Black History Month Spotlight:  Bennie Smith Funeral Home

Terry RogersBusiness, Headlines, Milford Headline Story

Bennie Smith opened the first African American funeral homes in the United States with on location in Milford

Bennie Smith was born on July 18, 1948, the youngest of six children. Growing up on a farm in Faceville, Georgia, Smith worked a full-time job in his junior and senior year of high school in order to support his family. He attended a four-room schoolhouse prior to moving on to high school and drove for a local African American funeral home. It was while working in this job, Smith decided that he wanted to one day own and operate a funeral business.

Smith joined the Armed Forces as he knew his parents could not afford to send him to college. After an honorable discharge, he attended John A. Gupton School of Mortuary Science in Nashville, starting classes in 1969, working full time while attending school full time as well. He graduated in 1971 and then enrolled in the University of Minnesota, earning his bachelor’s degree, the highest degree in his profession. With the degree, Smith could be licensed to operate in any state without restrictions.

His first position with a funeral home was with Hawkins Funeral Home in Philadelphia where he worked from 1972 to 1973. He moved to Dover and took a position with Reese Funeral Home. While working there, Smith earned a Master’s in Counseling from the University of Delaware in 1978. It was around this time he began to pursue his dream of owning his own funeral home.

Bennie Smith Funeral Homes began in 1982 when Smith became the Chairman and CEO of 14 funeral homes located in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, making Smith the leader of the first African American owned and operated funeral homes in the country. He also holds licenses in Pennsylvania and New York. The same year he opened his funeral homes, he was contracted with Dover Air Force Base to handle their funeral needs. He held this contract for 14 years until the military took over the operation.

In addition to the funeral home business, Smith also operated the largest fleet of school buses owned by an African American on the Eastern Shore. He also owned the Ebony Restaurant and Lounge in Dover, invests in a number of real estate ventures, offered limousine services as well as three florists.

In 2017, Smith and his wife, Shirley, established the Bennie and Shirley Smith Scholarship Fund to assist students at Delaware State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Each year, the Smith’s hold a holiday fundraiser to add to the scholarship fund which began with a $100,000 investment to both universities.

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