African-Americans reminisce about work
"Kelsey L. Pharr, Negro Undertaker"
Interview collected by Bertha R. Comstock, Writer, January 11, 1939
1025 N.W. 2nd Ave.
"Pharr was born in Salisbury, North Carolina, not quite fifty years age. His parents, born free, were from South Carolina, where three of his grandparents were slaves. One grandfather was an Indian, but there is no record to show to what tribe he belonged. As Kelsey is the name of the master to whom his slave ancestor owes a name, he figures that Pharr must have been the Indian name, but he has no way of verifying names or dates. His mother died when he was six weeks old, and he was cared for by his grandmother and later by other female relatives or by a hired nurse. He attended school in Salisbury, where his father was employed in the railroad yards. On account of his keen sense of hearing, he was made a car inspector and served in that capacity for 26 years, being the only colored inspector in North Carolina.
Living in Salisbury gave the boy an opportunity to go to school. There was a good Negro school, grade and high school courses, and after that the Negro Normal School and the A.M.E. Zion College. Young Pharr did well in his classes and was ready for the college when he found himself facing financial problems.
"How did you earn the money?" we asked.
"Well, I cleaned three offices every day,- a doctor, a dentist and a lawyer, and received $1.50 per month from each one. Then I kept a barber shop in order, and part of the time I drove a taxi, and had a little piece of ground outside of town where I raised the feed for my horse." He had some help from home, but not enough to enable him to attend school without earning part of his expenses. He was living again with his grandmother, and she lived to see him finish his junior year at college.
"She lived to see me a man, and had helped me to a place where I could take care of myself." "She was a good Christian woman," he continued, "and it pleased her to see her grandson making good. I became superintendent of the A.M.E. Sunday School when I was sixteen years old. and continued in that office until I moved from Salisbury. That also was a pleasure and a comfort to my grandmother."
He took his Bachelor's degree at trinity Methodist College and then entered Tuff Medical College in Boston, with the intention of serving his race. He came to Miami to work as a waiter and bell hop in the old Royal Palm Hotel in 1914, in order to finish his medical course.
While in Miami, the colored undertaker died and Pharr, with three of his follow waiters, bought out the undertaking business, he giving his service and his partners furnishing the capital. He went north immediately and took a course in embalming. In six weeks' time he was able to pass the New York State examination for embalming and came back to Miami and took charge of the business. It took three years to pay his three silent partners and take over the whole business for himself. Then he realized he must expand.
Full text (Library of Congress/American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project,1936-1940).