If you were lucky enough to have Alice Theresa Baysmore-Manns bury you, she would have done so dressed in an exceptionally beautiful coat. Fawn-gray cashmere, with a voluptuous fur collar, a red-silk lining, and a self-belt, it was the kind of elegant, proper coat that signified the decorum you’d want at a funeral. Even Manns’s children, who attended most of the funerals she directed, would be turned out for the occasion. “When you rode in the hearse, you’d have your little bonnet on your head, your little shoes, your little stockings, your little white gloves,” Renata Manns-Henderson, one of Manns’s daughters, recalled recently. “To this day, my family doesn’t go anywhere without our hats and gloves.”
Alice Manns (1935-2022) passed away in January. Before her death, she was named as the oldest living licensed Black female mortician in Baltimore, Maryland, by the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association. She was born into the profession. In 1902, her ancestor Robert Elliott was one of the early African Americans in Baltimore to officially receive an undertaker’s license. His establishment, the Robert A. Elliott Funeral Home, came to occupy a stout three-story building at the corner of Caroline and Biddle Streets. It flourished. At that time, Baltimore had one of the largest Black populations in the country. Funeral homes and cemeteries were racially separate. In the time of Jim Crow, Black funeral directors were not allowed to join professional associations. (In 1904, they formed their own group, the Colored Funeral Directors Association, which would later become the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association.) Funeral homes often were family businesses. When Elliott died, his widow took over. She had long assisted her husband at the home, and was eventually awarded a license of her own, in 1916.
The Robert A. Elliott Funeral Home, later called the Elickson Funeral Home, was passed from one female member of the family to the next. Manns’s great-grandmother, her grandmother, and her mother all took their turns at the helm. Manns’s father, who served in the Second World War, had lived through the attack on Pearl Harbor and returned from the war shell-shocked, but he assisted his wife in the running of the home, mostly doing hairdressing on the deceased. Manns grew up playing in the parlor of the funeral home, attending services, watching her mother greet and console families and prepare her remarks. In high school, she was involved with an etiquette-and-manners club known as the Cotillions. Apparently, she was recruited by an order of nuns after high school. Although she was tempted, she went on to what was then Morgan State College, and later got her funeral director’s license, joining her mother in the business. When her mother retired, she managed it on her own. Her husband, Charles Manns, pitched in now and then—he had played semi-professional football, and Manns-Henderson said that he was good at picking up and moving bodies—but Manns ran the show.
She was very particular about the tone she set at her funeral services, which was formal, maybe even a little old-fashioned. She loved her job. She was passionate about doing it well. She was undaunted by the unusualness of her position at the head of a business usually run by men. “Back in the day, females who worked at funeral homes were just in the office, not conducting services,” Dr. Hari Close II, the president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, explained. “Because Mrs. Manns was from the Elliott family, she could break that barrier. But, when you think about it, the very first funeral directors were women. I won’t go all Biblical now, but since the beginning women always were the ones washing and anointing bodies.”
The Robert A. Elliott Funeral Home was a neighborhood hub. Throughout history, Black funeral homes were central to their communities in more than the expected ways. During the Civil Rights era, activists were sometimes transported hidden in hearses, allowing them to travel undetected. A funeral director such as Manns had a position almost as central as a preacher. She knew every family in the community and had buried generations of them. She conducted funerals for free if a family couldn’t pay, and if someone was hard up for cash or in need of new clothes she could be turned to for help.
After Manns retired, the home as she knew it, which had been sustained for five generations of her family, came to an end. The building is now condos. But Manns kept her funeral coat and, in 2020, when she was invited to take part in a Black Lives Matter parade, she pulled it out of her closet. “She could still wear it!” Close said. “I was so awed by that kind of coat that I took pictures of it.” Manns was proud to be in the parade, although she didn’t like the informal way that some of the young women dressed, Manns-Henderson said. “She believed that, for the occasion, you had to dress in a certain way.”