James Riley Sr., founder of the oldest black-owned funeral home, and perhaps the oldest black-owned business in Lansing, died June 24. He was 93.
James Russell Riley Sr. was born in Memphis, Tenn., on Sept. 22, 1922. He came to Michigan at 17, following graduation from high school, and got a job at the Ford plant in River Rouge.
He left to join the military when the U.S. entered World War II. Riley was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, where Deresa, his future bride, taught sewing at a small school. The couple met at a dance. They moved back to Detroit together.
When James Riley Sr. moved back to Detroit in the 1940s, his plan was to use the GI bill to attend Wayne State, where he would major in music.
He loved music. He loved jazz. He loved playing the saxophone. And he wanted to be a professional musician.
But a co-worker at the post office, where he worked full time while attending college, told him there was no money in music.
“He told him he should change his major to something like mortuary science, which at that time, my father didn’t know there was any money in that either,” James Riley Jr. said. “But he switched his major, began working in funeral homes in the Detroit area.”
Riley got his license in 1950, worked in Detroit for a few years, then decided he wanted his own funeral home. Lansing seemed like the best place to raise his family and the best business opportunity.
He moved to Lansing and started Riley Funeral Home in 1957.
Although Riley was able to transfer his job at the post office and continued to work full time, opening the business was not easy. The major problem was money – he didn’t have access to financing.
His son says he often talked about how he tried to go to the local banks back then and how the loan officers seemed almost amused that a black man would ask for a loan.
So he started from scratch. His two sisters gave him a small amount of money, and he had a couple of thousand dollars he’d saved. One sister bought him an organ.
Riley had friends in the funeral service industry in Detroit. He was able to purchase equipment from them, some gave it to him for free, and with what he put together, he opened up Riley Funeral Home at 326 W. Main St. in Lansing.
He did have one advantage: He already owned his own limousine, but no one seems to know why.
“My father often liked to brag that when I was born, I came from the hospital in a limo,” Riley said. “He rented it to all the local funeral homes in Detroit when they needed an extra car. It was a way for him to earn extra money. He knew everyone in all the African American funeral homes in Detroit at that time.”
The first year the business was open, they had only seven funeral services.The second year was a little better; they had 12.
“There was a lot of resistance from the African American community from certain individuals who felt they didn’t need a black funeral home,” Riley said. “They felt that a black man really couldn’t be a quality funeral director, and so, the first 10 or 15 years, it was really trying to prove to the African American community that we were a credible business. It took a lot of time to win acceptance.”
The Lansing community had been going to established funeral homes at that time, which were the same ones that are in the area now – Gorsline Runciman, Estes-Leadley and Palmer Bush. And many people were very comfortable with that.
In 1963, due to the construction of Interstate 496, the funeral home needed to move. There was an apartment house sitting on the property at 426 W. St. Joseph St., and Riley was able to purchase that property and build a new funeral home.
It wasn’t until around 1965 that Riley retired from the post office and ran the funeral home full-time. When he retired in 1993 and passed the business to his son, he was handling well over 150 services each year.
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