Spending his entire adult life in the mortuary business, Clifford James has become a pillar in the Harlem business community. Serving 30 years at Unity Funeral Chapel, where he serves as vice president and general manager, retirement is not in his plans.
Working for the company since he was 18 years old, Unity is a Black-owned funeral home with three locations in the city. Former Amsterdam News publisher C.B. Powell started the business in the mid-1950s.
Born and raised in the rural town of Glenwood, Ga., James said he became interested in the funeral home business at the age of 12 when he witnessed the death of his father. He said that during his grief, the funeral directors that handled his father’s passing caught his eye.
“They were very professional and well-dressed,” he said, “That was what impressed me. I never changed my mind about what I wanted to be, even when my mother wanted me to be a school principal.”
After graduating high school at the age of 16, James moved to upstate New York with an aunt and took a job as a factory worker. He recalls the move taking him from “a hot spot to a snow belt” due to the weather conditions and different environment.
He attended Simmons Institute of Funeral Service in Syracuse, working nights at a post office to pay for his education. He earned his degree from the school in one year and was one of two Blacks in his graduating class.
Upon graduation, he moved to Newark, N.J., with one of his sisters and got the recommendation from a co-worker of hers about Unity Funeral Chapel. He started at the Harlem business as an intern at age 18.
After serving one year as an intern, James was hired at Unity full-time and has been there ever since. During his tenure at Unity, he worked his way up to vice president and general manager.
“I love this business,” he said. “I wouldn’t even want to work at Goldman Sachs if they offered me a job. If I live to 100, I will still work here. Retirement isn’t even in my vocabulary.”
In his office, pictures grace his wall of Black historical figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. Unity has facilitated funerals for Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, Whitney M. Young and Kahlid Muhammad.
James has also seen his share of the tragedies that plague the community. He’s opened his doors to the community to say goodbye to police officers, firefighters and youth who have become victims of senseless violence.
Not a stranger to lending a hand to those in the community who do not have the financial means to pay for a proper burial, James is known for giving discounts on many of the services he offers.
Nearly 60 to 70 percent of the people he serves are in Harlem. Unity has other locations in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
He credits his strength and willingness to keep working with few vacations to his mother, who he calls his one and only hero.
“My mother raised eight children and worked two jobs seven days a week and never took a vacation,” he said. “She always pressed education so that we could take care of ourselves.”
As for the future of Unity, James has a vision of expanding his Harlem funeral home and naming the new wing after his mother.