Leo Turner, II
In 1939, Mr. Bennie Turner was a young founding entrepreneur at heart. Among his endeavors at the time was a farmer and shopkeeper. Mr. R. C. Cook, owner of Cook Funeral Home in Jackson, had the Enterprise Burial Association with agents underwriting for the company in locales across the state such as Laurel, Belzoni, and Meridian. Mr. Turner was tapped to become a burial insurance agent in the Waynesboro area.
During the time, Enterprise Burial Association’s specialty focused on family policies. The policies carried coverage for family members based on the number of persons in the household. In Waynesboro, there was also a market niche that was untapped: the need for a funeral home for the black citizens of the area. Mr. Turner and his second wife, Mary discussed the idea and gave it a go. Turner Funeral Home was established the following year, in January 1940.
The original location of the funeral home was a shotgun house at the corner of what is now Mississippi Drive and Mustang Drive in Waynesboro. The establishment also ventured into another untapped market: ambulance service for the same citizens of the area. This locale would serve its purpose for the next seven years.
Mr. Turner was the father of five: four sons and one daughter. His two oldest sons, Leo and Alfred, started helping around the funeral home as children. Mr. C. B. “Pete” Christian and Mr. Melvin Daniels, Sr., both of Laurel MS, served as embalmers.
1947-1948 saw Turner Funeral Home move to a new location: 402 South Spring Street, which was around the corner from the first office. At the time, there was even a tour given to the students of the then-known Smith Hughes School. Mr. Turner’s first wife and mother of his children, the former Freddie Richey, who was also a shopkeeper and operated a cafe, lent support to the fledging business as well.
1951 saw the eldest son, Leo, finish high school at the newly constructed Waynesboro Vocational High School (also dubbed Waynesboro Colored High School) after the Smith Hughes School was destroyed by a fire sometime earlier. Leo enrolled at Kentucky School of Embalming in Louisville KY later that summer. In a new environment and on his own for the first time, Leo found work as a hospital orderly. Although Jim Crow was a way of life in the Deep South, there were some aspects of life in Louisville that were a bit lenient compared against Mississippi, which fascinated him. All was well until the late fall to early winter of that year.
There was a conflict that embroiled the United States in the Korean Peninsula, and since Leo was draft age, the draft board came knocking. He aborted his studies and served in the Korean War for eighteen months until 1953. Upon finishing his service, Leo enrolled in the Kentucky School of Embalming once more, resumed with working two jobs after school, and finished in 1954.
While Leo was away in the war and afterwards, school, his brothers Alfred, Chester (“Bob”), and Jessie worked in the funeral home helping their father. Alfred began as a burial insurance agent while still in his last year of high school.
Once in mortuary school, Leo enjoyed his subjects to the point of entertaining the thought of furthering his education toward medical school. Unfortunately, his father’s health was beginning to give trouble due to high blood pressure, so Leo returned home to work at the funeral home as a funeral director, insurance agent, and embalmer.
Upon Leo’s return, Alfred served in the US Army and was stationed in West Germany. 1955 was a year of change; once Chester graduated high school, he left home and found his way to Dayton OH. Taking the business skills he learned from his father and his friendly personality, he later found his way to Chicago IL where he opened his barbecue and seafood restaurant that he owned and operated until he retired in the early 2000s. Leo married his high school sweetheart, the former Leola McGill, in August of that year after she finished college at Alabama (Leola also practiced typing for her class in high school at the funeral home).
Sadly, a year later on Leo and Leola’s first wedding anniversary, Mr. Bennie Turner died at the age of 44, four days before his 45th birthday while undergoing surgery. The last conversation between father and son while the latter was taking the former to the hospital in Jackson had Leo asking his father if there was anything else he should know about the business, to which the reply was, “You know what to do. You’ll be all right.”
Meanwhile, Alfred came back to Waynesboro. He promised his brother before their father died he would come back and help all he could. Jessie, who’d just finished high school, worked at the funeral home as a funeral director and insurance agent.
Alfred followed in his brother’s footsteps and attended Kentucky School of Embalming in 1957, graduating in 1958. While there, he met a college student by the name of Cleopal Burton. The two would marry in August, 1959. Jessie married the former Wilma Battles in 1957 and the couple and their family would later move to California around 1960. Leola began working as a secretary/bookkeeper in the funeral home in addition to teaching high school English.
The funeral home, for a period of time in the late 1950s to early 1960s, hosted a dentist’s office in a section of the building upstairs. Dr. Coleman was the dentist. Such contributed to the economic hub of Waynesboro that is still known today as South End.
Other developments in the insurance field began to occur in the 1960s. People’s Protective Insurance was new on the scene, and the late 1960s saw the establishing of the funeral home’s own burial association, Turner Burial. In 1961, the first foray into expansion occurred when Leo bought the former Davis Funeral Home in Beaumont. Rev. Leo Jackson, a resident of the town, was the funeral director, manager, insurance agent, and embalmer.
Alfred also ventured into expanding branches for the funeral home around 1965 with his acquisition of a funeral home in Collins, MS. The office operated until around 1968. Mr. C.W. James was the manager.
As time progressed, the opportunity to write more coverage for clients presented itself. In the late 1960s-early 1970s, Golden Rule Burial Association, affiliated with Cook Funeral Home in Jackson offered $300 coverage, higher than the $150 that was previously offered via Enterprise and Turner. Mrs. Ruth Cook Sanders was the president of the association. Quality Burial Association was also established around this time period, offering the same coverage.
The 1970s saw more change in the business. A sad note in March of 1971 was the death of Alfred. His loss rocked the business, family, and community. All was not negative however; December of 1970 found Leola leaving teaching while expecting her fourth child and working in the funeral home full time. 1972-1973 saw the construction of another branch office in Quitman MS, with Mr. Lonnie McGee as the manager and funeral director. He entered the fold as an insurance agent after the acquisition of Good Shepherd Funeral Home’s policyholders and agents in 1959. Jessie had returned to Waynesboro for good in 1969 and would help at the funeral home at different intervals until his sudden passing in April, 1990.
The ambulance service offered by the funeral home began to phase out in the early 1970s. To quote Mr. Leo Turner: “most little babies were always born late at night.”
In January 1978, Turner Funeral Home began underwriting life insurance to offer the clientele. Beginning with Gulf National Life Insurance Company and later, Southern Security Life, the firm continued to expand upon its second motto of “burial insurance in keeping with your purse.”
May 1, 1979 saw the acquisition of the fourth and final branch of Turner Funeral Home, the former Travillion Funeral Home in Pascagoula MS. Mr. Samuel Booth, II, a mortuary school classmate of Mr. Lucius Warren (who’d been working at the funeral home) was hired as the manager and embalmer. With the acquisition of Pascagoula came another Burial Association: Golden Gulf, which offered a little more than Enterprise, Turner, Golden Rule, and Quality.