Ernestine O'Bee

Black History makers regularly grace our pages; and in truth, Black history is made everyday. Everyone has a story, a plethora of experiences that make our lives unique and worthy of documentation. History makers are often our parents, a teacher, or mentor, a neighbor, pastor, or parishioner, a family member, a friend.

Your MCJ staff makes history as we bring you the news in print, web and magazine. Each year, we bring to your attention traditional Black History makers like Fredrick Douglas, George Washington Carver or Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, or Mary McCloud Bethune. More recently, we featured history makers like Frances Starms, Harry Kemp or State Representative Marcia Coggs and Attorney Lloyd Barbee who made contributions to Milwaukee’s growth and development. Presently, President Obama, his ascendency, presidency and initiatives frequent our Black History pages, as do local legends who are acknowledged and their accomplishments shared.


Another Milwaukee Black history maker is the late Ernestine O’Bee, an iconic funeral director and community leader whose life continues to influence Milwaukee’s families and future leaders today. The wife of Milwaukee’s premiere funeral director, Emile O’Bee, who died in 1972, the O’Bee’s owned and operated the O’Bee Funeral Home on Walnut Street, that relocated to 24th and Center Street, during the Great Migration, in the late nineteen forties and early fifties.


Mrs. O’Bee was also the President of O’Bee, Ford and Frazier which became the Northwest Funeral Chapel at 6630 W. Hampton Avenue, in 1993. Northwest continues to serve Milwaukee families as it did at her death, January 21, 2007. Handpicked, by Mrs. O’Bee, J.C. Frazier, President and Licensed Funeral Director, continues this legacy and builds new services that meet Milwaukee families in their greatest time of need.


O’Bee was a renaissance woman, born March 20, 1907 in Omaha, Nebraska. The only child of dentist, Ernest, and Evelyn Singleton, they doted on their beautiful daughter, as did her maternal grandmother, who taught her poems and verses, early in life.


Mrs. O’Bee often shared that her grandmother taught her; “ In 1907, I came down from heaven”, and this is the way that most of her friends knew when she was born. Age was never a determinant of Mrs. O’Bee’s quest for life, for she always demonstrated passion, mission, purpose and a commitment to quality, tenets for a long and productive life. On the occasion of her 99th birthday, the staff of Northwest Funeral Chapel gave her a birthday party and everyone was surprised, for she was still involved, active, and continued to serve at the funeral chapel daily. She guided grief sessions for families until the last three weeks of her life and loved to be present at funerals as the official greeter to encourage, cheer and make grievers feel more at home. She never tired of “giving back”.


Education was an expected next step of her parents, and upon high school graduation, Ernestine Singleton traveled to Ann Harbor, Michigan to the University of Michigan, with a declared interest in journalism. Journalism, in the 20th century, for a Black woman was a lofty dream, for in addition to racism and classism, sexism was the norm rather than the exception. A child of the Women’s Suffrage era, the rights of women was just beginning to impart how women should be treated. Ratification of the 19th Amendment was finalized in August 1920, so you can imagine the courage of her family in encouraging her to pursue this dream. With family savings and bartered exchanges for services from Dr. Singleton, Ernestine Singleton enrolled. She was one of a few Black students attending the university and an even smaller group of women from out of state.


She earned extra money for books and extracurricular activities by working off-campus doing “private duty”, that entailed baby-sitting, or cleaning or cooking for families. One day, while cleaning the refrigerator, she ate some “day old cornbread” for lunch. Typically lunch was part of her pay, so taking the cornbread was not unusual. Before leaving, however, the lady informed Ernestine that she was taking fifty cents from her week’s pay because she ate the cornbread for lunch. That deduction was significant as books were expensive.


Embarrassed and crushed, the experience drove Mrs. O’Bee the rest of her life. She was always gracious, sensitive, professional, generous and she was also determinedly independent. Upon graduation from the University of Michigan, with a degree in Social Work, in 1931, Ernestine began employment at the Children’s Aid Society. Later, she became a social worker at the Detroit YWCA. In this capacity, she came to Milwaukee for a YWCA conference and called a friend, from Omaha, Emile O’Bee. Her activism and commitment to justice and respect of women led her to many vistas including being a junior rifle instructor and a certified lifeguard. She was also a delegate to the prestigious World’s Conference on Interracial Christian Youth in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1939.


Returning to Milwaukee, after a budding romance, Ernestine Singleton became the lovely bride of widower, Emile O’Bee, in 1948 . The two were a charming, funny, entrepreneur-couple and their presence at parties and social/civic affairs was integral to Milwaukee’s vibrance. When her husband asked her to take classes to become a funeral director, she did not hesitate to attempt to enroll. Sexism, classism and racism she had known in Ann Harbor was thrust upon her again. But immediately Mr. O’bee threatened to expose the school, and ultimately Ernestine completed her studies and became the first Black women in Wisconsin to be licensed as funeral director, in 1952.


In this history-making role, she was given a gubernatorial appointment to the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing, another first for a woman of color in Wisconsin . She reviewed applicants and future funeral directors and embalmers, adding much to the credibility of licensing in the state.


Jointly, the O’Bee’s partnered to grow their business and O’Bee Funeral Chapel became a household name, with a reputation of superb quality: “ I will send you to O’Bee’s” was a standing joke, often uttered in jest on the street; and that image of professionalism remains at Northwest today .


Mrs. O’Bee was a good neighbor, business woman, civic and social community thought-leader. Children of the Walnut Street and Center Street era speak warmly of her beauty, grace and her willingness to teach youngsters to keep the neighborhood clean. The funeral chapel was attractive with flower filled urns and the kids had little jobs, with pay, to keep the candy wrappers off the sidewalks, each day.


Members of All Saints Cathedral remember Mrs. O’Bee parish support, where she was an active member. She spoke openly of her spirituality and the gift of love. Milwaukee’s Delta’s, the Salvation Army, the House of Peace, the YMCA, YWCA and the Eastern Star were favorite organizations who benefitted from Mrs. O’Bee’s interest, fiances and talents. Zonta International’s Milwaukee Chapter invited Mrs. O’Bee to become a member where upon she invited friends like Helen Alexander, Aileen Rock Jordan and others to work to advance the status of women.


She retained a special interest in community development, upward demographic mobility and equality. During her husband’s lifetime, she pushed to increase the number of women working at the funeral home, and created opportunities for internships and mentoring for those interested in the industry, including Lorretta Kingsby, who continues with the Northwest Funeral Chapel, today. Presently seven licensed funeral directors are employed by Northwest Funeral Chapel, of that number five are women, a precedence begun by their founder, Ernestine O’Bee.


Sixteen other well trained service professionals are present daily to assist families before, during and after funerals, each following the policies and decorum established by Mrs. O’Bee throughout her life. Her legacy lives on. Mr J.C. Frazier, Funeral Director and MBA business specialist, is the CEO of Northwest Funeral Chapel today, with presently seven visitation chapels, full pre-need; pre-arrangements, burial trusts and post need services, including grief support for families.


Other services include a modern limo fleet and after service repast hosting and catering at two locations, including the new Northwest Family Activity & Event Center, located at 4034 W. Good Hope Rd., with rental facilities for meetings, parties, conferences and concerts. Residents of the Racine/Kenosha/Beloit area may seek the services of Funeral Director Troy Robertson at the 800 Barker Street location in Racine, Wisconsin.


Mrs. O’Bee’s investments, associations, volunteer activities, and church affiliations all supported her philosophy. She was one of the early investors in Time Warner Cable in Milwaukee. In retrospect, her ability to envision the new superhighway, the innumerable channels, cable and applications we now enjoy, affirms her capacity to forecast, for at the time that the investment was made, only local channels were available to viewers. The same can said about her investment into North Milwaukee State Bank, forty-six years ago, when it was the first FDIC insured African American bank, in Milwaukee. Columbia Savings and Loan, she supported, in its early years, consciously investing and building the financial community.


When she died, January 21, 2007, Mrs. O’Bee left her estate to family members and friends; she also ensured that students, matriculating under the Ernestine O’Bee award would have funds to continue their academic pursuits. A Board member of the Dr. Terence N. Thomas Scholarship Fund for ten years, multiple doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, three pastors, two medical physician assistants, multiple communication specialists, an architect, and an elected official-aspirant and senior pharmacist, in May, all have benefitted from her generosity and her declaration to high expectations, followed by graduation. She asked only that each learn to give back to support those who come behind them. Throughout the years, her awardees listened carefully to her wisdom and stories of overcoming adversities. They know her sacrifice.


Never one to dwell on what was not, Mrs. O’Bee always challenged you to work for what you desire and not let hurdles overwhelm you. Her life exemplified her philosophy, for while legally blind and assisted by a cumbersome magnifying machine, daily, few knew her difficulty, and she never permitted it to distract from whatever she needed to accomplish. Her families came first. Her love for community lives on, today.


Remembering Mrs. O’Bee:


“It is said that everyone must leave something behind when he/she dies. A child or a book; a house or a hat; something that your hand touched in some way so when people look at what you have left behind, you are there. It does not matter what you do as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.


“For many of us who remember Mrs. O’Bee, we can truly say that our lives were changed because she touched us. Her ideals, her values, her insight and wisdom have truly made a difference in the “ garden of people” whom she planted, nurtured and enabled them to grow and become more like her”


“Now here we are planting, nurturing and growing others who are becoming proteges of Mrs. O’Bee so her memories will keep her alive and with us always”.* J.C. Frazier, CEO, Director, Northwest Funeral Chapel; O’Bee, Ford, Frazier, Inc.


“I have several memories of Mrs. Ernestine S. O’Bee. Most of all, I remember that grand lady with that grand smile. She loved all unconditionally and treated everyone as so. She once mentioned to me that you had to love everyone according to the good book. That didn’t mean you had to like them. She definitely believed in God.


“Mrs. O’Bee believed in education and the value of education. For you to be the best you can be, dream and reach for the sky. She often told me “ the cornbread story”. From this experience she stated she never wanted anyone to go through that type of treatment while getting their education and working their way through school, that lead her to giving to the Dr. Terence N. Thomas Scholarship Fund and leaving part of her estate to the scholarship fund.


“She was a great mentor, a grand role model, as well as a God mother to me. She valued family and friends and would do whatever she could to help others.


“She loved to dress and said “ A lady should always act like a lady and carry herself like a lady to be respected by all”.


“Mrs. O’Bee was careful about what she said and how she treated others. She was never a stranger and she became a member of everyone’s family, sharing trips, family dinners, holidays, birthday, and other engagements.


“Mrs. O’Bee and I decided we were brought together by divine intervention. As stated, I Corinthians 13:13, she abided in faith, hope and love, these three but the greatest of these is LOVE. Forever in our memories and hearts, until we meet again.”* Lorretta Kingsby, Funeral Director, Northwest Funeral Chapel.


“During my Milwaukee youth from the 1940’s -60’s, I became acquainted with Mrs. Ernestine O’Bee- a truly iconic name- as the wife of noted funeral director Emile O’Bee. Both were dear friends of my late parents, Sanford and Juanita Carter. When they celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1984, Mrs. O’Bee was there with hearts and flowers and her friendly face”.


“For many years, the O’Bee’s centrally located funeral parlor was a mainstay in the city’s vibrant Black community. Ernestine and Emile provided fitting final services for many people -rich, poor, big and small. This included friends, neighbors and relatives.”


“When my mother passed away on April, 4, 1992, the same date on which her hero, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in 1968, Mrs. O’Bee was called upon for the tasteful pre-need, at-need and after-care services”.


“In the seven subsequent years until my father’s death on August 11, 1999, Mrs. O’Bee lived right next door to him and his second wife, Roseanne, at 7877 Heather Road, on the city’s northwest side. And once again she was there to help lay him to rest.


“I’ll always remember the stately Ernestine O’Bee as a wonderful, caring woman and a generous friend. When she passed at 100 years of age in 2007, it was, indeed, momentous.”


* Milwaukee native, Ricard G. Carter, freelance columnist.


“I called her Mamere’, which is French for Mother. Ernestine was another Mother, I called my mother Mamere’, as well. I met her at age 14 years, and throughout the years, she humored me, encouraged, guided me and applauded me.


“I took her for all of her eye doctor appointments but our times just talking, eating at Family Table Restaurant, where she loved smothered liver, or tea at the tea house on Dr. King Drive were truly uniquely our own. This was a time when she could confide, let her hair down and simply tease me and my husband Joe”.


“ A jokester, she had a kind way of letting you know she thought you could do it differently. One day she saw me in a dress and quickly commented, ‘ did you leave part of that skirt at home”. I knew she felt that dress was a bit too short”.


“She was a “giver”. There are givers and takers, Ernestine was the consummate “giver”.


* Bessie Lynch, is a retired nurse and kidney transplant expert and an sixty-plus year friend.


“Mrs. O’Bee was beautiful; the boys from 4th Street, like Orville and Terry Pitts, Bobby Roberson and Reuben Harpole always saw a lovely lady in Mrs. O’Bee. She knew how to take a small business and build it into a big business, the funeral home grew substantially after she arrived.


“She was articulate and kind, she was admired. She was a role model, who represented the best of personal decorum and made us all proud. She meant a lot to the community and many business women today had her as their example”.


* Robert Thomas, MCJ Associate Publisher


Her Living Legacy: Her Gift That Keeps On Giving:


The Ernestine O’Bee Scholarship Award is given to students from the Dr. Terence N. Thomas Memorial Scholarship Fund, Inc. who have successfully completed their undergraduate degrees and desire to continue academic pursuits that improve their employment opportunities and enhances their expertise and skill base.


Past Ernestine ‘Bee Awardees include:

* Jamillah Muslim, a Pharmaceutical sales rep who received her Bachelors from Xavier University in New Orleans and her Masters in Public Health from Tulane University, in New Orleans. She was a six year recipient.

* Deanna Finner a graduate of Morgan State University began Law School at Marquette University. She was a five year recipient.

* Truscenialyn Brooks attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and practices today, an eight year recipient of O’Bee funds.

* Kimberly Jones Clayton an Alverno graduate who matriculated at Keller Graduate School, receiving her MBA, seeking Certified Accounting, is a six year recipient.

* Lauren Bridgeman graduated with honors from Hampton University and received her Masters in Communications, totaling eight years of O’Bee Award support.

* Paul Cizek graduated University of Wisconsin-Madison and began post graduate studies in Divinity, he was a five year recipient.

* Angela Marchant graduated from Johns Hopkins and has done post graduate work, without continued support, but she received her first four years helped by the fund.

* Angie Mercado-Jones was the first adult student to receive O’Bee funds. She attended ITT Technical Institute, successfully, and enrolled at UWM to continue towards a Bachelors degree; regrettably she expired, unexpectedly. We always remember Angie’s voice , her love, and songbird witness at past scholarship events.

* Tanesha Willis, graduated from Howard University and sought the O’Bee Award to expand her professional toolbox. The fund supported her matriculation at Phoenix University which strengthened her promotion capacity and grounded her resume.

*Justin Lester an undergrad recipient, four years, at Marquette University continued with two more years at Marquette University, post graduate, before entering Vanderbilt University in the School of Divinity. Reverend Lester is an affirmed leader who was recently selected to represent the Vanderbilt at a Texas Conference. His sister, a recipient of undergraduate support, is a graduating senior this year.


Ernestine O’Bee Awards in 2013-2014 Calendar year.

* Brittany Mays graduated with honors from Xavier University, Ohio. “I am a current first year medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin. I am not sure what specialty I want to pursue as of yet but I have a lot of time to decide”. She confidently approaches her future, with now her fifth year of scholarship support.

* Donavan Jackson, “I finished my undergrad career with a degree in Sociology with a minor in Art, a 3.135 cum GPA and a bunch of memories. The Dr. Terence N. Thomas Scholarship has been so helpful in aiding my education, and my graduation is proof! “I truly thank you all again. With that said, I will be attending grad school, the Spring 2014 semester, pursuing a Masters degree in Professional Development: Higher Education Leadership from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.“ I am very excited to embark on this new journey. I am also excited to retain the Dr. Thomas scholarship again, my 6th year. I thank you all, especially Mrs. O’Bee, as well, for the love and support over the years, much of which has been instrumental to my education”.

* Courtney Jones “I am currently living and working in Springfield, Mo as a Regional Program Manager for a non-profit organization. We work with college students to do community outreach projects in the community.“We work with fortune 500 companies who support our program financially, recruit our students and increase their social corporate responsibility which means a greater impact on the world.“I specifically manage our college teams and team-donor relationships in the Southeast region of the country. I travel a lot in this position but it is a great experience to give back in different communities around the world.“I am forever grateful for all the financial and emotion support the Community Journal has been in my life and it has indeed manifested throughout my professional career.“As a past recipient, I shall always be available to the Dr. Terence N. Thomas Fund, the Mrs. O’Bee award alumni and Milwaukee, my home”.

* Caroline Walker “I have been a recipient of the Dr. Thomas Scholarship since 2006. This scholarship has helped me tremendously with the financial burden of attending undergraduate and professional school. “I am currently a third year pharmacy student at the University of Wisconsin Madison School of Pharmacy and I am working toward my PharmD (Doctor of Pharmacy).“I am a candidate for graduation on May 15, 2015. This current semester is my last of didactic coursework and this May I will be moving back to Milwaukee to complete my last year of pharmacy school.“We have two month rotations at six different sites and I will complete them in Milwaukee. The goal of the rotations are to get more clinical experiences and help guide post-graduation decisions. I want to work in the inner city of Milwaukee where my services can be truly beneficial to the community. I look forward to giving back to the community I grew up in and giving back to this scholarship fund post graduation because I am beyond blessed to have been granted this opportunity as a recipient”.

*Angelica Weary is a third year medical student, recently at the University of St. Kitts and now at the Walden University of Public Health. She models after Dr. Chris Webb.

* Dr. Christopher AJ Webb remains our most successful Dr. TNT Scholar to date, having graduated from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, followed by the Columbia University School of Medicine in a four-year residency in Anesthesiology, followed by a year Fellowship in Interventional Pain Management, as Chief Fellow at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. He recently accepted a position at Stanford University that begins in July, 2014 as Clinical Instructor in the Department of Anesthesia, Perioperative and Pain Medicine in Palo Alto.


Many current scholarship recipients are projected to utilize the O’Bee award as they complete their current undergraduate degrees. All are eligible if they continue to matriculate and retain a 3.0 GPA or better. All know Mrs. Ernestine O’Bee was an iconic benefactor who loved education and sacrificed for those seeking education as a passport to bettering families, communities and our nation. Her investment comes with expectations of integrity, professionalism and passing the torch to others so they too may move forward.


Ernestine O’Bee was a generous, loving, elegant woman. She often repeated,

“A bell is not a bell until you ring it.

“A song is not a song until you sing it. “

And love was not put in our heart to stay.

“For love isn’t love until you give it away”. by Oscar Hammerstein


Her proverbs were freely shared, dependent upon need and how her tidbits might help to better situations. Two that I’ve referred to often in my professional career are:

“ Inch by Inch, it’s a cinch.”; and

“The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time”.

* Pat O’Flynn Pattillo, Publisher,Milwaukee Community Journal, Agent, Dr. Thomas Scholarship Fund, Inc.


Milwaukee mothers, grandmothers, professionals and former patrons, relate:

“I never knew her different interests and accomplishments. But, I thought she was one of the most elegant women I have ever known. She carried herself so beautifully and she was graceful and kind. She always made you feel like she was glad to see you”.

* Patricia Roberson, mother, grandmother, retired court reporter.


Mrs. O’Bee is remembered and epitomized by the words of Rudyard Kipling,

“ IF”

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing their and blaming it on you’

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating.

And yet don’t look too good nor talk too wise:


If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;

If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted my knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ‘em up with worn out tools;


If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch and toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;


If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch,

If neither loss nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you but none too much;


If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run-

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And - which is more- you’ll be a Man, my son!


*(And Mrs. O’Bee would have quickly said “ You’ll be a woman, my daughter!)*


The life and legacy of Ernestine O’Bee continues to reverberate. Her spirit and mission resides in the lives of many families who witnessed her love of their families and Milwaukee. This printed chronicle for Dr. Terence N. Thomas Scholarship recipients in perpetuity, is her gift that continues to support post graduate students for years to come. Ernestine Singleton O’Bee is a Black History Maker whose life and generosity lives.



Patricia O’Flynn Pattillo, is the Founder/President of the Milwaukee Community Journal, Inc, now celebrating 38 years of continuous publication. O’Bee Funeral Home was one of the first advertisers in the Milwaukee Community Journal, in 1976.. Respected as mentor, “other Mother”, and friend, over the years. Mrs. O’Bee was the loving guardian of the care and burial of Dr. Terence N. Thomas, Pattillo’s son, who died in 1991, of an acute asthmatic attack.


The tragedy bonded the two as she consoled and encouraged, using her social work skills and grief counseling. Convinced they shared common heritage as Singleton’s, many hours were spent discussing family but a genealogy connection was never confirmed.


The bequest to the Dr. Terence N. Thomas Fund, by Mrs. O’Bee, was never discussed. Childless, she loved the students and completely identified with the importance of academic support. She also knew her sacrifice would be honored, respected and used with total attention to legitimate need and conscientious follow-through.


Mrs. O’Bee’s generosity was the impetus for many corporate partnerships in support of the scholarship fund, such as Northwest Funeral Chapel, MilerCoors Brewing; Potawatomi Bingo and Casino; Quarles and Brady Law; WE Energies; Evinrude, inc.; Hupy and Abraham; the Milwaukee Urban League; Johnson Controls, and with family gifts and funds from the Dr. Thomas‘ brother, Speech of Arrested Development; aunt, Janet Green Pegues, father, Robert Thomas; mother, Patricia O’Flynn Pattillo and step-father.. Dr. Roland A. Pattillo, the fund has continued to support sixteen students, each year.. The Ernestine O’Bee Award is granted, annually, in the amount of $2000, to each post graduate student, in August, at the MCJ anniversary event. Over $ 500,000 has been awarded to youngsters from the Milwaukee readership area, so far.

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