Women’s History Month: Elizabeth Harden Gilmore First Black Funeral Director On The East Coast

In the mid-1940s few Blacks were permitted to operate as Funeral directors, and especially not women, who just gained the right to vote in 1920. Enter Elizabeth Harden Gilmore who became the first licensed female funeral director along the eastern seaboard. She opened the Harden and Harden Funeral Home in 1947.

It was located in Kanawha County West Virginia, a place known for increased racial tension during that time. The local racists didn’t like a Black woman directing funerals in their county and state. 

Gilmore was also a pioneer in efforts to integrate West Virginia’s schools, housing, and public accommodations. Her goal was to pass civil rights legislation that would enforce such integration. In the early 1950s, before the Brown v. Board Of Education decision mandating school segregation, Gilmore formed a women’s club which opened Charleston’s first integrated daycare center.

Around the same time, she also succeeded in getting her black Girl Scouts of the USA Troop admitted to Camp Anne Bailey which is near the mountain town of Lewisburg West Virginia.

She didn’t stop there, co-founding the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1958. Gilmore even led CORE during a successful one-year-long sit-in campaign at a local department store called “The Diamond.”

Then in the 1960’s Harden Gilmore, served on the Kanawha Valley Council of Human Relations, where she participated in forums on racial differences. These forums helped Black renters, displaced by a new interstate highway, find housing.

She led a successful push to amend the 1961 state civil rights law and won her a seat on the powerful higher-education Board of Regents. Gilmore was the first African-American to receive such an honor. She remained on the Board until the 1970s.

Gilmore was also involved with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and community education and welfare committees.

The Elizabeth Harden Gilmore House, which is also known as Minotti-Gilmore House or Harden and Harden Funeral Home, is now a historic home and national historic district located at Charleston, West Virginia. It is a 2 1/2 story, Classical Revival brick detached residential dwelling on an approximately one-half acre lot in a business area of town. The home features a column portico and has undergone some alteration amongst deterioration.

We proudly celebrate such fearless and shrewd trailblazers during Women’s History Month.

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