For Corey Rogers, the loss of one of the first black-owned funeral homes in Augusta is a sad reality.
“Losing these buildings, it takes away in some respect from, not just Augustans being proud of its heritage, but also attracting other people to tour the neighborhood and tour the city. The more historic properties we lose, the less attractive we become to other people,” said Rogers, a historian at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History.
Dent’s Undertaking Establishment on D’Antignanc Street was destroyed in a Saturday morning fire. Augusta fire crews were called around 5 a.m. and began search-and-rescue operations from parts of the building they could access.
A body of a man found inside was burned beyond recognition and was sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation lab for autopsy and identification. Authorities believe the man was living inside the building and was caught in the fire.
Fire crews were able to rescue a dog, which is in the custody of animal control. The fire’s cause is unknown.
Rogers said Dent’s was a “revered” funeral home in the Augusta community, especially during the era of segregation when African-Americans were forced to create their own businesses to survive.
Dent’s Undertaking was one of the city’s oldest black-owned funeral homes. The business moved to the 900 block of D’Antignac Street in 1900 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, according to Augusta Chronicle archives.
“Dent’s became one of those entities within the Augusta community that allowed for a sense of business, entrepreneurial spirit that existed within the community during the early 20th century,” Rogers said. “Julia Dent and the others affiliated with the Dent’s Undertaking Establishment sort of built this model business that, in effect, gave African-Americans a sense of independence during this era, when in many cases we were treated as second-class citizens.”
The state Department of Revenue closed the business in 2009 after it repeatedly failed to pay sales taxes owed to the state and the county. Former owner Thomasina Ketch died of natural causes in 2014, The Chronicle reported.
In 2017, the funeral home’s former director Frank Griffin was forced to sell the building to the Augusta Land Bank Authority for $55,768, according to public documents. The building is believed to have been vacant for the past decade.
In May, more than 100 undelivered military grave markers were found in the building. The Richmond County Coroner’s Office is still in the process of delivering every marker to their designated burial sites.
Rogers hopes the fire prompts a new concern about protecting historic buildings in the city.
“I think this could very well serve as a wake-up call to the city that we need to continue to protect our historic structures and put the right mechanisms in place to ensure that these things don’t happen going forward,” he said.