John Clarence “Skeepie” Scarborough III, the president and chief executive officer of one of the oldest Black-owned funeral homes in America, has died, his wife told the INDY.

She did not disclose a cause of death. He was 83.

For nearly 60 years, Scarborough’s tenure as president of the Scarborough & Hargett Family Life Center represented four generations of the legendary family’s mortuary services on behalf of Durham’s Black families.

N.C. Central University historian Andre Vann told the INDY that Scarborough “enjoyed intergenerational relationships with Durham families,” that went back decades.

“The families knew they could count on him, but he also knew he could count on them,” Vann says. “He had such a connectivity to the community. He could’ve been a marketing executive. Morticians have such a revered role in the Black community; right up there with ministers and educators. He embraced that.”

Scarborough & Hargett is the city’s oldest Black-owned funeral home and is the fifth oldest in the country. Grocer J.C. Hargett started the business in 1871 in Kinston, North Carolina.

The funeral home moved to Durham in 1900 after Hargett and Skeepie’s grandfather, John Clarence Scarborough, Sr., formed a partnership as Scarborough and Hargett Undertakers. The business ties strengthened after the elder Scarborough married Hargett’s daughter, Daisy.

Two years before the funeral home arrived in Durham, the N.C. Mutual Insurance Company, an equally important institution in the lives of the city’s Black residents, was founded.

A tribute to Scarborough on Discover Durham’s website notes that the funeral home’s 120-year history in the Bull City fulfilled an urgent need for Black families who wanted their loved ones to be buried with dignity and grace, noting that “In the era of Jim Crow, white funeral homes declined to serve and bury Black bodies.”

Chris Fisher, who owns the Fisher Memorial Service Funeral Parlor in south Durham, said Scarborough was a compassionate person.

“He had great public relations skills, and he had a photographic memory,” Fisher tells the INDY. “He never met a stranger, and he was always cordial and respectful.”

Fisher said Scarborough became the president of the funeral home two years before his brother, Elijah John “Pookey” Fisher III started his funeral service in 1963. Both of the funeral homes were located in the historic Hayti district that was a center of Black commerce and homeownership destroyed by the urban renewal program of the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, save for Black-owned funeral homes, few businesses in the district survived urban renewal. Fisher thinks it is because of family members who pass the service, and its importance to the community, down to succeeding generations.

“That’s important,” Fisher says. “When you look at the food grocer’s children, they didn’t want to be in the grocery business. The next generation of Black folks, a lot of them, have gone on to what I call, ‘better things.’ They’re not even in Durham to look after the stuff their parents built. They sell the property and go on.”

Along with following in his ancestors’ footsteps to provide a much needed and enduring service, Scarborough emerged as an archivist of Durham’s Black history.

He embodied the term, “a historian without portfolio,” coined by former N.C. Central historian Earl E. Thorpe, that describes self-educated scholars who are a vital part of the African American intellectual tradition.

A casual visit to Scarborough’s office might prompt him to pull out early black and white photos of tennis greats, Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. The two sports pioneers’ skills were nurtured at all-Black tennis tournaments held at the old Algonquin Tennis Club that was next door to his childhood home during segregation. Or he’d sometimes leave listeners riveted while recalling John McClendon, the pioneering N.C. Central basketball coach who was a student of James Naismith, the game’s inventor, and who went on to create the fast break, zone press, and “four corners” offense made famous by former UNC-Chapel Hill head coach Dean Smith.

The Discover Durham tribute describes Scarborough as “the mortician who keeps a neighborhood’s history alive.”

“He was a griot. He was proud of his history and proud of his heritage,” Vann says. “He sort of honed his craft through the medium of oral history. He was a wonderful storyteller, who knew people.

“He was born into privilege, but he was never concerned with wealth,” Vann adds, “but what was actually best for his community.”

Scarborough was born on September 12, 1937, to J. C. and Hattie Strong Scarborough, Jr. 

The family’s two-story, white, Doric-columned home in the 1400-block of Fayetteville Street is now abandoned. It was built by Scarborough’s grandfather between 1913 and 1914. While his father operated the funeral service in downtown’s Five Points district, his mother worked as an administrator at N.C. Central.

With his mom working at the school, young Scarborough “spent more time at Central than he did at home,” Vann says. “It gave him a sense of pride. He got to know all of the school’s chancellors and presidents. He really had a charmed existence, but he never wore it.”

Scarborough attended Whitted Elementary School in the Hayti community. His parents later enrolled him at Westtown Prep, a Quaker school in West Chester, Pennsylvania, as well as Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, which was founded by famed Black author and educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown. 

Scarborough attended the University of Ohio for two years and later transferred to North Carolina College, now N.C. Central University, where he graduated in 1960. While at Central, Scarborough was a member of the tennis team, Central spokeswoman Ayana Hernandez told the INDY.

In 1961, Scarborough graduated from Eckels College of Mortuary Science at Temple University and served as assistant manager of the family business before becoming its president and chief executive officer.

The funeral home had moved in 1925 from downtown to Hayti, at 522 East Pettigrew Street, where it would remain for the next 40 years. In 1962, one year after Scarborough became president of the family business, Durham voters approved a $8.6 million bond referendum for infrastructural  improvements in the Hayti district. That was the goal. The outcome was far different. More than 500 businesses and 4,000 Black-owned homes were destroyed in a process repeated in countless cities across the country at the time.

The funeral home relocated and shared space at Tin City with the Carolina Times at 919 Fayetteville Street. The business relocated again in 1974 into a handsome building on North Roxboro Road that featured an African-themed decor in the chapel. But the business was demolished to make room for the new courthouse, and Scarborough returned the service to Tin City. It remained at that location until 2018 when it moved to 511 N. Queen Street, near the main branch of the public library.

This week, Scarborough’s family marked his passing with white wreaths attached to the chain link fence at the sidewalk entrance and front door.

“Skeepie will be remembered for his indelible wit, sense of humor and polished level of respect for others,” concludes the obituary for this community leader who was a member of civic, fraternal, and professional organizations too numerous to list.

He is survived by his wife, Queen Marable Scarborough, and two children, Tonya and Scottie.

Scarborough sang for the unsung, and he often aligned the history of the city’s Black community with the best of Black America’s contributions to the national ideal.

“We have all-Americans in Durham, period,” he says in a video on Discover Durham’s website. “What we are saying is what [W.E.B.] DuBois used to say, bring something to the table, then you can do all of this.”

“Let’s go do it,” he adds.

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