William Carrington March Biography
Began Working as a Child, Went to War, Worked Two Full-Time Jobs
Funeral home director
In 1946, William March was a young man recently returned from war, with a wife and a baby to support, when he got the idea of becoming a funeral director to serve the black community in his hometown of Baltimore. To make his idea a reality, he had to gain the support of his wife, overcome prejudice in his city, and work two full-time jobs for many years. March did all these things, and the business he started in 1957 grew to be one of the largest black funeral homes in the United States. However, March Funeral Homes became much more than a successful family business which could be proudly passed on to the next generation. Inspired by March's deep spiritual belief in caring for the poor and unfortunate, March Funeral Homes also became a symbol of the compassion, professionalism, and dignity that William March showed throughout his career.
March was born on February 4, 1923, in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina. His father, Carrington March, was a Lutheran minister, and his mother, Georgia March, worked at home raising young William and his brother and two sisters. In 1928, Carrington March took a ministry job in Baltimore and brought his family there to live. However, the Marches soon discovered that there was racial prejudice even within the church, when Carrington was removed from his Baltimore ministry because he was black. Lutheran officials offered him a church of his own in Selma, Alabama, but the elder March refused to take his family to the deep South, preferring instead to assist at various Baltimore churches.
Began Working as a Child
The end of the 1920s saw the beginning of the Great Depression in the United States, with hard economic times for all working people. Young William March began to contribute to his family's income when he was ten years old. He took a job selling newspapers, rising at three o'clock each morning to go to work. The small sum he earned was used by his sister Thelma to pay her streetcar fare to school. March continued to sell papers until he was 14, then he went to work setting pins at a local bowling alley. He also started high school, first at Dunbar High School in east Baltimore, then at Douglas High on the west side of the city.
The unusual arrangement of Baltimore's black high schools frequently made it difficult for African American students to complete their education. Black high school students had to attend two different schools: Dunbar for ninth and tenth grades and Douglas for eleventh and twelfth. Since the two schools were located on opposite sides of town, it was extremely inconvenient for students to get to one or the other. Many students, lacking the streetcar fare, were forced to walk miles to get to school.
William March worked hard in school and dreamed of becoming an architect. However, he knew he had little chance of going to college to get the education required for that career. Hard economic times eventually forced him to quit school so that he could help support his family. He took a job at Edgewood Arsenal, first digging ditches, then on the factory line, making mu-nitions. Because so many black students had to help support their families, Douglas High School began to offer night classes, and March attended every night after work until he earned his diploma.
Went to War
In 1941 tragedy struck the March family when William's beloved sister Thelma died in a fire during her first year at college. The same year, the United States entered World War II. When the war began, March was working on the line at Edgewood Arsenal, training to become a machinist. He had worked there for some time when his supervisors discovered that they had made a mistake. March was a light-skinned black man, with blond hair and blue eyes, and the managers at Edgewood had assumed that he was white. Once they learned that their employee was African American, racism prompted them to remove him from the factory line. Losing his job in an important wartime industry made March immediately eligible for the draft, and in 1943 he was called up by the U.S. Army. On his first six-week furlough he married Julia Roberta Hayes, his high school sweetheart.
March's wartime experience was active and difficult. He participated in the June 6, 1944, "D-Day" invasion of Normandy, when Allied troops landed on several French beaches to start a new front of fighting against the Germans. After the bloody battle, March became a Master Sergeant, directing the delivery of ammunition to the front lines. This was dangerous work which often placed March and his fellow soldiers under fire.
When the war ended in 1945, March returned home to his wife and baby daughter. He also returned to work at Edgewood Arsenal, but he soon began to have greater ambitions. One evening while spending time with friends at a local pool parlor, March heard something that interested him. He returned home to tell his wife that he had learned that with only one year of study he could become a mortician, a funeral director who cares for the bodies of the dead and helps plan memorial services.
Funeral homes, like many other aspects of society, had long been racially segregated throughout the United States, and March liked the idea of providing such an important service to the black community. Having lost his machinist job because of racial prejudice, he also liked the idea of learning a trade that he could use to start his own business. Julia March was horrified at first by the idea of working with the dead, but she soon gave her husband her wholehearted support. In 1947 William March headed to New York to attend the American Academy of Mortuary Science, using his Army education benefits to pay his tuition and support his family. Money was tight, and March cut corners by eating candy bars for his meals and sleeping under the dining room table in the New York apartment of an aunt, while his wife and child lived in an apartment in Baltimore's low-income housing projects.
Worked Two Full-Time Jobs
Upon his graduation, March returned to Baltimore where he felt fortunate to get a job at the U.S. Post Office while planning his apprenticeship in the funeral business. Qualified morticians at that time were required to complete two more years of on-the-job training as an apprentice. They could then take an exam and receive a mortician's license. March had difficulty finding a funeral home that would hire him as an apprentice. White funeral homes would not hire a black man, and black funeral homes were reluctant to hire someone as light-skinned as March. He finally found a mortician who agreed to train him as an apprentice, but he demanded that March work for four years, rather than the usual two, and that he should do so without pay. Feeling he had little choice, March worked at the funeral home during the day and went to his Post Office job at night. Even after he completed his apprenticeship, March continued to work this grueling schedule until he retired from the Post Office in 1972.
March's apprenticeship years were interrupted in 1950, when he was again called to active duty in the army. He served for two years in Korea before returning to Baltimore to resume working towards his mortician's license. In 1956, the Marches bought a row house at 928 East North Avenue in Baltimore. The young man who had wanted to become an architect now used his creative talents to renovate his new house. With the help of his family, March turned the downstairs of the house into a funeral parlor and the upstairs into living quarters for the family. With his limited funds, March purchased a huge old 1939 hearse, and March Funeral Home was in business.
His business grew very slowly. Though the funeral home opened on January 2, 1957, March did not serve his first client until 1958, and he only arranged one funeral that year. In 1959 March Funeral Home served three clients, and in 1960 nine. However, William and Julia March did something that few other funeral homes, white or black, were doing. They performed services for poor clients and low-income veterans, even those on public assistance. The Marches were not only willing to take on clients with little money, but they treated them with kindness, sympathy, and respect.
Built a Business on Compassion
This consideration and compassion soon earned them admiration from the entire community, and their business began to grow. Known in the community as the "welfare undertaker," March Funeral Home also became known for quiet dignity and professionalism. Business soon grew dramatically. By 1972, the Marches helped plan a thousand funerals, and by 1978 more than fifteen hundred. The community respected and trusted the William March family, and people from all around the Baltimore area had their loved ones honored at March Funeral Home. In 1978 the Marches expanded, building a large, modern facility across the street from the original home, and in 1985 they built another branch in Baltimore, March Funeral Home West. Together the two branches served more than 2200 Baltimore families per year. The Marches later opened a third branch in Richmond, Virginia. In 1985, the family business was worth $5 million. When William March died in 2002, his business was worth over $25 million.
Though Julia March had once been afraid of working with the dead, she became the beautician and cosmetologist for the business and was soon known as a "miracle worker" for her skill with funeral make-up. In 1963 she went to the Academy and got her funeral director's license, so that she could take over the business if the need arose. Soon the whole family was involved in the business, and each of March's four children became licensed funeral directors.
Gave Back to His Community
March's service to the black community did not stop with the creation of March Funeral Homes. In 1971, as his business was beginning to grow, March had the opportunity to buy fifty acres of land, zoned for use as a cemetery. He gathered a group of several other black funeral directors, and together they founded King Memorial Park, an African-American cemetery. In 1988 the March family acquired full ownership of the cemetery, and in 2001 they added an additional 105 acres, making King Memorial Park the largest black-owned and operated cemetery in the United States.
In 1982 March once again demonstrated his business foresight, when he helped found the Harbor Bank of Maryland, the first minority-owned commercial bank in the Baltimore area. As March knew from his own experience, it was often difficult for African Americans to find financing for their business ideas. March hoped that Harbor Bank of Maryland would help stimulate the growth of black businesses by making loans more accessible. In 1984 March established Marcorp Limited, a corporation that gathered the March Funeral Homes, King Memorial Cemetery, and several other related companies into a complete funeral service business group.
March contributed to his community in many other ways as well. He became a strong supporter of anti-drug programs, believing that drug addiction damaged black neighborhoods. He mentored young African Americans who were interested in business and started a college scholarship fund in the name of his sister Thelma. He also contributed to black history and culture by raising money to finance the restoration of Baltimore's Orchard Street Church, which had once been a stop on the famous Underground Railroad of slaves escaping from Southern states.
In 1988 William March retired as president of March Funeral Home. However, he remained a beloved and respected influence on the business. When March died on August 2, 2002, ten members of his family were employed in the company he had founded, and March Funeral Homes had become one of the major African-American funeral service businesses in the nation.
"Baltimore's Business Leaders Named to JA Hall of Fame," Baltimore Business Journal, October 19, 1987, pp. 7B-11B.
Loving, Susan, "March of Progress," International Cemetery and Funeral Management, August/September 2000, pp. 30-41.
"March Funeral Homes' Founder Dies at Age 79," Baltimore Sun, August 3, 2002, p. B1.
Walker, Blair S., "Knights of the Roundtable," Baltimore Sun, January 14, 1991, p. 9.
"William Carrington March," March Funeral Homes, http://marchfh.lifefiles.com/registryMain.php?i_memorialid=1028330381 (December 5, 2005)
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Mrs. Julia R. March, Ms. Annette March-Grier, and Mr. Victor March on January 3, 2006.
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