For almost a third of the Newark area’s history and for four generations of the family, there has been a Churchman involved in the city.
At mid-year—June 15, 1999, to be exact—the Churchman Funeral Home will mark its 100th anniversary. Just before the turn of the century, the Rev. James E. Churchman began the business at 3 Baldwin St., Orange. At the time, he was only the second African-American employed as a funeral director in all of Essex County. Not only was the family patriarch remembered for running his entrepreneurial endeavors, he was also considered an orator and lecturer of some note. The Churchman funeral hearse, coach and team of horses was a first for the black community, too. Before his death in 1917 at age 43, Rev. Churchman had expanded the business to Morristown, Plainfield, Washington, D.C., and, of course, Newark.
The second generation began with James E. Churchman Sr., who started a business in Orange at 23 Centre St. and also expanded operations into nearby communities. He died in June 1983, at 82, after remaining active well into his senior years. James Churchman Jr. took over the business, then on Parrow Street, from his father and opened a Newark facility in 1924. The Orange branch was to close in 1944. During World War II, he served in the Navy and afterwards supported a number of veterans organizations, including the Guyton Callahan American Legion Post 152, the Ruffer Lee Chapter 75 of the Disabled American Veterans, and the Newark Barracks 90 of the Veterans of World War I. He was a lifelong member of the National Funeral Directors and supporter of the NAACP. In addition to a sister and daughter, his heir and business successor was James Churchman Jr. Churchman senior’s wife and partner was Gladys Churchman, who passed away in 1974.
To most people who kept up with community affairs in the Newark of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Gladys Churchman was a known and respected name. Wife of James E. Churchman Sr., and mother of James Jr., she not only was associated with a successful business, she 'made it on her own' through her lifelong association with the Friendly Neighborhood House, the Newark Board of Education and many other civic and church activities. Essentially, she was one of those people who made community life just a little better by being a part of it. Mrs. Churchman was born in Ansonia, Conn. on Oct. 28, 1902, and moved with her parents to Newark in 1910. She attended Central High School and Newark State Teachers College. In 1931, she began volunteer work at the Friendly Neighborhood House for a short time. Yet this engagement turned into an involvement that lasted 37 years. Later in her career she noted that activities at the center did not cease even in the heat of the 1967 riots, when the boys continued their basketball schedule just as usual. Mrs. Churchman credited Stella B. Wright with persuading her to volunteer at the center as a young matron, simply by asking her to give of her time for underprivileged youth. She agreed, not realizing the extent of the commitment. In the early days, the center’s business was conducted in a saloon at West Kinney and Barclay streets, Mrs. Churchman said. That was where they served hot lunches at noon and conducted recreation programs after school. For a while the agency moved to the first floor of an old factory building on Morton and Broome streets. In 1929, Louis Bamberger donated property for a building at 199 Howard St. Finally, in February 1931, Mrs. Churchman went on staff at a salary that, she said, 'would keep me in stockings and spending money.' Within a short time she became assistant director, and by 1945 was appointed executive director. Eventually, the Friendly Neighborhood House included a day nursery and programs for older children of working mothers. It was a center for a Boy Scout troop, and in many ways was a home-away-from-home for a host of children. Eventually, the Howard Street site gave way to urban renewal and found a new location in 1963 within the confines of Scudder Homes. 'We had lost our identity in the new building and our flexibility,' Gladys Churchman said. For more than a few youngsters, the center helped fill in when parents could not, children who needed the assurance that someone cared about them. For some, the neighborhood house filled in for parents who were unable to provide that nurturing. In a 1967 Newark News article, the executive director stated, 'Young people need love and guidance, but they need even more now. Understanding, interest, love and supervision are (what) every child needs.' The News, in turn, described her as 'warm and outgoing,' the very symbol of the Friendly Neighborhood House to generations of children who have passed through it. She has loved them all and has watched them grow into good citizens as teachers, nurses, doctors and social workers.'
While the neighborhood house was her primary vocational concern, Gladys Churchman took on other tasks, including service on the Newark Board of Education, the Mental Health Association of Essex County, the Newark Pre-School Council, the YM-YWCA, the Central Ward Juvenile Conference Committee, and the Newark Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women. She also was chairman of the Newark City Hospital School of Nursing. The two enterprises that absorbed a lifetime of interest included scouting and church activities. Her Girl Scout times were among her happiest. ‘‘We used to do a lot of things we don’t do now. We used to do signaling with Morse Code and with flags,' she said. 'I remember going camping with the girls. We used to take weekend hikes at Eagle Rock.' One year there was a Community Chest parade. 'I had a broken leg,' said Churchman. 'The girls turned out very nicely, but they wanted to push me down Broad Street in a wheel chair. They wanted their captain with them.' Those were indeed fond memories. Churchman was also very involved in church activities as a lay reader, a member of St. Ann’s Guild, and as a co-chairman of the executive board of the Women of Trinity. The Gladys Churchman story is indeed a rich one, one filled with activity, accomplishment and compassion—a good legacy by anybody’s standards.
The Third Generation
James E. Churchman Jr., son of James Sr. and Gladys, was born on September 1, 1924, educated at South Side High School, attended Howard University and graduated from the McAllister School of Embalming. During World War II he served in the Navy in the South Pacific and became a member of the VFW and was past commander of the Callahan American Legion Post No. 152. As a young man, he distinguished himself by becoming the first African-American from Newark to receive the Eagle Scout award. A Star-Ledger headline on March 13, 1941, reported 'Negro Boy made Eagle Scout, First of His Race for Newark.' Appropriately, the teenager was honored at the Friendly Neighborhood House, home of Troop 67, where he pledged 'to make all of you proud of me.' To obtain this high award Churchman had to pass 11 required merit examinations and 10 others in optional fields. In addition to his professional involvement as funeral director, he served the community as a member of the NAACP, Frontiers International, the YM-YWCA and the United Appeal Campaign. Churchman was appointed to the Newark Central Planning Board by Mayor Leo Carlin, and served on the Essex Grand Jury Association. He was also a vestryman of old St. Philip’s Episcopal Church before its merger with Trinity Cathedral. Interestingly enough, he also ran for state Senate exactly 50 years after his grandfather, the Rev. James E. Churchman, ran as a Republican candidate for the General Assembly. Although unsuccessful in his quest for the Trenton office, he conducted an interesting campaign in which he asked state officials to ban statewide activities of the KKK, stood up in defense of Republican gubernatorial candidate Wayne Dumont’s appeal to Gov. Richard J. Hughes to appoint a black cabinet member, and pushed for a realignment of the proposed Rt. 78 along the Elizabeth River bed rather than through the middle of Newark’s section. The fourth generation of Churchman funeral directors are James E. Churchman 3rd and Dr. Edith Churchman, licensed by the State of New Jersey in 1976. The tradition continues.
Dr. Thomas Bell
Dr. Thomas Bell was one of Newark’s unsung heroes in the fight to admit Negro physicians to practice at City Hospital in the 1930s and 1940s. Born in 1883 in the South, he was a resident of Newark from 1923 until his death in 1946. Originally from Louisville, Ky., he moved to Tennessee and then to New York City, before settling in Newark. He graduated from Knoxville College and received a medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1910. He spent the first five years of his medical practice in Middlesboro, Ky. and later became a resident physician for contagious diseases at Willard Park Hospital. He also was a clinical assistant at Vanderbilt Clinic in Columbia, Tenn. In 1925 he became a physician in the Tuberculosis Division of the Newark Health Department, but his life’s crusade was the inclusion of blacks into the local medical fraternity. His application for a position in the City Hospital was repeatedly 'lost,' but 'he loved and fought for his race until the last.' Bell’s struggle to get black physicians, interns and nurses into this hospital were met with statements such as: 'I’m told that the appointment of a colored physician would upset the patients and the staff.' So, he wrote more than a dozen cities where black persons had been included on hospital staffs, asking what the reaction had been. The responses were that there had been little or no reaction and the procedure could hardly be called unusual at this time. Furthermore, Bell argued that Newark annually spent more than $500,000 to run its medical system, and that since local blacks help pay the expenses, they deserve to be part of the system, too. Bell also noted that the integrated hospital at Jersey City, just six miles away, functioned very well. In 1946, Dr. E. Mae McCarroll became the first black doctor to be admitted to practice at Newark City Hospital, a credit to his struggle to integrate the hospital. In June 1947, during a 90-degree heat wave, he suffered a stroke at work. He returned to work but died later in the day of a heart attack. As a member of the Anti-Discrimination Council of New Jersey, the New Jersey Urban League, treasurer of the Interracial Council of Newark, as examining physician of the Selective Service Board No. 22, as a member of the Executive Committee of the New Jersey Tuberculosis League, as a board member of the Fuld Neighborhood House, and a past president of the North Jersey Medical Society, he was always working for a better place in a better Newark for the African-American community. To the end of his life, he made use of his talents. W. E.B. DuBois wrote of him in the Chicago Daily Defender, 'My friend Thomas Bell is dead at the unreasonable age of 60. I have known him intimately for 30 years. He has been among my few close friends, and his family has been almost as dear to me as my own. He died scalpel in hand, and suffering about him. He was a great physician.' (Star-Ledger, May 1998).
Dr. Clarence S. Janifer Sr.
Dr. Clarence S. Janifer Sr. was one of the first Negro physicians appointed to the staff of City Hospital, where he had been a member of the pediatric staff since 1948. He had been affiliated with the Newark Department of Health since 1921. Born in Newark on March 13, 1886, he attended Newark schools and graduated from Syracuse University. His medical degree was obtained from New York Homeopathic Medical College. During the war he served overseas in the 372nd Infantry and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He was a Mason and member of numerous many societies, including the Essex Medical Society, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of General Practice, the New Jersey Medical Association, the National Medical Association. He also active in the Old Timer’s Athletic Club and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Not only was Janifer a well-known physician, an early African-American doctor practicing at a previously all-white hospital, he represented a growing black middle class community in Newark. He met Una Maria Janifer, his wife of more than 40 years, while attending Syracuse University. She was born in Auburn, N.Y., graduated in 1911, and taught briefly in Texas, Virginia and at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She was active in the Pilgrim Baptist Church, a former treasurer of the New Jersey Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, and secretary of the Urban League. She also was active in the YM-YWCA, the National Association of College Women, the Lit-Muse Club, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and a member of the well-known Phyllis Wheatley Club. She was also president of the Newark Council of United Church Women and a member of the State Division Against Discrimination. In 1962, she received the Brotherhood Award from the Newark Human Rights Committee. Mrs. Janifer referred to her civic activities as her 'responsibilities' and took the obligation of membership seriously. She died in October 1963. Clarence Jr., an oceanographer employed in a civilian capacity as a private citizen with the U. S. Navy, died while engaged in atomic submarine research. His wife, Josephine J. Janifer, former director of the Public Employees Program, was also a longtime president of the Board of Trustees of the Newark Public Library. She is now retired.
James E. Abrams
James E. Abrams was born in Jersey City in 1911 and moved to Newark in 1937. He was the first African-American to be elected Essex County Surrogate, but died at 58 while waiting for heart surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. After growing up in the New Jersey’s second largest city, he attended Lincoln University, where he earned a teaching certificate. At the time, however, it was more lucrative to work for the railroad as a dining car waiter. A Jacksonville, Fla., classmate of Abrams’ became a high school principal, but Abrams boasted that he was making more money. It was left to Robert Hartgrove of Jersey City, former deputy attorney general, to twist his arm and make Abrams 'want' to attend law school. So off to Howard Law School he went in 1937. Five years later, he was admitted to the state bar. During World War II, he served as an appeals attorney for Selective Service, and was an attorney with the Federal Office of Price Stabilization. He also served as Newark Civil Defense attorney and became chief investigator for the State Commission on the Condition of the Urban Colored Population. From 1956 to 1962 he was assistant corporation counsel for Newark under Mayor Leo Carlin as well as one of the first Juvenile Conference Committee referees appointed by the state Supreme Court. Abrams was part of the phalanx of African-American civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s that kept Newark’s rights movement from lagging or disappearing, not only because he was the first black county surrogate, but because he took an active role on the executive board of the New Jersey Urban League and the redress committee of the NAACP. He also was a member of the personnel committee of the Felix Fuld Neighborhood House in Newark and served on the advisory board of the Newark Boys Club. In his role with the civil rights movement, he seemed to do all the right things at the proper moment. He died in 1963 and his early death cut short a good life. The funeral services were held at Newark’s Trinity Cathedral.