Longtime Atlantan Juanita Sellers Stone was a trailblazer in the male-dominated funeral home industry.
For more than 30 years, she ran Sellers Brothers Funeral Home Inc., which in its heyday had multiple locations, including two on Atlanta’s historic westside.
“It was difficult. When she started out, certain vendors wouldn’t deal with her and took her lightly because she was a woman,” son Keith Stone said. “But she corrected that at the end of the day.”
Juanita Sellers Stone, pioneering African-American businesswoman, community leader, educator, and second-generation funeral home director, died May 30. She was 89.
Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. on Monday, June 11 at West Hunter Street Baptist Church, 1040 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. The viewing will be from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
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Stone had a 20-year career teaching college English in Savannah, Tallahassee and Princess Ann, Md. before settling in Atlanta with her college professor husband, Vernon W. Stone, and immersing herself in the family funeral home business.
In 1970, she became president of Sellers Brothers Inc. Funeral Directors and Morticians in Atlanta, a business started in 1920 in Carrollton by her father, Samuel Garrett Sellers, his brother James and several other uncles.
Having a funeral home run by a woman “was not unheard of” in the 1970s, Nathan Stanley, president of the Georgia Funeral Directors Association, said.
“But it was very rare at that time,” he said.
Omari Hakeem, a former Sellers employee and longtime friend, said Stone had a unique ability. She could sit down with grieving family members without paper and pen and come out of the meeting with instructions, down to the smallest detail, for the funeral service.
“She was a social butterfly, and that’s what carried her, I think, in the funeral business,” he said.
Stone’s day at the funeral home would start at 9 a.m. and didn’t usually end until 9 or 10 p.m.
She’d be back up early the next day, ready to do it all again.
On Saturdays, she’d usually have at least one funeral service to oversee, but still managed to make her son’s baseball games and daughter’s dance recitals.
Hats were her signature item, and she wore one to each funeral – eventually gathering a collection of more than 200, son Keith said.
Stone was laser-focused on making the funeral homes a success. She had a goal of doing $1 million a year in business and met that in the late 1970s, he said.
“She was very firm, very strict and she ran a really tight ship,” Keith Stone said. “She didn’t tolerate any foolishness.”
Stone opened her funeral homes to students Rose McGhee, Hakeem and others who needed clinical experience to graduate from mortuary school.
“She was just very, very giving,” her son said.
During the Rodney King riots in Atlanta, the Sellers funeral home on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard opened its doors to a white TV cameraman who was being pursued by an angry mob.
“She made sure he was safe,” her son said. And the crowd knew better than to mess with the funeral home.
Former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell declared March 18, 2000 as Juanita Sellers Day, a recognition of Stone’s success as a female funeral director and her many contributions to the community.
Stone was the first female president of the Georgia State Funeral Practitioners Association and the recipient of several awards, including the Atlanta Phi Lambda Sorority’s Businesswoman of the Year and Spelman College’s Enterprise Award.
Born in Carrollton in west Georgia, Stone grew up in Atlanta. She received her bachelor of arts degree from Spelman College and her master of arts from Columbia University in New York. She also did some advanced studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.
In 1948, she was homecoming queen, “Miss Maroon and White” at all-male Morehouse College. Five years later, she was voted teacher of the year at Savannah State.
She served as a trustee at West Hunter Street Baptist Church, where she was baptized and where her funeral is being held.
Sellers Brothers closed around 2008 and was forced to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, son Keith said.
Juanita Sellers Stone made the news in 2009 when lawyers, looking for the funeral home’s records, stumbled on the cremated remains of 96 people in the back of three storage units.
The discovery prompted investigations by the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.
Stone’s statement that the funeral home had not been negligent. Rather, her funeral home was – as many routinely do — holding remains for years that weren’t picked up by family, she said.
Stone was preceded in death by her husband of 49 years, Vernon Wayland Stone.
She is survived by her two children, Joy Alinda Stone Tillison and Keith Garrett Stone, several grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.