When Emma Wilburn was attempting to put together the final pieces of her master plan in late 1932 that would enable her to become one of the most dominant figures in the funearl business in Memphis, she encountered an unanticipated problem. For the past several years she had been carefully laying the gound work by first establishing her son, Hudson Barbee, in the casket business on South Parkway and then, her daughter, Cutis Thomas, in the funeral business on South Lauderdale. The final part of the plan called for her to sell her own Emma Wilburn Funeral Home to one of the other African-American funeral directors and with the proceeds, establish a cemetery that wouls enable her to provide "full-service final arrangements."
The problem Wilburn enountered was that her prospective purchaser were either unable or unwilling to acquire her funeral business. Determined to complete her plan, however, and having heard of an interest of a White-owned insurance company entering the funeral business, Wilburn approached oficials of that company and a deal was struck. National Burial Association purchased her business and began operation as Southern Funeral Hom in the same Mississippi Boulevard location that WIlburn had operated for 12 years and remained there until it relocated to its present location on Vance Avenue just west of Danny Thomas Boulevard.
With the sale of her business to the insurance company now complete, Wilburn put in place the final piece of her plan by purchasing 75 sprawling acres of land on Horn Lake Road where she established and developed New Park Cemetery.
Twice widowed before she was 25 years of age, her interest in business had become evident. By 1900, she had become the successful owner of a small hotel in Halls, Enticed by the lure of greater opportunity in the larger cities, however, she moved to Memphis.
Soon after arriving in Memphis, she associated herself with the Zion Cemetery Company and then, in 1914 bouth out the interest of the Carson Funeral Company which was located at the northeast corner of Georgia Avenue and South Orleans Street.
After operating on Georgia Ave. for several years and after opening a second funeral business in Dyersburg, Tenn., Wilburn moved her Memphis busines to 913 Mississippi Boulevard and was joined in business by four of her children, Sadie, Minnie, Johnson and Cutis. Her son, Hudson, had gone to work as an embalmer with the concern of Campbell & Wiggins.
By the early 1930's, Emma Wilburn had founded the Tennessee Burial Association and had developed one of the most successful funeral business in Memphs. Her tradmark was her method of funeral escort. She owned a beautiful white horse that she personally rode (complete with full riding habit) in front of each funeral procession as it made its way to the final resting place of the deceased.
Not only was Emma Wilburn an astute business person, she insisted on equal rights. In 1935, while preparing to board an American Airllines jet to California to attend the grand opening of her son Johnson's funeral home, she was informed that African Americans were not allowed to travel from Memphs on that airline. Mrs. Wilburn wired headquarters at Chicago, ILL. complaining of the treatment. They instructed local officials to take the passenger.
Emma Wilburn, daughter of former slaves and who was a single parent during most of the formative years of her children, was a shining example of strength, ingenuity and fortitude.