Davenport and Harris Funeral Home Incorporated was established in September 12, 1899 and is the oldest African American family owned and operated business in the State of Alabama.
Charles Morgan "Boss" Harris, founder, was born in Mobile, Alabama on August 3, 1871. Charles, along with his sister Hattie C. Davenport, moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1889. After working at several odd jobs and attending Alabama State Normal School for Colored, he began working for the late Henry A. Loveless Undertaking Company.
In 1893, Charles M. "Boss" Harris married Mattie Bell Saffold of Selma, Alabama. Later in that same year, Charles, who had by now earned the nickname "Boss," moved with his new bride and his sister Hattie to Birmingham. Upon arrival, he began operation of a general store located at 22nd Street and 3rd Avenue North.
Recognizing the need for affordable and dignified burial services, Charles expanded his business to include a funeral parlor, initially called the Charles M. Harris Undertaking Company. At this early stage of the operation, bread was sold in one section of the store while caskets were sold in another.
It quickly became obvious that Birmingham's black community had more of a need for quality funeral services than for another general store. So it was on September 12, 1899, that Charles and his sister, Hattie C. Davenport, founded Davenport and Harris Funeral Home, Inc. The business was operated without interruption until 1924 when Hattie C. Davenport and her children, Virgil Davenport and Otis Davenport Council, sold their stock to her brother, Charles.
In 1923, Charles founded the Protective Burial Association to provide affordable burial insurance within the community. This second business endeavor was met with great success and was subsequently renamed Protective Industrial Insurance Company of Alabama, also known as PiiCO. Over its history, PiiCo served the community with a full range of life insurance products.
In 1938, Davenport and Harris Funeral Home was incorporated. The stockholders became, Protective Industrial Insurance Company, Mattie B. Harris, Virgil L. Harris, M.H. Davis and Clara Harris Evans. Charles M. Harris passed away in 1938. He was succeeded as president of Davenport and Harris Funeral Home by his son, Walter W. Harris, an attorney practicing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Attending to his dual responsibilities, Walter regularly commuted back-and-forth between Birmingham and Cincinnati.
Therefore, management of the funeral home fell on the shoulders of William E. Sterling, Sr. Mr. W.E. Sterling, Sr. remained a dedicated General Manager of Davenport and Harris Funeral Home for more than 34 years until his death in 1972. With the untimely death of Walter Harris in 1945, Dr. Charles M. Harris, Jr., a physician practicing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Jersey City, Jersey at the time, temporarily assumed the presidency of the funeral home.
In 1946, the presidency of Davenport & Harris was turned over to Mrs. Mattie B. Harris, the wife of founder Charles M. Harris and the mother of two previous presidents. Mrs. Mattie B. Harris remained president of Davenport & Harris Funeral Home, Inc. until her death in 1955.
After the death of his mother, Virgil L. Harris, the youngest son of Charles and Mattie, simultaneously assumed the office of president and chairman of the board. Virgil would remain in this position for the next 33 years, and so it fell upon him to lead Davenport & Harris through the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement.
During Virgil's tenure, his wife, Wilma C. Harris, dedicated much of her life to the success of the company. Mrs. Wilma C. Harris, affectionately known as Billie, has been affiliated with Davenport & Harris for over 50 years. She served as Treasurer and General Manager until her retirement in 2006. Commenting on numerous letters from companies wanting to purchase Davenport & Harris, she was quoted as saying, "I just throw them in the trash. We've been here for 100 years. If there's no other reason to stay in the business, we want to encourage our youth to follow in our footsteps."
Over the years, Davenport and Harris Funeral Home, Inc. was headquartered in several downtown Birmingham locations, and in November 1, 1978 it moved into its present facility. The building, located at 301 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. S.W., represents the continuation of a distinguished family tradition of fine funeral service since 1899.
The interior of the 15 room building was designed by Virgil L. Harris, with interior design work and furnishings by former City Council person Angie Procter. There are five viewing rooms, two family lounges and a large chapel.
Paul E. Harris succeeded Virgil L. Harris as President and served diligently until his retirement in 1995. James C. Harrison took over the helm as President until Carol H. Mitchell, daughter of Virgil L. Harris and granddaughter of Charles M. Harris, assumed the post in 2005. In 2006, the baton was passed to Marion P. Sterling. As a fifth generation of the Harris family, Marion P. Sterling has made it his mission to carry on the legacy of offering courteous, sympathetic, experienced and professional service set forth by Charles Morgan "Boss" Harris.