Breanna Reeves |
“I guess coming up in the South where most Blacks didn’t have anything, couldn’t have anything or afford to have anything to leave to the heirs,” Mr. Albert Leon Tillman explained, “I wanted to be sure that my children and grandchildren, great grandchildren, will have something if they prefer this profession. Something that could last and last and last and last.”
Historically, Black businesses diminished under the Jim Crow as so many were targeted and destroyed like what occurred during the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.
Mr. Tillman was born in Georgetown, South Carolina in 1936. He settled in Riverside about 37 years ago where he established Celebrating River, previously known as “Tillie’s Funeral Home,” the oldest Black-owned mortuary service in Riverside County.
Initially, Mr. Tillman pursued a career in computer science, but switched career paths in 1970 when he enrolled in the California College of Mortuary Science. He has been a licensed funeral director and embalmer since 1972. He attributes his career shift to his ability or “quest” to help people during times of distress. For Mr. Tillman, helping people during their darkest moments seemed more beneficial than pursuing computer science.
Mr.Tillman is a first generation mortician and now runs the family-owned Tillman Riverside Mortuary alongside his youngest daughter, Ms. La Tanya C. Tillman and his granddaughter, Ashlynne C. McNeil Tillman.
Operating a Family-owned Business
“And so far, thank God, I’ve been very, very fortunate because here with me now is my daughter. She is basically CFO in the business. And my granddaughter that answered the phone, she is taking my position, CEO, and she is the manager of the operations here,” said Mr. Tillman. “We are thinking, and hopefully it will come to pass, [of] opening up a second location.”
As a self-proclaimed family-oriented man, Mr. Tillman enjoys working with his family. He first approached his son about joining the mortuary business, but his son pursued a career in law. His eldest daughter pursued a career in education. His youngest daughter, La Tanya, was interested in joining the business and is now a Licensed Funeral Director and Notary Public.
His granddaughter, Ashlynne, is currently the vice president and general manager of the company. She is also a Licensed Funeral Director and an Apprentice Embalmer.
“Working with them, you know, believe it or not, working with them has been good. I don’t hardly see them because I’m in the back. I’m still Head Embalmer here,” Mr. Tillman explained. “But it’s been pretty nice. Thank God we’ve gotten along fine.”
Depending on how busy the mortuary is, Mr. Tillman hardly interacts with his family. He begins his days at 7:00 a.m. and works in the back embalming, dressing, assisting and teaching. Some days Mr. Tillman doesn’t leave the preparation room until eight or nine o’clock at night while his daughter and granddaughter may have already left.
Tillman Riverside Mortuary offers a variety of services such as traditional and nontraditional funeral services, casket and urn options and grief counseling. In 1995, the original building was demolished and rebuilt to include a chapel, casket room and additional office space.
“The services you provided in caring for my son Sebastian O. Simpson on August 9-10, 2021, was awesome. We the Simpson & Jefferson Family were very pleased with your professional trained staff, the kindness they showed and expressed during my son’s final hours that he was in your care,” reads one of the testimonials left by a client. “We were highly satisfied with the total outcome of the services. A job well done. The Tapestry presentation of my son, Oh My God, was awesome to say the least. ‘We Love It’ Thank you for your Beautiful Service from the bottom of our hearts, the Simpson & Jefferson Family & Friends.”
The Legacy of Black Businesses
When Mr. Tillman first moved to Riverside, Black businesses were far and few. He became a member of the Black organizations that were first established in the community such as the Black Chamber of Commerce.
Being in a position of leadership as a longstanding Black business owner in the community has inspired Mr. Tillman. He has been fortunate enough to pour back into the community by providing donations to local Black churches who provide educational funding to their youth.
“I’ve been giving $500 per year to all of those churches, all the Black churches that sponsor the young people going to those churches,” said Mr. Tillman. “That’s been one of my inspirations: to try to help and assist in educating young Black people.”
As National Black Business Month continues throughout the month of August, Mr. Tillman offers advice for the growth of Black businesses and success of Black entrepreneurs.
“Well, to build, we have to spend our money in our community. We have to hire, we have to do anything that is possible whereas we can assist each other as Black businesses,” said Mr. Tillman. “We have to work together.”
As the former president of the California Funeral Directors & Embalmers Association for 11 years, Mr. Tillman explained how the organization participated and poured into the community by hosting food drives and providing backpacks for kids going to school. Mr. Tillman challenges Black businesses to invest in one another.
“If we don’t start participating with each other, start doing things with each other, we as Blacks are going to remain third, fourth, fifth or sixth class, because seemingly, instead of us getting better at doing more with each other and for each other, we are getting worse and worse,” Mr. Tillman explained. “And I hate that. I hate it.”
“I will ask any Black business now or those people who are going [in]to business, that some of the first things that we need to do is try to get along with other Black businesses, try to promote their business,” Mr. Tillman said.
Tillman Riverside Mortuary is located on 2874 Tenth Street in Riverside.
Celebrate Black Businesses All Month (and Beyond)
For the month of August, Black Voice News will be highlighting Black-owned businesses throughout the Inland Empire as a way to celebrate and recognize Black businesses and their endeavors.
Check in with Black Voice News every week to see what businesses we spotlight and learn how you can support them.
Breanna Reeves is a reporter who uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, she reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @_breereeves.