As long ago as the kingdoms of Egypt, elaborate funeral practices were important to life on the continent of Africa. Their memories of burial traditions traveled with those unfortunate souls who were brought to the Americas as slaves. During their centuries of forced servitude, burials in the slave community were a rare opportunity to congregate, share emotions, dignify and celebrate the life that had passed to the next world — “gone home.”
During the Civil War, black Union soldiers were pressed into duty assisting surgeons, and embalmed dead soldiers prior to shipping their bodies back to their hometowns from the South. Following Emancipation, their skills became the basis of a business economy, which consolidated during the years of Jim Crow. Funeral directors possessed a circumspect dignity, wealth and high status in the developing free African American communities.
During the Civil Rights era, their status often placed them in forefront of negotiations with white leaders (and in a unique position to pass important secrets back and forth between blacks and whites). Funeral parlors are considered one of four major business types in African American communities that have survived desegregation, the others being churches, hair salons/ barbershops, nightclubs.
Lawrence H. Hamlar and Harry C. Curtis, Jr. established Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home in Roanoke on February 3, 1952. Harry’s wife, Marilyn, was formally included in the business incorporation several years later. Michael Hamlar, Lawrence’s nephew, was also an owner of the business.
Over the past sixty years this family business has been located prominently on the corner of 10th Street at Moorman Road. It has gone through several expansions. The first happened in 1959 after a fire almost totally destroyed the building. The second expansion built a chapel with seating capacity for 300 mourners, three spacious family rooms and an administrative suite. The business grew steadily in the 1960s, and in 1972 more building expansion was needed. State Sen. (eventually to become Virginia’s first African-American Governor) L. Douglas Wilder, a friend of both families, gave the keynote address at the dedication ceremony.
“Duke” Curtis attributes much of the business’s success “to faithful employees like funeral service licensee Fred Galloway and funeral attendant Richard Broady, lifelong employees still working in their 80s.” Other dedicated staff include Patricia Curtis, Patrick Curtis, Heather Willis, Byron Hamlar, George Stores, Frank Lynch and Stephen Hughes, and others who consistently ensure the Hamlar-Curtis standard of quality and professional service.
“It’s really very flattering,” said Duke Curtis, “when we get a call, say, from Philadelphia, that a person wants to have their loved one brought home to Roanoke and Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home is recognized for its good reputation up there.”
In years past, the most public face of the business, Lawrence H. Hamlar, helped to defuse tension in Roanoke following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. His leadership created the Center for Higher Education in Roanoke. He brought funding and leadership to Center in the Square, Blue Ridge PBS, and many other organizations. Both he and Marilyn Curtis served at different times on the Roanoke City Public Schools’ board.
The individuals of that founding generation now have all passed away: Marilyn Curtis in 2000, Michael Lee Hamlar and Lawrence Hamlar in 2003, and Harry C. Curtis, Jr. in 2012. The legacies of the founders live on through their second and third generation offspring, H. Clarke “Duke” Curtis and Michael Lawrence Hamlar, who are now the owners of Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home. Duke Curtis says, “I was happy to learn that Mike was joining the business. I’ve watched him grow up; he was a great kid and has grown into a great young man. He’s a go-getter with great energy.”
Young Michael Lawrence Hamlar, rising star of the third generation of the business, earned a football scholarship to Wake Forest University, where he played in the Seattle Bowl championship for the Demon Deacons. Soon after graduation, at age 22, he inherited his stake in the funeral home upon the death of his father Michael, who had suffered for years with multiple sclerosis, and just two and a half weeks later, the death of his great-uncle Lawrence Hamlar. He returned to Roanoke, leaving a promising football career, to help run the family business as a third generation co-owner of Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home.
To enrich his knowledge of the funeral business, he obtained an associate degree from Mortuary School at John Tyler Community College while working in Roanoke. He holds an MBA from Liberty University, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in business administration.
In 2009, Hamlar started a business brokerage firm, Hamlar Enterprises, which has handled multimillion-dollar regional mergers, business acquisitions and more. In 2012, Hamlar and his wife, Katina, established Hamlar Properties real estate firm. Hamlar is also an adjunct faculty member at American National University’s Roanoke Campus. His family includes young children Simone, Michal and Micah. He is a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and the Kiwanis Club of Roanoke.
Both Duke Curtis and Mike Hamlar were greatly influenced by their paternal role models — fathers and uncles — in their roles as business professionals, community leaders and entrepreneurs.
Recognized by The Blue Ridge Business Journal as one of the “Top 20 leaders under 40,” Mike Hamlar is energetically campaigning for a State Senate seat in the 19th District, which encompasses part of Roanoke County, all of Floyd County, all of Salem, part of Montgomery County, all of Wythe and Carroll Counties, and part of Bedford. If he is elected, he has said his priorities will be education, Medicaid expansion (which he hopes is accomplished before he makes it to the Senate), and economic development. Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently appointed him to the Secure Commonwealth Panel.
Hamlar points out that a program such as Marketplace Virginia would create 30,000 jobs while providing necessary preventive healthcare. Though not yet the official Democratic nominee, he is eager to gain that distinction so that he can focus on defeating incumbent Republican State Sen. Ralph Smith.
Duke Curtis said about Hamlar’s candidacy, “You don’t find too many young African- American men who will accept the challenge of politics, of running for this seat like Mike has. I really admire him for that.”
H. Clarke “Duke” Curtis, current president of Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home, admits he is looking forward to eventually retiring and fulfilling all that is on his “bucket list.” Born in 1956, he was educated in Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home has built a respected reputation that extends into a third generation of leadership. toSERVE 10 OCTOBER 2015 Roanoke and attended John Tyler Community College in Richmond, where he earned an Associate of Applied Science degree in Mortuary Science in 1978.
Certified by The Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards of the United States, Inc., and by the Virginia Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, Curtis has a long history of professional affiliations and awards. He has served as chairman of the board of Virginia Morticians Association, is past president of Virginia Morticians Association and Western District Funeral Directors Association, and is currently a member of numerous national and state professional boards.
Curtis has served on Virginia Tech’s School of Medicine and Research Community and Diversity Advisory Board, and Greater Roanoke Valley Development Foundation, SunTrust advisory board, Center in the Square board, board of Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Roanoke City Public School Education Foundation. He is a member of the Shenandoah Club.
He has in the past been chairman of New Horizons Healthcare Center (formerly Kuumba Community Healthcare Center), United Way of Roanoke Valley Board of Directors, Minority Leadership Development Programs Chairman of United Way, University of Virginia Advisory Counsel for Continuing Education, Long Range Planning Committee of the Roanoke City Public Schools, Big Brothers, Board of Directors of the Hunton YMCA, Community Advisor to Wasena Elementary School “Just Say No” to Drugs Camp, Council of Community Service Board of Directors, Central YMCA, Apple Ridge Farm, Better Business Bureau and New Century Venture Council (a business incubator).
Curtis is a deacon and director of the Anchor of Hope Community Center at High Street Baptist Church, a Mason, and a Shriner. His past honors include Outstanding Young Man of America, Father of the Year of High Street Baptist Church, Business Man of the Year/YMCA Family Center Branch, Western District Mortician of the Year, Outstanding Community Service/Alpha Kappa Alpha, and Omega Psi Phi Citizen of the Year Award.
He is married to the former Patricia Reynolds, with whom he has two children: Tiffany, a registered nurse in Dallas, Texas, and Patrick, who now works with him in Roanoke. He helped raise his nephew Donte’, who also works in Dallas. Curtis enjoys working out, reading, music, traveling, and spending time with his family.
Curtis strongly believes in encouraging young people. “Dare To Be Different” and “Pay it Forward” are two quotes frequently used by Curtis with community and family.