Nine years ago, native Detroiter Elizabeth Mays was 21 and a new CEO. Her family’s historic printing business was still reeling from the recession even after downsizing, and Mays, a vibrant college graduate, got to work looking for ways to keep their offerings relevant as the demand for print declined. She’s been doing that ever since: just a couple months ago, she added an online submission portal for memorial programs to their obituaries division. She chalks it up to her intuition.
“We didn’t need it, but I had a feeling we were going to,” says Mays.
For MAYS Multimedia (formerly Mays Printing), the spring season is usually busy with wedding invites, save the dates, event invitations and the usual self-publishing jobs. But this April, as Detroit’s COVID-19 death toll climbed and celebrations were canceled to comply with stay-at-home rules, the business shifted almost completely to obituaries.
The company has a long history of printing memorial programs for metro Detroit’s African American community. Like several Black-owned funeral homes they work closely with, name recognition and decades of service have made them a go-to for families burying their loved ones. Though they’re facing new obstacles, legacy Black-owned businesses are still finding ways to adapt and work together in an industry that’s as personal as they come.
Mays is in regular contact with people like Antonio Green, the director of James H. Cole Home for Funerals and great-grandson of the founder. The funeral home is 101 years old and has the most licensed funeral directors and morticians in the city.
“As Elizabeth and myself kind of came up in our own businesses, we’ve maintained the family tradition of working together,” says Green. “It’s truly been a story of black business synergy with our two families.”
Designing memorials, day-in and day-out
With a product that’s fundamentally in demand right now, Mays has been able to keep the business running. She’s still facing financial losses and struggling to keep up with the emotionally taxing work — and battling the disease herself.
Mays tested positive for the coronavirus in late March. She was not hospitalized, but quarantined at home for two weeks while recovering, spending much of her time worrying about the health of her loved ones, her business and herself.
“I wish people knew just how vulnerable they are and how airborne the virus is,” says Mays.
Now back in the office a few days a week, working alone or alongside her father, it’s anything but business as usual. The memorial service division’s output has been cut by 75 percent, Mays estimates, but she still works 15-hour days, mostly to be in correspondence with families about their design needs.
Rather than meeting in person, families can upload their own photos and documents through a custom portal on MAYS Multimedia’s website to provide the initial elements of a memorial program. From there, Mays is in contact to add design flourishes that meet their needs and specifications. Although requests haven’t changed that much, people are ordering fewer programs since in-person funeral attendance is down — instead of orders of several hundred, most people order a few dozen programs. Rather than the standard direct delivery to funeral homes, they’re making adjustments for each order, dropping off memorial programs on porches or arranging pickup from their offices so clients can review a program before the service.
“Right now, it’s about making sure that companies can stand,” says Mays.
Taking the reins
Mays, 30, started training to take over the family business in 2011, right after she graduated from Western Michigan University. She studied graphic and printing services while pursuing a film degree.
She came aboard as the company was actively shrinking, leaving their 40,000-square-foot print manufacturing facility in Detroit for a 4,000-square-foot shop in Ferndale. They were in need of new energy — a way to attract new business and keep up with changing digital demands of the industry.
As a young CEO, Mays prioritized face-to-face time with existing clients and new customers, whether consulting and brainstorming new ideas for a self-published book or deciding how best to celebrate and remember a loved one with a memorial program. When she set up the online memorial portal she went out and marketed the service to about 50 funeral homes, cemeteries and churches.
She was a different representation for the business — a young, social woman who enjoyed networking and meeting new people. Not a bad choice for a legacy company looking to grow its customer base and weather that moment’s crisis.
Buoying each other up
Michigan has seen more than 4,700 COVID-19 deaths, and more than three-quarters are from the Detroit area. African Americans account for 41% of the state’s deaths but just 15% of the population, and the state’s largest, majority-Black city has experienced a particularly deadly outbreak.
Funeral homes and related businesses like MAYS have been overwhelmed by the death toll, while also experiencing the devastation of COVID-19 in their own lives. At least nine of Mays’ friends have died of the virus.
But the 74-year-old company she runs has seen just about every modern era of Detroit, a city that is consistently hit harder by occurrences that don’t seem to have the same ripple effect elsewhere. Throughout, MAYS Multimedia and other legacy Black-owned companies have relied on one another and buoyed each other up. Churches, funeral homes, and other public-facing Black-owned institutions have long been pillars of their communities and ways for families to provide for generations to come.
Mays’ grandfather, J. Caulton Mays, opened Mays Printing in the ‘40s out of a storefront on Oakland Avenue in what is now known as Detroit’s North End Neighborhood. A few miles away, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were thriving. (The historic Black neighborhoods and entertainment district were later razed in the name of urban renewal.)
In the decades since, families of politicians, congressmen and entertainers have relied on Mays to design and print obituaries. During the Detroit Riots (or Rebellion, depending on who you ask), J. Caulton Mays printed and passed out some of the infamous posters that said “Soul Brother” to indicate that a business was Black-owned and should not be the target of the protests that impacted so many surrounding businesses.
A virtual space to grieve
MAYS Multimedia has had strong relationships with a host of Black-owned funeral homes, like Swanson Funeral Home and Kemp Funeral Home & Cremation Services. Her connection to Antonio Green at James H. Cole Home for Funerals dates back to their grandfathers.
Green says one of the reasons they’ve relied on MAYS Multimedia is the ability to fulfill more far-out and high-profile design requests.
“They can do things that are a little bit outside the norm. It’s needed for this time that we’re in,” says Green.
Green has seen up close how a pandemic and its required isolation has disrupted traditional Black mourning rituals like the visitation, family hour and procession that typically accompany a funeral. James H. Cole now offers a livestream of services from their Northwest Chapel on Schaefer Highway, so family and friends can virtually attend.
“A lot of people think if the person passed from COVID-19, you have to do a cremation of the body. You can have a traditional service as long as the body is embalmed and prepared properly,” says Green.
He believes many mourners won’t truly get closure until the shelter-in-place order is lifted.
“A lot of those personalized celebrations that they’ll be able to do at a later date, when the restrictions are lifted, that’ll really be the way that they can memorialize their loved one in the proper way that they want to,” says Green. “That’ll really be a healing experience for the families.”
Imani Mixon was born and raised at the magnetic center of the world’s cultural compass — Detroit, Michigan. She is a long-form storyteller who is inspired by everyday griots who bear witness to their surroundings and report it back out. Equal parts urgent and essential, her multimedia work centers the experiences of Black women and independent artists.