, Sr. He was born March 1, 1877, the son of Andrew and Martha King Alexander. He attended Myers Street School and the normal School Biddle University, now Johnson C. Smith University. He graduated in 1896.
During his early life he worked in the building trades and as a bookkeeper. He served in the U.S. Army during the Spanish American War, with the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major of the 3rd Regiment, N.C. Volunteers, USA. In 1902 he started a 25 year career in insurance, rising to the position of District Manager for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company.
Zachariah Alexander or “Plain Z”, as his friends called him, chafed at the restrictions on his independence and ability to compete, placed on him by the Jim Crow system of segregation. In later years he liked to tell his children that, “The only way to be free of intimidation was to work for yourself. If the Negro community supports you, then you are free to speak out against injustice.” Working for a black owned insurance company gave him a greater degree of independence than many of his contemporaries. When Thomas B. Smith, one of the partners in Coles & Smith Undertakers, died in 1905, Plain Z started thinking about how insurance and undertaking could work together to create a strong business. In August of 1914, Sidney Coles died. Plain Z acted on his earlier thoughts and purchased Sidney Coles interest in the funeral home from his widow.
Over the years the firm has moved from 5th Street to Howels Arcade; on to Brevard Street between Grace AME Zion Church and the MIC Building. Then down the street to 323 South Brevard Street. In 1962 the funeral home moved to 112 North Irwin Avenue, two blocks from the old Harding High School. The Irwin Avenue location was expanded and renovated in 1980. In January of 1998 Nations Bank announced that it would undertake a major downtown development. As part of that development the Irwin Avenue site was acquired by the bank.
On June 8, 1927, Walter L. Coles died. Zechariah Alexander completed his acquisition of the firm by purchasing Walter’s interest from his widow. Over the next fifteen years the public perception of the firm was gradually changed from “Coles” to “Alexander”. By the end of World War II, the name Alexander Funeral Home was firmly fixed in the public mind. Over the years all of Zechariah’s children worked in the funeral home. Two made it a career, Zechariah Alexander, Jr. and Kelly M. Alexander, Sr. The others helped out as needed, but pursued careers in other fields.
In addition to funerals, the public grew to identify Alexander Funeral Home, with civic activism on behalf of African Americans. Members of the family were involved in civil rights activities, church work, the black fraternal world and politics. Plain Z rose to the very top of the Masonic world, serving on the United Supreme Council. Son, Fredrick Douglas Alexander broke the color barrier first on the Charlotte City Council and later in the North Carolina State Senate; Zechariah Alexander, Jr., ultimately rose to become an expert in church administration and youth programs, being ordained on June 26, 1994, at age 88; Kelly M. Alexander, Sr., served as President of the North Carolina Conference of Branches of the NAACP from 1948 until 1984 and upon his death in 1985, was serving as the Chairman of the NAACP’s national board of directors; Louis F. Alexander pursued a successful career with the United States Postal Service as a letter carrier and civic activist in his adopted home of Rutherford, NJ.
In 1954, Zechariah Alexander, Sr., died. The partnership was incorporated five years later. Under the primary leadership of Kelly M. Alexander, Sr. and Zechariah Alexander, Jr., the business continued to develop a reputation for professionalism and excellent service. They were, as the company motto proclaimed, “Courteous and prompt”.
On April 23, 1980, the company reorganized to bring younger members of the family into management, while retaining the strengths of the older generation of managers. Zechariah Alexander, Jr., became corporate Secretary; Kelly M. Alexander, Sr., Chairman; Alfred L. Alexander, a graduate of Gupton Jones College of Mortuary Science and North Carolina Central University, became President; Kelly M. Alexander, Jr., a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Vice President; Mrs. Theodora A. Rousseau, Treasurer. Robert A. Walls, Sr., a long time staff member, was promoted to operations Supervisor.
The funeral business has changed greatly since the days of Zechariah Alexander, Sr., and “handshake contracts”. Today we are a regulated industry. Our main federal regulator is the Federal Trade Commission. The North Carolina Board of Mortuary Science governs the industry at the state level.
The greatest change in the industry has been the emergence of conglomerate ownership. Conglomerates are huge corporations that own cemeteries, funeral homes, flower shops; some even manufacture funeral merchandise and operate across international boundaries. The aim of the conglomerates is to own every aspect of the funeral industry and eventually be able to dictate prices to consumers. Conglomerates presently operating in the Charlotte market have acquired cemetery and funeral home properties all over the metropolitan area.
The Alexander Funeral Home, Inc. is locally owned. Alexander’s are active participants in the day to day management of the business. The traditions of service started at the beginning of the 19th century by Thomas B. Smith, Sidney Coles, Walter Coles and Zechariah Alexander, Sr., have been passed on to today’s generation of directors, managers and employees. At Alexander’s we continue to be ready to serve your funeral needs.