Smalls Funeral Home: Family Serving Families
Story by Cindy Reid
Photography by Lexi Rockwell
Black owned and operated funeral homes have a rich heritage and are as much cultural institutions as they are businesses. African American entrepreneurs in this field were brought into the middle and upper classes where they often became leadership figures in their communities, providing care and dignity to the deceased, and are often a base of operation within a neighborhood.
In 2016, the annual revenue of the U.S. funeral industry amounted to about $14.2 billion; this being generated from 15,818 funeral homes, as well as crematoriums, cemeteries, and industry suppliers. Approximately 1,200 of these funeral homes are family-owned African American independent businesses. (https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2021/02/african-american-funeral-homes)
Smalls Funeral Home is Effingham County’s oldest African American owned business, opened by Samuel Smalls, Sr. in 1947. Now going into their 75th year, Small’s Funeral Home serves Effingham, Bryan, Bulloch, and the surrounding counties.
Mr. Smalls learned his trade at a Savannah funeral home that he left when he saw an opportunity to fulfill a need in Guyton. Continuously open since 1947, they continue to “help families celebrate life with dignity and respect…and understand that each family is unique and has personal requests and traditions.”
Even after a fire almost destroyed the business in 1995, Smalls Funeral Home stayed open and served the community with the help of local churches and businesses. Mr. Smalls’ protégé and successor Michael Garvin rebuilt the funeral home and-—under his direction—it remains a vital hub for the community in new and traditional ways, ever evolving to the needs of today’s world while honoring their significant historical roots.
CEO/Owner Michael Garvin
The youngest of nine children, Garvin was born in rural Evans County, and moved to Guyton when he was ten years old. It was a move that changed his life.
“During that time, Mr. Smalls was the community babysitter, because working from his home meant he could watch out for everyone,” Garvin says. Mr. Smalls spent a lot of time with Garvin, as he did with many area children, eventually teaching him the funeral home business.
As a young man Garvin thought he would do “the usual—get a decent job and work there until I retired.”
He did work at Georgia Pacific for 30 years before retiring, but he also ended up owning a funeral home, serving in the military and being active in politics, including terms as Mayor of Guyton. Garvin says his six years in the United States Marine Corps Reserves taught him strict discipline, and he highly recommends every young person be required to serve a year in the armed forces in one branch or another for that reason.
When asked what kept him invested in Guyton all these years, he says “I came out of the deep country so to me Guyton was a city. I was ‘sticking my stick in the ground and this is it.’ Mr. Smalls got me here doing the funeral business. I didn’t see the rest coming but I am glad I went down this road, following other community leaders.”
Pillar of the Community
Garvin reports Smalls Funeral Home continues to thrive. “We are definitely still in business. We are the oldest African American-owned business in Effingham County and may also be the oldest continuously operated African American owned business in the state,” he says.
“Smalls Funeral Home has been important to many people over the years. As I look at it, it’s been a pillar for Effingham as a whole. Not only do families come in grief and in their time of need, but they also come to us for all sorts of practical reasons, to get assistance in how to do things.”
Garvin says people come to them for various reasons, such as trying to find loved ones, for voting and political information, or for help in obtaining cars and auto insurance. He says “Smalls Funeral Home has always been a focus point. People came to Mr. Smalls because he had legit information; he knew how to get things done. We have just carried on.”
As measure of his community stature, Smalls was elected to the city council and served as mayor pro tem in Guyton. Continuing the tradition, Garvin has been active in politics and has served multiple terms as mayor as well.
Today he says “Politics are on the back burner, but you just don’t lose all interest in something that you’ve been involved with for many years. I am still concerned for the community but it’s important to give room to new people.”
He says lately he has seen some good things happening in the community such as roads being upgraded and city facilities being used. Projects started during his tenure as mayor, such as the pharmacy and medical center, “are still thriving and keeping Guyton on the map,” he says.
He would like to see Guyton continue to have controlled growth while retaining its historic presence and look.
“We have to juggle between the two concepts. Some don’t want any growth but then we will surely die. I would like to see restaurants, doctors, lawyers, all these businesses come to town, because they attract more folks. If we don’t grow as a town and as a community, we won’t survive.”
“Today I probably help more grown folks than kids, “says Garvin, but he would like to see the town engage with the local youth in a positive way. “They need more to do in the summer. We’ve talked about bringing a community pool, or water park, where kids could go and cool down. And we have talked about opening the gym in the summer but it got pushed to the side so it might be time to reopen that discussion.”
To relax Gavin says “I go out to my farm, and I look at the cows and things growing. I was raised up on a farm, so I get back to it for peace, plants, and cows. I just look at it.”
He says he enjoys his busy life and has no plans to become a full time farmer. “It’s one thing to visit,” he says, “it’s a different thing to make it a job. “
Gavin enjoys being able to help people. “It’s always been satisfying to make a difference in somebody’s life, to be able to be a blessing. I am glad I went this way in life and can see what I did to inspire other folks, but my only hero is Christ Jesus. That’s who I look up to.”
Smalls Funeral home is located at 203 Samuel Smalls Sr Ave, Guyton, on a road renamed in honor of Mr. Smalls and his many contributions to Guyton, Effingham County, and the state of Georgia. The funeral home is as vital today as it has always been because they truly embody their motto of “Family Helping Families.”
Garvin says, “You can call on us, and not just in funeral need. We get calls to loan out chairs, our tents, to host banquets, to help seniors. We do it all. Smalls Funeral Home is here for you.” As it has been for the last 75 years, a beacon of light for the community.