Levett family members, front from left, mother Barbara, son Jerome, back from left, son George Jr. and son Grote, help operate the Levett Funeral Home, the oldest black-owned business in Conyers.
In the early days of the Levett Funeral Home business during the 1950s and '60s, funeral homes operated the ambulance services, and black funeral homes took blacks to the hospital and white funeral homes took whites.
But one time George Levett Sr. broke the rules. His funeral home arrived first on the scene of an accident involving injured whites, and without hesitation he took them to get medical care. The accident victims expressed their gratitude, said Jerome Levett, the son of the late George Levett Sr.
"He didn't discriminate," said Jerome Levett.
The Levett Funeral Home, at 1041 Bryant St. in Conyers, is the oldest black-owned business in Rockdale County, according to the Levett family. It handles between 70 and 90 funerals a year, and about 10 percent of clients are non-black.
The Levett Funeral Home building is a modest-sized house in a predominantly black neighborhood. George Levett Jr. runs the business with his older brothers Jerome and Grote and sisters Marilyn and Sonya and mother Barbara. Brother Gregory runs his own funeral home business with locations in Scottdale, Decatur, Lawrenceville and Buford.
George Levett Jr. said the family used to live in the funeral home, with half of the house serving as the business and the other half as living space.
"There were no spend-the-night parties because no one wanted to stay here," joked George Levett Jr. "But it was no big deal to us. We'd always seen it and always been around it. It was part of our upbringing. We couldn't understand why our friends were shocked about death."
The mortuary profession reaches back generations in the Levett family, who came to Conyers from West Virginia as slaves in the 1800s.
In the early 1900s, Lucious Levett, the father of George Levett Sr., lived on Malcolm Street in Conyers and worked for the white-owned Mann Funeral Home in Conyers, as well as earning an income as a farmer and factory worker.
The Mann Funeral Home was housed at 951 Railroad St. in a now historic Victorian home known to many in the community today as the former Michelangelo's restaurant. A smaller building next to the Mann Funeral Home served as the black funeral home.
As a teenager, George Levett Sr. worked alongside his father, helping him prepare the bodies, and open and close the graves.
George Levett Sr. then served in the U.S. Army during World War II for three years. When he returned, he finished his high school diploma, started a family and decided to return to what he knew best -- the funeral business.
Levett earned his mortuary science degree and established Levett Funeral Home in 1950 in Lithonia. The business thrived and two years later he opened a new four-room block building on Needmore Street in Conyers
That business closed in 1954 and until 1959 Levett worked at local funeral homes. He then partnered with two other men to open Tri-Cities Funeral Home in Lithonia.
In 1964, Levett sold his interest in the Tri-Cities business and partnered with Dan Young in Conyers to open Levett and Young Funeral Home on Bryant street.
Three years later, Levett became sole owner of the funeral home that bore his family's name.
George Levett Jr. said his father, whose career also included being the first full-time black Conyers Police officer and a deputy sheriff for eight years, served many poor black families at his funeral home.
Decades ago, funeral costs ran between $300 and $400 and some didn't have much insurance, explained George Levett Jr. That didn't stop his father from providing them with the services they needed.
"He didn't turn anybody away. He gave away more than he made," said George Levett Jr.
He performed his job as a funeral director with compassion and generosity, said the younger Levett.
"I was able to see how it affected and changed lives," he said. "Because it was family-owned and operated, we gave a personal touch to whatever we did. We were able to provide affordable service to lower-income people. People never felt like they were treated any different."
George Levett Sr. died in 2004 at the age of 77 but his family has continued the business. George Levett Jr., 42, said that the major change he's witnessed at his family's funeral home business is that people are dying younger. About half of their clients are aged 50 or younger. Infectious diseases and other health problems have impacted the population, he said.
Levett Funeral Home offers themed funerals, embalming, cremations, memorial services and video presentations of the deceased.
Working in the funeral business is not as morbid as one may think, said Jerome Levett.
"We get our satisfaction from making the families feel comforted," he said.
The Levett family said they are considering expanding in the near future -- building a new, larger facility to accommodate their growing business.
The Levetts are proud of the business their father started.
"I would call him a community servant, with his ability to help people, and we want to keep that legacy going," said George Levett Jr.
For more information about the Levett Funeral Home in Conyers, call 770-483-9885.