EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the fourth installment of a four-story February series dedicated to people and/or places key to Black history in Effingham County.
GUYTON — Smalls Funeral Home is a monument to irony. Effingham County’s oldest Black-owned business has been one of Guyton’s liveliest places since Samuel Smalls opened it in 1947.
“We’re going into our seventy-fifth year,” said Michael Garvin, the current owner and CEO. “It hasn’t been an easy road.”
Located on a street named after its founder, Samuel Smalls Sr., Smalls Funeral Home literally rose from the ashes after it was consumed by a 1995 blaze that was sparked by a malfunctioning gas water heater. The business was rebuilt to its original glory and then some by Garvin and many of the friends he made while serving them in a variety of ways.
“We had to think quick,” Garvin said.
Before the smoke settled, a nearby building was modified to conduct business until construction was finished on the funeral home that exists today.
“That, along with having support of some of the churches and the (Guyton Masonic) lodge, helped us get by,” Garvin said. “The lodge and the churches would let us come in and have visitations. One of the main churches was Union Baptist.”
Savannah’s Michael and Brown Funeral Home also assisted in the recovery.
Smalls Funeral Home has maintained a strong link to its founder, who died in 1997.
“I’m not his blood son but he raised me,” Garvin said.
Smalls, who worked for another funeral home before striking out on his own, was not a Guyton native. He hailed from Savannah.
“He came here because he saw a need (for a funeral home),” Garvin said.
Smalls also saw a need for something infinitely more important.
“I guess you could call him a local civil rights activist because he worked toward bettering the community — not just for himself, but for everybody,” Garvin said. “Before my time, he would tell me how they used to have NAACP meetings and other civic meetings right here at the funeral home.”
Guyton resident Lucy Powell, who was born about the time the funeral home opened, thinks Smalls’ history of civic and philanthropic endeavors have been vital to the business’ longevity.
“It’s not only the professional part of it,” she said. “It’s the person part. The people from Smalls Funeral Home are so involved in the community that they are just known.
“There really is no need to advertise because they are known by everyone.”
Garvin has purposefully stuck close to his mentor’s footsteps.
“When it was the old Smalls Funeral Home, which was two stories, the upper floor was really our secret civil rights meeting place,” Powell said. “It was the go-to place for everything because Mr. Smalls helped people with their legal things. He was very intelligent so most people depended on him for issues that concerned them.
“That has passed on to Michael. If there is something to be known, they think they can call the funeral home number to get everything.
“Not only does he take care of the dead, he takes care of the living.”
Powell recounted a memory of Garvin supporting others.
“I remember a family who came up from Florida to have a family member buried here,” she said. “Michael housed them between the time they arrived and had the funeral service. He even had dinner prepared for them. He took care of their needs.
“He has taken care of the sick in this community. He is also a go-to carpenter. If you need anything, you call Smalls Funeral Home.
Also like Smalls, Garvin has been involved in Guyton politics. Smalls was elected to the city council and served as mayor pro tem. Garvin, who spent six years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve while working at the funeral home, did him one better, serving multiple terms as mayor.
Garvin lamented that he has some catching up to do in one area.
“I’m the owner now but I still don’t have a (funeral director/embalmer) license,” Garvin said. “It is my goal to go ahead and finish up on that.”
Smalls Funeral Home currently has two full-time employees. In addition, about a dozen workers are called in on a part-time basis to drive the hearse, remove bodies, aid grieving families and more.
“A lot of it involves community work,” Garvin said. “We may send a group (church choirs, etc.) to Atlanta or different places that a group’s got to go.”
The funeral home’s legacy of transporting citizens in need started many years ago.
“Before (Emergency Medical Services) came to Effingham County (in the 1970s), if you needed to go to the hospital, you called Smalls Funeral Home,” Powell said. “The hearse was used more as an ambulance.”
The funeral home couldn’t be reached by telephone initially. During its first four years, Smalls’ messages were transmitted on foot from the residence of Alma Brittingham, a florist who died in 1993 at the age of 94.
“Her place was at the head of Magnolia (Street),” Garvin said. “That old house that is falling down now — that used to be her house and her florist shop was right across the road. (Smalls’) calls used to come to her house and she would come and let him know that he had a call or whatever.”
“That’s how everybody got their messages,” said Lula Seabrooks, who grew up across the street from the funeral home. “We were the messengers.”
Smalls rectified the lack of telephone service in Guyton’s Black neighborhood by running a line from the nearest exchange on 7th Avenue to the funeral home several blocks away. He footed the bill for the wire and used donated poles that he and his friends erected.
A decade passed before telephone connections were made available to the rest of Smalls’ neighborhood.
“I believe he was the first Black to have a phone in Effingham County. I know he was in Guyton,” Garvin said.