Hidden History: Legacy lives on at R.S. Lewis and Sons funeral home

Hidden History
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In Memphis, the Lewis family is the perfect example a black-owned business with rich history.

Well-known R.S. Lewis and Sons funeral home has been around more than 100 years — because it’s more than a funeral home.

Behind the doors of R.S. Lewis and Sons lies a lot of black history. It was started by Robert Lewis Sr. in the 1900s and later maintained by his son Robert Jr.

From day one, their heart to serve was a key ingredient to their success.

“His motto was that we can’t bury everybody, but those we do bury, we give them the best service possible, and he hung his hat on that,” Director of Operations Andrew Jones said.

Growing a business during a time when African-Americans couldn’t get bank loans wasn’t easy.

The success of the Lewis family extends beyond what started on the corner of Beale Street.

Lewis was also a pioneer in baseball. He built Memphis’ first large negro baseball park and managing the Memphis Red Sox, where that heart for service helped black players who came to Memphis during segregation.

“They housed those guys, the players, because you couldn’t check into the Peabody,” Jones said. “You couldn’t stay in other places.”

But his funeral home was always Lewis’ first love.

The family was given the opportunity to handle Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s remains after he was assassinated in Memphis, though he never used that to make a name for himself.

“You see the magnitude of people coming through the chapel,” Jones said. “Mr. Lewis never made it his business to promote the fact that he handled Dr. King.”

His work spoke for itself, as the City of Memphis honored the family with a special resolution for their contribution to the community.

“It speaks to the volume of services that Robert Lewis served to this community,” Jones said.

Even 100 years later with new ownership, the foundation Robert Lewis Sr. and Jr. built lives on.

“I think if it wasn’t for the foundation that he laid, then subsequently we would not have been able to not only take this business from one location to two locations, we have two locations, and because of the foundation he made we’ve been able to grow the business,” current owner Tyrone Burroughs said.

Robert Lewis Jr. worked at the funeral home until his death in 2011. His wife lived to see the funeral home celebrate its centennial back in 2014.

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