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Women’s History Month Feature: Maggie Starks Overcoming the Odds to Serve a Neglected Community

March 08, 2018

  • Photograph of Maggie Starks
    West Texas Collection
When San Angelo’s African Americans lacked the ability to bury their loved ones with dignity, Maggie Starks made it her mission to provide a funeral home that gave them the respect they deserved regardless of financial circumstances.

Photograph of Maggie Starks Before 1955, San Angelo segregated public establishments like schools, restaurants, and cemeteries. The African American community received poor service in many areas of their lives including burials. The city’s cemetery, Fairmount, barred the black community from burying loved ones within the grounds. In 1903, the first black cemetery in San Angelo, Pleasant View, was established when the Fairmount Cemetery Board agreed to give two full blocks of their land to the Pleasant View Cemetery Association for that purpose.  

While the burial grounds in San Angelo were segregated, the earliest funeral homes, Charles Robinson and Robert Massie, served the African American community; however, if a family lacked funds to pay for the care of the body, service was subpar. In 1914, the St. Paul A.M.E. Church called Reverend Archie Robinson Starks to pastor the local congregation. The Reverend was married to Maggie Starks, who noticed the great lack of care for the black community in regards to funeral arrangements and set out to make a difference. Maggie began going door-to-door, taking up collections for those who did not have the funds for proper services and at times assisted in preparing the deceased for burial.

Four years after arriving in San Angelo, Rev. Starks was called to pastor in San Marcos. In 1925, Rev. Starks passed away, leaving behind Maggie and their baby daughter, Hazel. In an interview with Katharine Waring, Maggie said, “I didn’t care to teach school. That’s all a black woman could do back then. I had a child; I wanted to be with her all the time. It just sprung to my mind to come back to San Angelo and go into the undertaking business.”

With a $4,000 life insurance policy from her husband, Maggie purchased land at the corner of Fifth and Farr and partnered with B. and Sylvia Dodd. Together, they started Dodd and Starks Funeral Home. Maggie also played a large part in the management and maintenance of Pleasant View, often holding the Association’s meetings at Dodd and Starks. Through her hard work, Maggie greatly impacted the African American community in San Angelo. In 1931, she bought out the Dodd’s and moved the business to a new location, changing the name to Starks Funeral Home.

Maggie faced overwhelming odds. As a single black mother, she started a business, bought land, created a second black cemetery (Delta Memorial Park on Arden Road), and took care of a neglected community, all during the Great Depression. As a minority within a minority, Maggie achieved success that was not common for a black woman in the Depression. She served as an inspiration for other females in the community as well. Bobbye L. Williams, a San Angelo resident during this time, said in an interview that Maggie never let money get in the way of helping an individual. Regardless of the financial circumstances, she treated everyone with dignity and helped any family that brought a loved one to her. In fact, Williams said Maggie taught her how to respect the dead. In 1952, Maggie helped a family in Abilene, Texas, start their own funeral home, Curtis-Starks, receiving no financial compensation.

One year after the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, integration made its way to the San Angelo Independent School District. Once the public schools desegregated, other public places followed suit including the cemeteries and funeral homes. Maggie recalled when the first black person was embalmed at Johnson’s Funeral Home after integration. Out of fear of taking business away from her, the director called to apologize saying, “Maggie, I hate to do this, but if we refuse, we could be sued.” The respect the other funeral directors held towards Maggie was evident in their concern for her after integration. Robert Massie Funeral Home called her as well. She responded, “The blacks put me where I am today… I said, ‘You go on and bury them; I will make it.” And she did. Her funeral home ran smoothly under her management. She remembered that if she ever needed an embalmer or someone to dig graves, Johnson’s and Massie gladly stepped in to help her.

Maggie’s contributions to the African American community in San Angelo garnered several public recognitions including the Black Texans Historical Society Certificate of Recognition of Service to the African American Services in 1990 and a Certificate of Appreciation for Devoted and Invaluable Services to the Community by the Minister’s Wives Alliance in 1990. Maggie passed away in San Angelo on 7 March 1992 at the age of 95, forever leaving her mark on the African American community and the city as a whole.