The Collins & Johnson Funeral Home at 612 Avenue E in Conroe. The funeral home has served the community for more than a century
The oldest funeral home in Montgomery County still in operation today was established to provide Christian burial services for minority residents in a largely white community.
Rev. W. E. Collins tombstone located near the front entrance of Rosewood Cemetery in Conroe
The Collins Funeral Home was established in Conroe as early as 1900 by Rev. W. E. Collins, who was born in 1856. The facility, originally located in the 200 block of Booker T. Washington Street, was later moved to its current location at 612 Avenue E.
Collins’ son, Ray, born in 1891, continued in the family business when his father passed away in 1930.
Oscar Johnson Sr.
“There has always been a tradition for black families to use the services of a black-owned funeral home and white folks to use a white-owned funeral home,” said Ruby Johnson, whose late husband Oscar Johnson Jr. purchased the business in 1962. “That’s especially true in the deep South.”
Times may have changed, but it’s a tradition that continues. Johnson said 90 percent of the services provided by the Collins-Johnson Funeral Home are for black and Hispanic families.
Former Mayor Tommy Metcalf, of Metcalf Funeral Directors, agreed the racial divide continues in funereal services, though the differential is not as great as it was in the past. He had high praise for his business competitor and the family that has operated the facility for so many years.
Oscar Johnson Jr.
“The Collins & Johnson Funeral Home has been an iconic landmark in Conroe since 1900,” said Metcalf. “Oscar Johnson Jr. was a respected businessman, civic leader, city councilman and a dear friend. He did much to make Conroe a great place to live, do business and raise a family.”
In the past, before access to professional funeral services was readily available, families often used their home to conduct visitation and final services. Convenience and professionalism made funeral homes the preferred source for dealing with departed loved ones as the 20th century progressed.
The Johnsons purchased the Collins Funeral Home in the early 1960s, just prior to the introduction of desegregation in America.
According to Conroe historian Dr. Robin Montgomery, several businesses had separate facilities for black and white patrons. For example, blacks were required to sit in the balcony to watch a movie at the Crighton Theatre in the early 1960s.
Conroe schools were integrated in 1967 according to another historian Gertie Spencer.
Despite challenges, however, Dorothy Reece, wife of the late Conroe football coach and community leader Froncell Reece, said the transition to equality and integration in Montgomery County was handled smoothly and without significant incident.
“There were no riots or major problems,” said Reece. “It was a largely peaceful process handled with respect and dignity.”
Changes were also taking place in the funeral industry. Cremation, for example, was not common 50 years ago. Many black families, particularly those with religious convictions, didn’t believe in cremation, preferring traditional burial.
While Metcalf estimated 65 percent of his clients opt for traditional burial services, Johnson said the vast majority of Collins & Johnson patrons choose cremation, largely because of cost.
“Funerals would almost always take place on a Saturday or Sunday back in the day,” noted Johnson. “People just couldn’t afford to take time off from work. It’s different now - midweek funerals are very common.”
The nature of funerals has changed as well. Reece recalled the funerals she attended as a child were longer in length and more somber affairs.
“There was a lot more crying, singing and jumping around,” said Reece. “Of course, I was a young child and maybe it just seemed like they lasted longer.”
Reece, who has attended funeral services at both Collins & Johnson and Metcalf facilities, said modern services are more influenced by the family of the deceased than by their race.
“Some folks prefer a short, simple service; others want a long, religious service with lots of ceremony,” she said. “It’s a family decision more than anything else.”
Whatever the request, Collins & Johnson Funeral Home continues to provide Conroe and Montgomery County families with professional services, including cremation and traditional burial. While some parts of the country are offering more elaborate and exotic funeral services, Johnson said local residents lean to traditional, conservative funerals for their loved ones.
“Our goal is to help families honor the memory of their loved ones in the best possible manner,” said Johnson. “We have served the community for more than a century and are proud to be part of our community.”
The Collins & Johnson Funeral Home is located at 612 Avenue E in Conroe. For information, call 936-756-2311. For information on Conroe and Montgomery County history, visitwww.heritagemuseum.us or call 936-539-6873.