Russell’s Turns 75

Russell’s Turns 75
October 23
00:00 2014
(pictured above:  Cedric Russell stands outside of Russell’s Funeral Home with his sister, Carmen, earlier this week. The family business is turning 75.)
A photo of Carl Russell Sr. and Florrie Sitgraves Russell hangs in the lobby.

A photo of Carl Russell Sr. and Florrie Sitgraves Russell hangs in the lobby.

A family business that has helped many through difficult times is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a special service at Union Baptist Church on Saturday.

Gospel performances will punctuate the celebration for Russell’s Funeral Home, which was founded in October 1939 by the late Carl H. Russell Sr. The 5 p.m. service will feature Dionn Owen & Renaissance, The Queenettes and Keith Byrd & Company.

The funeral home’s connection to local churches and gospel is as old as it is. The voice of founder Russell was heard on WAAA Radio for years on his popular gospel show.

“He reached out to so many through his gospel program. Many people tuned in at eight o’clock on Sunday morning so they could find out what was going on,” said Russell’s daughter, Carmen Russell, who runs the family business with her brother, Cedric, and other family members.

He used the show to do more than simply play music, Carmen said. He reached out to the sick and shut-in, encouraged voting and kept listeners informed and educated. She filled his shoes as the show’s host in 1978 and kept the hosting duties until the station folded in the 1990s.

The 10 Russell children grew up in the funeral business, carefully learning their sense of caring and community responsibility from their father and mother, Florrie Sitgraves Russell.

Like death, the funeral business never sleeps. Carmen recalls her father rising at all hours of the night and early morning to comfort families and retrieve bodies.

“When death came (my father) had to go,” she said. “On many days, I would see him leave the dining room table because we’d get a death call. We’d always have to be so ready; it’s not like it can wait. I’ve seen him leave his dinner on the table many days and assist families in need of funeral services.”

Carmen Russell waves to the crowd during Saturday’s WSSU Homecoming Parade.

Carmen Russell waves to the crowd during Saturday’s WSSU Homecoming Parade.

Death calls aren’t the only kind that moved the Russell clan to action. Good community stewardship was required by their parents. The Russell brothers provided ambulance service to the community, a common practice of funeral homes at one time. There were also many causes they supported and many to whom they lent a helping hand.

Carl Russell Sr. was more than a business man; he was a community icon and jack-of-all-trades. He started the city’s first black newspaper in 1945. The People’s Spokesman was touted as “The Voice of the Negro in Winston-Salem.” He served on the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen from 1961-1977 and as Mayor Pro Tempore.

“He was an advocate for the black people in this city,” said Carmen. “When he was on the Board of Alderman, he really tried to get the neighborhoods looking good: get the streets paved, better housing.”

The funeral home began in a modest building on East Seventh Street with used equipment purchased from a funeral home in Virginia that had gone under. In 1962, it moved to the Christian Building, which was at the corner of what is now Martin Luther King Drive and Carl Russell Avenue. In 1964, Russell’s had a new structure built at that location.

Russell’s Funeral Home as it looks today.

Russell’s Funeral Home as it looks today.

When Russell passed away in 1987, Florrie, his wife of 49 years, assumed leadership of the business. She oversaw the renovation of the current facility at 822 Carl Russell Ave. The three-story building features two chapels, a water fountain with a botanical stone garden and living quarters on the top floor for those on-call.

Mrs. Russell died in 1997. Her son, Cedric Russell, is now the funeral home’s manager. He said his mother’s strength was a driving force in the business’ success.

“Behind every great man, there’s a greater woman,” he said. “(My mother) brought up the family. After (my father) died, she was president of the funeral home, and she was really, really vital to our modern day successes.”

Cedric believes that Russell’s is still the top choice of local families because of its long history of excellent, compassionate service.

Siblings Carl H. Russell Jr, Edward B. Russell and Christopher Russell also work at the family business, along with a staff of about 20 that the family says is vital to the funeral home’s continued success.

The 75th anniversary service will be held Saturday at 5 p.m. at Union Baptist Church, 1200 North Trade St. The event is free and open to the public, but donations will be accepted for the Carl H. & Florrie S. Russell Memorial Scholarship Fund.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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