Spencer F. Wilkerson: The 7th Ward Undertaker

A black and white image of a Black man with black hair and a black moustache. He's looking at the camera and wearing a collared shirt, tie, and suit jacket.
Spencer F. Wilkerson, Sr. (c. 1940s)

We have all been asked at least once in our childhood the cliché question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The images our seven-year-old minds usually conjure are of doctors in white lab coats, firefighters pulling cats out of trees, or our favorite second grade teacher. These careers we dreamt of as children seemed to be the standard. However, there was one seven-year-old who wasn’t interested in becoming the standard. Spencer F. Wilkerson knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up, and it was something that would also save and inspire lives.

Spencer F. Wilkerson was born in 1923 in Amelia County, Virginia. His parents, Flippen P. and Joanna Barley Wilkerson, would later become one of the six million Black Americans that made their way out of the South to the Northeast during the Great Migration. In the late 1920s, the Wilkersons lived for a time in Harlem, New York before finally establishing themselves in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the 1930s. Flippen Wilkerson was a horse trainer, but Spencer had no desire to pursue the same trade as his father. He was determined to become a funeral director. He always wanted to work in the funeral industry.

“My grandma told me he always wanted to be a funeral director since he was seven years old. He would pick up dead birds and give them a nice little funeral.”

Joanna Wilkerson, Spencer’s daughter

Education & Military Background

A paper certificate in a glass frame. Prominently featured is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania seal at the top, center, and another gold foil seal at the bottom left.
Spencer F. Wilkerson, Sr.’s funeral director license. The license was awarded on June 25, 1953.

Spencer F. Wilkerson’s dream of becoming a funeral director was put on hold in 1943 when he was drafted by the U.S. Army. He went on to serve in the 28th Cavalry, Second Cavalry Division, the last unit of the famed Buffalo Soldiers. In 1945, Wilkerson married Ruby M. Wilson, who served in the Women’s Army Corps with the all-Black 6888th Central Postal Directory. Within that year, the couple married in Rouen, France and honeymooned in Paris.   

After returning home, Wilkerson continued to work toward his goal of becoming a funeral director, using the G.I. Bill which provided benefits to WWII veterans. He completed his undergraduate degree at Temple University and went on to train as a funeral director at Eckels College of Mortuary Science, a predominantly white school, where he was one of the only Black students in his classes. Ruby Wilkerson went on to become a registered nurse, enrolling in the Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing at Howard University. She would later become one of the first Black registered nurses at Harrisburg Hospital.

Spencer Wilkerson served for seven years as an apprentice for Millance Hooper, one of the first Black female funeral directors in Harrisburg. He would later receive a license to practice funeral directing from the State of Pennsylvania in June 1953. The decade brought great professional accomplishments for the Wilkersons, and they also welcomed the birth of their son, Spencer, Jr., and daughter, Joanna.

Finding Community & Culture in Lancaster

According to Spencer Wilkerson, Jr., the move to Lancaster was unanimously decided over a 10-cent loaf of bread:  

“He [Spencer Wilkerson, Sr.] always said he got the Lancaster position over a 10-cent loaf of bread. [While living in Harrisburg], my parents and I walked down to the grocery store to get a 10-cent loaf of bread. When we got back, the phone rang, and my mom answered. A position was opened to come down to Lancaster.” Spencer Jr.

The position was to replace John W. Fields, Jr, a Black funeral director who operated the Fields Funeral Home on South Christian Street in the 1940s and 1950s. After becoming Fields’ successor, Wilkerson became one of the only African American funeral directors in the area. The family made the move to the southeast side of Lancaster City in 1957. 

A black and white historic photo of a building with its entrance on the corner. Three Black men in suits stand outside the windows in to the funeral home in conversation.
Three Black men stand and converse outside of Spencer F. Wilkerson Funeral Home on 502 South Christian Street (c. 1950s).

Wilkerson opened his first funeral home on 502 South Christian Street in the 7th Ward, which was conveniently named the “Spencer F. Wilkerson Funeral Home.” The business operated near the historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had a strong community presence in the 7th Ward. “The 50s and 60s were completely different from present-day 7th Ward. Everyone knew everyone.” states Joanna.

Wilkerson’s mission was to create a warm and welcoming environment for the community and Black families mourning the loss of loved ones. “He [Spencer Wilkerson, Sr.] took up the rest of the tab for some of the families that couldn’t pay.” says Spencer Jr. This sense of unity in the neighborhood formed the foundation of Wilkerson’s work as a funeral director as well as his dedication to community engagement, cultural connectedness, and civic duty. 

Wilkerson’s deep involvement in the community also helped him gain the moniker, “The 7th Ward Undertaker.” Wilkerson loved the name and felt pride in it. Black funeral directors are traditionally leaders in their community. They provide care and dignity to the deceased, (Weinstein, Terrell, 2011). Funeral homes often serve as a refuge and a safe space for Black residents who want to tell their stories and mourn their loved ones without the oppressive eyes of the racially and politically unjust world around them. The 7th Ward was no exception. The neighborhood, which by 1960 was 94% Black American (Schuyler, 224), valued the undertaker’s guidance, and he in return appreciated their commitment. 

Neighbors showed their respect for Wilkerson by assisting with day-to-day operations at the funeral home, which could include lifting heavy materials or helping to clean. The men in the neighborhood were happy to help him when he needed a little extra help” states Joanna. The Wilkerson Funeral Home was not a large operation, “It was just him, he didn’t have a big staff,” Joanna continues. He was a part-time undertaker, who worked full-time in the post-office. Therefore, assistance from the community was crucial for a small funeral home.

Spencer F. Wilkerson Funeral Home: Historical Traditions and Rituals

A black and white detailed illustration. It is heavily composed of shadows but, in the illuminated center, are Black women, men, and children gathered around a man with his arms extended into the air.
An illustration titled “A Negro Funeral” depicts the experience of enslaved African Americans secretly joining in the woods to honor the life of a deceased loved one. Library of Congress.

The importance having safe spaces in funeral homes for Black residents and mourners can be traced back to The Negro Act of 1740, which made it illegal for enslaved Black people to gather in groups. The Act made it difficult for Black people to hold funerals for loved ones and often meant that they were buried without ritual or ceremony. (Cann, Black Deaths Matter, 2020). It could be said that this loss of connectedness in death rituals radiated throughout the years and was not lost on the Wilkersons.

Spencer and Ruby Wilkerson focused on practicing the traditions and rituals specific to the Black community. They used tools like straightening combs and curlers made specifically for styling Black women’s hair, and they provided hand-held church fans that were common in Black churches that lacked air conditioning. The Wilkersons understood that these tools were culturally significant and integral in providing reassurance to families who came to see loved ones at viewings and wakes. An open casket is traditionally common at Black funerals. Therefore, maintaining the appearance of a departed loved one was and still is essential for preserving one’s identity even in death.

Additionally, dressing the deceased in a respectful way is an important aspect of death rituals in the Black community.(Brooten, at el, 2016). Respect came naturally to Wilkerson. His daughter Joanna discussed her father’s care and her own relationship with death at a young age. She remarked on seeing a deceased baby in the funeral home when she was child. “I knew my father would take great care of the baby. He was very, even with death, very respectful. You don’t disrespect the body.” states Joanna. Wilkerson also showed respect through the method of coloration, which is when a mortician mixes foundation to create an accurate skin-tone of the deceased. According to Spencer, Jr., his father always did his best to make the deceased person look like they were sleeping. 

An image of an electric heater with the cord wrapped around it. A black hot comb with a black handle. Two curling irons; one with black hands and gold handle tips and one with a red handle.
(Left to right) An electric heater, a hot comb, and two curling irons the Wilkersons used to style Black women’s hair.

Traditionally, Black funeral homes make sure the body is washed and dressed and the hair groomed by the family. (Brooten, at el, 2016). However, in most cases grooming is done by the mortician and caregivers, and it was common to have a nurse present in white gloves. Caregivers helped grieving family members and sometimes assisted with the maintenance of the body. Joanna was one of those caregivers, alongside her mother Ruby and Mrs. Blache Lackey, a Black beautician in the 7th Ward community. The trio were instrumental in preserving the appearances of deceased Black women, especially when it came to their hair. Joanne discusses the traditions of using straighteners on her own hair at a young age, which helped her in administering the same level of care to the deceased:

“My mom was the one that did the hair, and I was too. When we were young it was something [using a straightener/curler] we knew how to do. You know, we’re taught how to do it.” Joanna

Two handheld fans. The handle is made of a thin wood in a wavy pattern. The fan is a stiff paper stapled to the end of the wood. On the fan is a black and white image of two Black women and two Black men in formal wear in front of a bookcase.
Handheld fans were offered to people at funerals to keep cool in the heat. The photo on the fan is of the Wilkerson family c. 1980s.

Another culturally significant tool used by the Wilkerson family were hand-held church fans. The fans provided relief during services in the hot and humid summer months when air-conditioning wasn’t available. However, church fans remained in many Black American congregations and funeral homes through the 1950s despite the popularity of air conditioning. (Portland State University, Gates Collection of African American History and Culture, 2011) 

The fans are designed with a heavy cut out piece of paper stapled to a wooden handle. A fan will usually feature the image of the church or funeral home, or in the Wilkersons’ case, a photo of the funeral director and his family (photo to right). According to Joanne Wilkerson, the back of the fans would feature the names of those that helped prepare the funerals.

Civics & Community Leadership in the 7th Ward

Wilkerson’s interest in serving the 7th Ward community extended beyond the walls of his funeral home. According to his children, he was a part of the Civil Rights Movement and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he came to Lancaster in 1963 to speak at Franklin & Marshall College. Additionally, the mortician not only worked in the post-office full time but was also a part of various civic groups like the NAACP, the Boys & Girls Club—which honored him in 1996 for his community efforts—, the Crispus Attucks Recreation Center, and, specifically, the Adams-Musser Towns Renewal Project. 

A black and white image of a residential streetscape with a large white sign on a wall that says "Adam-Musser Towns Urban Renewal Project Higbee Project." On top of that image is a newspaper article and a black and white photo from a newspaper of Spencer Wilkerson. He is a Black man wearing glasses and a suit.
A newspaper clipping from the Lancaster New Era c. 1958 detailing the work of the committee, a headshot of Wilkerson, and Adams-Musser project in the background. LancasterHistory.

Created by the Lancaster Redevelopment Authority in 1957, the Adams-Musser Towns Urban Renewal Project aimed to revitalize the southeast quadrant of the city with the intention of eliminating substandard housing within neighborhoods. (Schuyler, 123A committee assisted the Housing Authority in surveying over 3,000 neighborhood families, which included the 7th Ward. Wilkerson was elected in August of 1958 as one of the vice chairmen of the committee. He worked to establish better living conditions for Black families who were facing housing discrimination and racism in Lancaster City. 

According to Joanna Wilkerson, he helped move the first Black family into Hickory Tree Heights, a subsidized housing project established in 1949 by the Housing Authority for veterans and low-income families. Wilkerson’s efforts to house the family was an incredible feat. Black people dealt with discrimination when applying for housing in what was then all-white development during the 1950s and 1960s. According to a 1960 article in the Lancaster New Era…

“…out of the 1,123 applications processed, only nine were from Black people. They were rejected because “they couldn’t meet income or other requirements.”

(Lancaster News Era, Aug 15, 1960, p. 2)

New Beginnings & Endings

A black and white image of a residential streetscape. In the middle ground, a group of white men in suits walk down the middle of the street. A Black man and three children look on from the sides of the street.
“Lancaster’s southeast quadrant, the 7th ward, shown with members of Lancaster City Council and Redevelopment Authority tour the area to be cleared in the 1960s”-LancasterHistory

By the 1960s, urban renewal in southeast Lancaster City varied in “success.” The redevelopment resulted in the relocation of many commercial and industrial establishments to residential neighborhoods. If the density of buildings had detracted from the quality of life, whole blocks of dwellings were demolished and replaced by grass (Schuyler, 223). This did not bode well for families in the 7th Ward.

“There were changes being done, but not down in the area where we were, buildings were being torn down, but nothing was being put up[Spencer Wilkerson, Sr.] wanted to expand his business. He didn’t want his business to be degraded.”

– Spencer Wilkerson, Jr.

 By 1972, the lack of economic growth forced Wilkerson to move his family and his business from Christian street to 1045 King Street. Institutions that once thrived in the southeast during the early 20th century were being torn by the promise of modernization. “He [Spencer Wilkerson, Sr.] wanted to expand his business. He didn’t want his business to be degraded,” continues Spencer, Jr.

According to the Wilkerson siblings, the move on King Street was to “better himself” for the rest of the 7th Ward community. “The people in the 7th Ward loved that he moved to this new location. He was still in touch with the whole community,” Joanna states. The community would’ve understood that the arbitrary changes made by urban renewal were not beneficial for many Black-owned barbershops, restaurants, nightclubs, and other small businesses like the Spencer F. Wilkerson Funeral Home (Schuyler, 223).

Though the new location for the funeral home brought more opportunities, it also presented more challenges. According to Joanna, the Wilkerson family were the only minorities in the neighborhood. Wilkerson was met with some opposition from the Funeral Directors Association and the predominantly white neighborhood who weren’t interested in seeking the service of a Black funeral director. However, Wilkerson was able to find friendship with the Groff Family who owned the Groff Funeral Home on West Orange Street. In 1988, Wilkerson sold the building on 1045 King Street to Robert Groff, Jr. He continued to operate out of Groff’s facility throughout the 1980s and 1990s. (Lancaster News Era, June 14, 1988, p. 31)

Honoring the Life of the 7th Ward Undertaker

Spencer F. Wilkerson endeavored to make the Wilkerson Funeral Home a welcoming place for mourners and residents alike. His devotion to his craft helped forge a strong relationship with the 7th Ward community. The care and guidance he administered to the living and deceased provided a safe space for its ever-evolving neighborhoods. The legacy Spencer Wilkerson, Sr. left behind is one of compassion and strengthened by his civic engagement, preservation of cultural traditions, and family. His legacy as the “7th Ward Undertaker” continues to be honored by his children, Spencer Jr. and Joanna, and now LancasterHistory, where the tools he used, like the hair straighteners and church fans are currently on display in Castagna Gallery. We welcome visitors to view the objects with the same sense of compassion and communal spirit as Spencer F. Wilkerson.


Brooten, Dorothy, JoAnne M. Youngblut, Donna Charles, Rosa Roche, Ivette Hidalgo, and Fatima Malkawi. 2016. “Death Rituals Reported by White, Black, and Hispanic Parents Following the ICU Death of an Infant or Child.” Journal of Pediatric Nursing 31 (2): 132–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2015.10.017

Cann, Candi K. 2020. “Black Deaths Matter Earning the Right to Live: Death and the African-American Funeral Home.” Religions 11 (8): 390. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11080390.

Flannery , Thomas . 1988. “Wilkerson Funeral Home Groff Affiliates.” Intelligencer Journal, June 14, 1988. https://www.newspapers.com/article/intelligencer-journal-wilkerson-funeral/123922135.

Portland State University Library Digital Exhibits. 2011. “Go to Church · Highlights from the Gates Collection of African American History and Culture · Portland State University.” Exhibits.library.pdx.edu. Portland State University Library . 2011. https://exhibits.library.pdx.edu/exhibits/show/gates/jimcrow/church-fan.html.

Schuyler, David . 2002. A City Transformed: Redevelopment, Race, and Suburbanization in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1940-1980. Penn State Press.

Sapienza , Jerry . 1960. “How Hickory Tree Fills Housing Need .” Newspapers.com. Lancaster New Era . August 15, 1960. https://www.newspapers.com/image/560846133/?terms=Hickory%20Tree%20Heights%20&match=1.

Terrell, Ellen. 2021. “Honoring African Americans: Celebrating Life in Death – African American Funeral Homes | inside Adams: Science, Technology & Business.” Blogs.loc.gov. February 16, 2021. https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2021/02/african-american-funeral-homes/.

LancasterHistory Resources & Further Reading

Funeral Directing  

Black Lancastrians & Economic History 

Housing Redevelopment & Discrimination 

From Notes From The Library