Known throughout town as Andy, Andrew William Watkins was Paducah’s first African-American funeral director and embalmer.
Watkins was born in Tuscaloosa, AL in 1856. It is not known when he moved to Paducah, but early mentions of him all indicate that he always showed a great head for business. He started in Paducah as an express wagon driver (the early equivalent of a delivery van), and before long, he’d saved enough money to own and operate his own cab line. In 1894, in recognizing the growing need for someone to serve the funerary needs of African-Americans in Paducah, Watkins established his undertaking business in August of 1894. His first storefront was at 221 S. 7th Street, close to his personal residence. Finding great success, he later relocated to the two story brick building at 701 Washington Street, close to Washington Street Missionary Baptist Church. The building housed an office, funeral chapel, morgue, store, and trimming room (a room for building coffins). Besides being a savvy businessman, Watkins was proved to be a considerable property owner and influential civic leader, often described in the newspapers as “highly esteemed.” He was affiliated with the Masonic and Knights of Pythias lodges, and served as a long time president of the “Colored Men’s Business League.”
Watkins died on June 5, 1915 from what the newspaper described as a “long illness of stomach trouble.” He was only 50 years old at the time of his death and was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Paducah. The funeral home business survived his death and was successfully run by his nephew, D.P Rucker, for several more decades.
Recently, the McCracken County Public Library digitized 28 ledgers containing records from A.W. Watkins Funeral Home, covering the years 1894-1933. The information in the records varies, but can include the name, age, place of birth, cause of death, and burial place of the deceased; the person or fraternal organization paying for the services; items purchased for the funeral; and more.
Those digitized records are available for public access on the McCracken County Library website (digitalcollections.mclib.net) and are invaluable source for local history and genealogical research.
Photo sources: The photo of Mr. Watkins was copied from the 1915 book The Golden Jubilee of the General Association of Colored Baptists in Kentucky. The photo of the gravestone is copied from findagrave.com