BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Bythewood Funeral Home/Orangeburg’s oldest black-owned business | National News

The County of Orangeburg has been blessed with some of the most successful Black and white businesses in the State of South Carolina.

One of the most prominent Black businesses in our city has been Bythewood Funeral Home. This institution has provided for the people a total of 111 years of service.

Death is a universal experience that all humans living on this earth will go through. It also is a life situation of dealing with mourning and burial rituals of loved ones. And that is what the Bythewood Funeral Home has been doing for a very long time.

Alton E. Bythewood was the son of William and Mary Bythewood and was born in 1880 in the Beaufort Township of Beaufort County. His father was a carpenter in Beaufort.

In 1906, Alton married Mary A. Sasportas in Orangeburg at Trinity M.E. Church. They had three children, Alton, T.K. and Mary.

It is said that before the Bythewood Funeral Home was started, A.E. Bythewood worked at the white-owned Dukes Undertaking business. Dukes was started here in Orangeburg in 1896 when there were no Black-owned funeral homes. This is how A.E. received his training.

In 1930, after Clifton and I.S. Harley had joined Hampy Dukes, the business became Dukes-Harley Funeral Home.

Since the year 1907, Bythewood Funeral Home has provided services to the Black community of Orangeburg and other areas of the state.

The funeral home is located near the downtown business section of Orangeburg. On the first floor, funerals were held. Then on the second floor, the space was known as the Bythewood Hall. This area was for parties, receptions, meetings and all other types of events that Black groups sponsored. By the 1960s, there were fewer and fewer events held at Bythewood Hall.

The Pittsburgh Courier reported on Jun 4, 1927, “Claflin Defeats Paine College In Tennis Tournament — On the last leg of their dual tennis tournament Alton Bythewood overcame the Paine College ace’s lead and decisively won the singles honor in the first annual tennis matches between Claflin and Paine.

“On Friday when the doubles were played Alton Bythewood and T.K. Bythewood brothers, were paired against Cherry and Floyd of Paine and the Claflin pair easily won the last leg on the cup by a score of 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 and 6-3.”

The T&D printed on May 16, 1931, “Bythewood Funeral Home — One of the largest colored funeral and undertaking establishments in South Carolina is that of A.E. Bythewood, at Orangeburg. Excellent motor equipment is furnished by this firm, which has been in business in this section for many years.

“The equipment of the firm includes a modern motor ambulance and two motor hearses. The firm stands well among the colored residents of the community and often handles funerals from points as far distant as forty and fifty miles from Orangeburg.

“A.E. Bythewood, head of the firm has for many years been a leader in his race, and is highly esteemed by the colored population of the city.”

Then, The T&D printed on January 26, 1935, “Bythewood Owns Modern Business — Negro Funeral Home Offers Every Facility to Patrons — One of the most progressive business firms in Orangeburg and which has aided materially in the development and the progress of the city and this section, is the Bythewood Funeral Home of which A.E. Bythewood is the owner and proprietor.

“This firm is located in its own home right in the heart of the business district and is modernly equipped in every particular.

“Specializing in the conduct of funerals, both large and small, the firm has its own individual licensed embalmers who are supplied with all the most modern equipment and paraphenalis to perform that class of work.

“So well-known is the firm that many of their calls come from points as far distant from Orangeburg as fifty miles and in every case they have ever handled they have given complete satisfaction in every respect.”

Later, on Dec. 7, 1935, The T&D posted an article written by T.K. Bythewood — “Claflin Takes The Championship — The Claflin Panthers closed the season here this afternoon in a blaze of glory, when they defeated the Georgia State Tigers and clinched the South Atlantic Conference championship for the third successive year. By virtue of this achievement, the Conference Cup will become the permanent property of Claflin.”

Because of the modern situations that the funeral home gave, the business became the most popular for the services that they performed for Blacks in the surrounding areas.

On Aug. 24, 1937, The T&D printed another article on the Bythewood Funeral Home. “Bythewood’s Oldest Negro Undertaking Establishment — Business Started in Year 1907; Now Thirty Years Old — Occupy Large Brick Building — The Bythewood Funeral Home is the oldest and largest colored funeral establishment in Orangeburg County. The business having started in 1907 as Bythewood and Ballard.

“When the business started, it occupied a wooden building on the present site, the corner of West Amelia and North Middleton streets. This building was destroyed by fire and replaced with the present large two-story brick structure. In 1923, further expansion of the business required more building space and an addition was built on to the rear of the building.

“Today, the Bythewood Building is a very spacious building, a large part of it being used in the conduct of Bythewood Funeral Home.

“In 1919, the business was taken over by A.E. Bythewood and he has been the sole owner since that time. Under his entire direction the business has been developed into one of the largest colored mortuary establishments in the lower part of the state.

“The huge building occupied by the Bythewood Funeral Home contains a double lobby, office, family room, display room, slumber room, preparation room and store room. Besides those special rooms there is a large chapel. The interior is appropriately decorated with an atmosphere of beauty and still conveniently decorated for an institution giving this class of service. A home like atmosphere prevails throughout the building.

“Thirty Years Serving the Colored People of Orangeburg

“During the thirty years, A.E. Bythewood has been in the undertaking business in Orangeburg and has rendered a very sympathetic service to the colored people of the county. Today, he has associated with him his son T.K. Bythewood, who is in active charge and direction of the business.

“The Bythewood Funeral Home has two licensed embalmers who specialize in life-like embalming. Both men because of their long experience are considered as outstanding men in their profession. In addition, there is a staff of men under the direction of A.E. Bythewood and T.K. Bythewood in directing funeral services in a prompt, dignified and sympathetic manner.

“The motor equipment includes two hearses, two family cars and ambulance. In addition, a large display and stock room of funeral supplies includes caskets, coffins, vaults, dresses, suits and floral decorations. Supplies are sufficiently large to make an immediate selection of necessary articles with which to conduct a simple or an elaborate funeral service.

“With the reputation established by the Bythewood Funeral Home, it has a national rating and recognition whereby they can arrange to have bodies shipped from every part of the country for burial in Orangeburg, with all arrangements made for embalming and services to be conducted in this city when the body arrives. Several burials were handled this way during the past year in a manner that pleased the family and relatives living in Orangeburg who were relieved of the trouble and complicated details necessary in cases of this kind.

“The Bythewood Funeral Home because of their long association with the community have taken a very interested part in the Tri-County Hospital project and extend to officials of the hospital their felicitations and best wishes for the successful operation of the institution in its future service to the community.”

Not long after that article, The T&D printed on Sept. 8, 1937, “A.E. Bythewood Taken By Death — Funeral services for A.E. Bythewood prominent funeral director of this city will be held at Trinity M.E. Church, Thursday afternoon at three o’clock. He will be placed in the church Thursday morning and will be in state until the hour of the funeral.”

After his funeral, on Sept. 18, 1937, The T&D printed an advertisement. “Bythewood Funeral Home — The passing of our beloved Founder, Mr. A.E. Bythewood, will in no way affect the policies which he inaugurated during his Thirty years as head of this firm.

“The Good Will of the Community, which he has passed on to us is the greatest heritage of all and will be cherished through our coming years of service to the public.

“The Dignified, Sympathetic, and Efficient Service, for which the name Bythewood has been known, will be maintained as a permanent policy of this Home.

“Our Equipment is modern and we use only the best Quality of Goods.

“We Specialize in Life-Like Embalming and Beautifying Your Love Ones.”

At the death of A.E., his son T.K. took over the business and ran it the same way his father had done for 30 years.

T.K., at the time of his father’s death, was a member of the Claflin College Board of Trustees. In the book, “On A Hilltop High — The Origin and History of Claflin College to 1984,” by Blinzy L. Gore, T.K. said “that by 1923 nearly every student at Claflin University owned a violin.”

Then, The T&D printed on Aug. 7, 1942, “Mock Air Raid Program Is Approved Last Night — The tentative program for the Civilian Defense Demonstration to be staged on the football field at the county fairgrounds next Tuesday evening, was given approval at a staff meeting last night.

“It is announced that this demonstration will be staged entirely for the white residents of the city and for the white members of the Civilian Defense organization. This is being done at the suggestion of T.K. Bythewood, temporarily at the head of the Negro Civilian Defense activities in the city just at this time.”

Although the Bythewood family’s complexion was so close to being white, the family and the Black community knew and understood the conditions and position of life in which they lived and operated. T.K. became more involved with the involvement of Blacks in Orangeburg when it came to public information.

He spoke up for all and any matters that the Blacks of our community should be concerned with. T.K. was also fully aware of his position when it came to the Black folks of Orangeburg, especially during the civil rights movement.

A gravesite is supposed to be a sacred space a space for reflection to honor those who went before us. Evelyn Buck, 91, regularly visits what’s now called the Cookeville Buck Cemetery outside Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a place where Black families have laid loved ones to rest for more than 100 years. It is where Buck’s husband, Walter, is buried. “He was a policeman. He was a veteran. I wanted him to be buried at the veterans cemetery. But he said no. He said he wanted to be buried beside his mom and dad,” Buck shared.The cemetery had been long neglected until a local archivist became interested. Over the years, the cemetery has been restored through numerous local collaborative efforts. Similar stories are playing out at other Black cemeteries in cities across the country. In Cleveland, junior cadets are helping other groups raise money to buy missing headstones that belong to Black Civil War veterans.

On May 25, 1944, The T&D printed, “Tolbert Group Meets in City — Discuss Pre-Convention Plans to Insure Seating of Delegation — Headed by Joseph (Tireless Joe) Tolbert of Ninety-Six, a Republican delegation to the National Convention which meets in Chicago June 26 conferred here yesterday on pre-convention plans.

“The Tolbert wing represents the old-line Republican party in this state dating from 1868 and the discussion here yesterday was aimed to insure the seating of the delegates of this faction in the national gathering. The meeting was held in the Bythewood Hall.”

At that time, there were some Blacks in Orangeburg who were still members of the Republican Party from the days of Reconstruction.

From 1937 until his death, T.K. Bythewood carried on the business in the same manner that his father had done during the first 30 years of the funeral home. For the next 52 years, T.K. was the owner and operator of the business.

While on the board of trustees at Claflin, the serious threat of the continued existence of the college came to a point that something needs to be done to assist the school in its continuation. T.K. said, “he did not feel that deficit spending and borrowing should become a way of life.”

On Sept. 11, 1963, The T&D posted an article during the civil rights time here in Orangeburg. “Future Of State Parks Talked At Court House — T.K. Blythewood, Negro undertaker was the first to advocate complete integrated opening of the state parks. He urged the state to be consistent. He noted that while there is a law on the statute books that funds be withdrawn from an integrated school.

“A native of Orangeburg, Bythewood is a 1930 graduate of Claflin College, where he received the B.S. degree. Over the past years, Bythewood has traveled extensively throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, South America and the Caribbean.

“Bythewood is married to the former Miss Emilie Greene of Charleston and they are the parents of two children, both graduates of Claflin College.”

From the time that the business was started, Bythewood and all of the funeral homes in Orangeburg provided an ambulance and funeral services with their cars. In February 1969, the provision of an ambulance was discontinued and the service was shifted to county and city governments.

T.K. told the Orangeburg delegation that, “the ambulance service was rendered as ‘public service.’ He said, ‘his firm received between 150 and 200 ambulance calls a year, with only 25 per cent being for emergency purposes.”

The ambulance service by the funeral homes was discontinued throughout the county after May 1, 1969. Today, this service is known as EMS.

T.K. was a great speaker for our community. The T&D reported, “On February 12, 1970, the Afro-American Club held its annual ‘Soul Banquet’ in the school’s cafeteria. T.K. Bythewood was the guest speaker.”

He was also the speaker for the Matriculation Day service at Claflin. The T&D reported on Sept. 12, 1976, “The speaker for the day will be T.K. Bythewood, Sr., of Orangeburg. A businessman and senior member of the Claflin College Board of Trustees. His subject will be ‘Getting Your Money’s Worth at Claflin.'”

In 1983, the officials said there were about 360 funeral businesses in the state. Sixty percent were Black-owned and they conducted a total of 7,800 funerals in 1982. As time progressed in Orangeburg, more Black-owned funeral homes were formed.

On Jan. 29, 1989, The T&D printed, “T.K. Bythewood — An Orangeburg Leader is Lost with His Death — Orangeburg lost a leader with the death of Thaddeus Kinloch ‘T.K.’ Bythewood on Thursday.

“Business, government, education, religion: Mr. Bythewood played key roles in all for more than half-century. His voice will be missed.

“It will be missed in the business community. Mr. Bythewood had the distinction of operating, for 50 years, the oldest black-owned business in Orangeburg. Bythewood Funeral Home was founded by his father, Alton Elvin Bythewood, in 1907. The funeral home continues today under the Bythewood name.

“At Claflin College, the loss of T.K. Bythewood brings deep sorrow. In many ways, he was ‘Mr. Claflin,’ a 47-year trustee who was ever mindful of ways to strengthen the foundation of the United Methodist College. He had retired from the board just last year, having served as chairman of the trustees’ Building and Grounds Committee.

“He served his alma mater well (he actually obtained his bachelor of science degree in 1930 when the school was still known as Claflin University) as a driving force in seeing the college’s historic buildings renovated, a task that will continue into the coming years. He loved Claflin College and was the person to see when it came to knowing the school’s history.

“His efforts at Claflin were tied to his commitment to the United Methodist Church. Mr. Bythewood was a life member of Trinity United Methodist, where he taught the adult Bible Sunday school class. He also served in the role of guest teacher for other churches.

“In the governmental arena, Mr. Bythewood played a role in Orangeburg’s growth as a former chairman of the city planning commission, serving 17 years on the panel.

“T.K. Bythewood was a voice of reason, a wise counsel. He was in demand as a church and public speaker. His wisdom helped bring Orangeburg through the difficult period in race relations that followed the 1968 shooting death of three students at South Carolina State College. He worked for and lived to see a better day.

“Mr. Bythewood’s way was not to be the one who made headlines with his efforts. He was effective in a more low-key manner.

“Veteran Orangeburg Mayor E.O. Pendarvis says, T.K. Bythewood was a man whose advice he sought and respected — a man with the ‘well-being and interest of the community as a whole’ at heart. I know he was an outstanding citizen.

“T.K. Bythewood’s leadership will be missed.”

On Feb. 5, 1989, the successor to Bythewood Funeral Home was announced. “Bythewood Funeral Home — Established 1907 Continues Service — the passing of our beloved, Mr. T.K. Bythewood, will in no way affect the policies which he inaugurated during his sixty years as head of this firm.

“The goodwill of the community, which he has passed on to us, is the greatest heritage of all and will be cherished through our coming years of service to the public.

“The dignified, sympathetic, and efficient service for which the name BYTHEWOOD has been known will be maintained as a permanent policy of this establishment, under the management of John F. Lessane Jr. For the Best in Quality and Service.”

From 1989 until his death on Oct. 22, 2018, John Lessane operated the Bythewood Funeral Home in the same manner as the original owners, A.E. and T.K. Bythewood. For nearly 30 years, Lessane carried on the business and served the folks in Orangeburg in the same way A.E. and T.K. had done during their time.

The wife of T.K., Mrs. Emilie Bythewood, passed in 1997 here in Orangeburg. She helped T. K. with the funeral home for many years and was a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The survivors included a daughter, Alvan E., and a son, Thaddeus K. Jr.

T.K. Jr. passed in Ft. Myers, Florida, on Nov. 20, 2018. He was funeralized here in Orangeburg at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, with the burial taking place at the Orangeburg Cemetery. Alvan E. is the last of T.K.’s children still living. She lives in Florida.

On Dec. 9, 2018, a new management of the Bythewood Funeral Home posted an ad in The T&D.

“Bythewood Funeral Home — ‘Service With Dignity and Honor’ FOUNDED 1907-1195 Amelia St. Orangeburg, SC 29115 — Phone: (803)534-3301 — The BYTHEWOOD FUNERAL HOME is now under the management of Sheera Disher Yates. The Dignified, Sympathetic and Conscientious Service that has been rendered during the past 111 years by the Bythewood Establishment “with reverence for the deceased and compassionate care for the living” will be continued.”

The Bythewood Funeral Home was the oldest Black-owned business to ever operate in Orangeburg County. The operation was started in 1907 and so far lasted until 2018. There is no other information that has been recorded about the business providing funeral services to our community in the future.

During the time that T.K. was in charge, he helped to make our city and county a most outstanding place to live and work. He knew and understood what it would take to move the people forward and prosper into a better way of life. T. K. was simply, “a people person.”

Therefore, Bythewood Funeral Home has provided 111 years of service to the people of Orangeburg County, South Carolina. We the people, offer our thanks to the Bythewood family for their most outstanding works that they have completed in our community.