Black-owned Savannah business a pioneer in the mortuary industry

Black-owned Savannah business a pioneer in the mortuary industry

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - A funeral home in Savannah will receive an historical marker to honor its place in history.

The Bynes-Royall Funeral Home is being recognized as the oldest black-owned business in Savannah and longest black-owned and operated mortuary in Georgia.

“My family’s legacy is a story of blacks building the community and black entrepreneurship, so I definitely think that is something worth celebrating and worth sharing,” said Dr. Megan Wilkerson, the granddaughter of Frank and Frenchye Bynes who bought the business in 1955.

The legacy began with Royall as in Major William Royall. In 1876, Major Royall opened the Royall Undertaking Company.

“During that era, a lot of black families would have to go through the back doors to the White funeral home. So, Royall Undertaking gave families gave them a place to take their families with pride. So they could worship together and celebrate that loved one’s life,” Wilkerson said.

And there were a lot of funerals in 1876 - that’s the year Savannah was stricken by a Yellow Fever epidemic. Six percent of the population died.

It’s Royall’s work in Savannah that transformed the funeral business and paid it forward.

“Royall Undertaking trained several young, black morticians. They didn’t have a place to go and receive education in the mortuary sciences,” Wilkerson said.

Many went on to become some of the most prominent black funeral home directors in the state.

When Frank and Frenchye Bynes bought the business, they renamed it the Bynes-Royall Funeral Home and relocated the business in 1963 to a mansion on West Hall Street, a block from Forsyth Park.

It’s also where they raised their five children.

“My parents being in the funeral business especially then there was nothing glamorous about it - the kids would tease me at school,” recalled youngest daughter, Lisa Bynes Reid.

Years later, she said she asked her father why he went into the funeral business. He explained why he wanted to own his business, and that his first choice was to be a doctor but the educational path was cost prohibitive for his family, at the time.

“Lisa - this business was found during segregation. Black people couldn’t even walk through Forsyth Park. I wanted to have a business so that my family wouldn’t have to suffer the indignities that I had to suffer,” she said he told her.

Her parents went on to play a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement and efforts to desegregate Savannah. They were active members in the NAACP and hosted secret meetings upstairs led by the icons of the era Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., W.W. Law and Hosea Williams to name a few.

And now an iconic marker with the Bynes-Royall name is making history.

“To me, oh it is special, it’s well deserved well earned. A lot of times you don’t get recognition but believe me, at some point you do get recognition, and this is the time,” said daughter Frenchye Bynes Wilkerson-Jones.

The family thanked the Georgia Historical Society for its help in the process. They have plans to install the historical marker out front of the funeral home in May.

There will be a public ceremony to mark the occasion.

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