Xavia Howard moved silently forward after the preacher finished his eulogy. Wearing these white cotton gloves, she opened the casket lid to reveal the face of the departed for friends and loved ones. Then Howard stepped to the side so the viewing could begin.
Howard performed these respectful motions countless times as the owner and director of Citizens Funeral Home in Wichita, Kansas. She took pride in providing quality service honoring the deceased and their family members. Professionally trained as an embalmer and funeral director, she coordinated all arrangements with a personal touch.
Howard's mother had taught her well. Funeral homes are often family-run businesses that pass down from generation to generation. Xavia's introduction to the field began as a young child when her mother, Victoria Murdoch Hightower, became the first African American woman to own and operate a funeral home in Coffeyville, Kansas.
Hightower had faced a tough situation in the 1920s after the death of her husband Rufus, a Coffeyville police officer who died in the line of duty. Black women had few occupational options at the time, and Hightower was faced with raising two children alone. As a licensed beautician, she was able to get work applying makeup and styling hair of the deceased from local funeral home owner S. Newton Bowser. Hightower was not turned off by the work and soon developed skills to work with grieving families. She learned all aspects of the trade from Bowser. When he left Coffeyville to develop a new funeral home in Topeka in 1940, he offered to sell to Victoria. She bought the business and renamed it the Hightower Funeral Home.
With the encouragement of relatives, Hightower acquired a second funeral home named Citizens in Wichita. Following in her mother's footsteps, daughter Xavia attended Williams Institute of Mortuary Science in Kansas City, Kansas to learn the art of embalming and graduated in 1941. Xavia became the director and embalmer for the new funeral home in Wichita. Victoria passed away in 1942, leaving both funeral homes to her daughter.
During her nearly 50-year career in Wichita, Xavia Howard became known for a commitment to serve the community and a flair for fashion that included white gloves. As early as the 1700s, gloves were given to pallbearers by the deceased's family to handle the casket. They were a symbol of purity, and considered a symbol of respect and honor. Carrying forth the old tradition of wearing white gloves set Howard apart from other funeral home directors in the area until she retired and sold the business in 1998.
Frankie Mason, daughter of Xavia and Frank Howard, donated these gloves, several funeral home objects, and her mother's personal items to the Kansas Historical Society where they are in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: White Gloves
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: October 2011
Date Modified: April 2015
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