Alyce Carter was a Howard University graduate who worked at a law firm and always wore a hat and gloves when Ernest A. Griffin, an aspiring funeral director, began courting her in 1945.
Griffin was a young widower then with a 1-year-old daughter, Ethel Dawn, named for her mother —and the hour that Ethel Griffin had died while giving birth to her.
He wanted companionship and love and someone who would embrace his little girl.
When he introduced relatives to Alyce Carter, they weren’t sure what to make of her East Coast flair. “She wore the vivid lipstick, and she wore the mule shoes and vivid colors,” said Ethel Dawn Griffin-O’Neal.
Alyce Carter’s parents, meanwhile, weren’t keen on her marrying a man with a baby.
But Alyce and Ernest got married in 1946. And she adopted Dawn, who says, “I am the woman I am today because of Mother Alyce.”
Together, they built Chicago’s Griffin Funeral Home, known for its attention to detail, elegant decor and custom-painted “Griffin Green” flower cars — so grieving families would feel as if they were following a bed of flowers to the cemetery instead of a casket.
Mrs. Griffin, 98, died Feb. 28 at The Clare senior living community, 55 E. Pearson.
She and her husband handled the funerals for many of Chicago’s most accomplished African-Americans, including Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens, Chicago Teachers Union president Jacqueline Vaughn and pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, once married to jazz legend Louis Armstrong. They did the services for two Harlem Globetrotters and countless doctors, teachers and lawyers.
Their biggest funeral was for Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. His procession was said to have 500 cars.
When they did a funeral for a Coca-Cola executive, the soft-drink company sent a Coke truck to carry the casket to the cemetery, where Ernest Griffin poured a can of cola over the gravesite, intoning: “May your thirst always be quenched.”
Ernest Griffin was the dreamer who thought of ways to expand the business. Mrs. Griffin negotiated with banks, dealt with equipment and suppliers and saw to it that the mortgage was paid off in half the time.
Mrs. Griffin also did makeup and hair styling for the deceased.
“That is part of why we were so successful,” said their daughter Pearl Griffin, “because of the restorative art that we did.”
When they went looking for a loan to move the funeral home from its original location at 3215 S. Michigan Ave. to 3232 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Dr., the Griffins were rejected 33 times, Pearl Griffin said. The family has donated the rejection letters to the Newberry Library.
But when Mrs. Griffin walked into what became the nation’s biggest black-owned bank —Independence Bank —a fellow Howard alum recognized her and greeted her with, “Why hello, Alyce.”
They got the loan and the bigger location.
Mrs. Griffin grew up in Harrisburg, Penn. Her father Harold was a postal worker. He and his wife Matilda operated a food business that catered to many of Harrisburg’s upscale Jewish families. As a result, Matilda Carter made a tasty gefilte fish.
The Carters also operated the Harrisburg Tourist Home, a hotel for African-Americans who couldn’t stay in white-owned establishments. Their customers included Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Another hotel guest was a famed commercial pitchwoman. When the Griffin girls were children, “The lady portraying Aunt Jemima, she made pancakes for us,” Pearl Griffin said.
Alyce Carter went to Howard and joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. A short-lived marriage to a serviceman followed. She came to Chicago to visit her college roommate and landed a job in a lawyer’s office.
She met Ernest Griffin at a party. “Mother was very much a lady, so that impressed Daddy,” said Ethel Dawn Griffin-O’Neal.
An impeccable dresser, Mrs. Griffin shopped at Marshall Field’s, Charles A. Stevens and Lyttons.
“When you got up in the morning and saw my mother, she was fully dressed up, fully made up and ready to go,” Pearl Griffin said.
The Griffins lived above the funeral home. When her husband learned it was on the site of Camp Douglas —a notoriously disease-ridden prison camp for Confederate soldiers —he began flying a Confederate flag at half-mast to remember those who died there. “They were the sons of God before they were the sons of man,” he’d say. The flag kept getting torn down.
He died in 1995. Mrs. Griffin and her daughters continued operating the funeral home until closing it in 2007. She is also survived by a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren. Visitation is at 4 p.m. Sunday, with a memorial starting at 4:30 p.m. in the 19th-floor chapel at The Clare.