Two things are important to Martin “T” Burks III and Deborah Bell-Burks — family and community.
For nearly 20 years, the couple have run possibly the oldest remaining business in the city — J.F. Bell Funeral Home — while remaining deeply involved in the community.
When you ask the couple to discuss their journey to funeral service, they’ll focus on their community service. Name an organization or board in Charlottesville and there’s a good chance they’ve been involved.
“I’ve always been civic-minded and interested in helping people and giving back to others,” Bell-Burks said.
One of their most visible accomplishments is the renovation and revitalization of the Jefferson School.
But arguably the most recognizable contribution is keeping J.F. Bell Funeral Home open and family-owned.
Deborah Bell-Burks is the third generation of the Bell family to run the funeral home.
Her grandfather, John Ferris Bell, moved to the city more than 100 years ago when a cousin told him that Charlottesville lacked a funeral home to serve the area’s African American residents.
The Petersburg native started the mortuary business on West Main Street in Vinegar Hill in 1917.
In the 1920s, he moved the business to its current location at 108 6th St. NW. After that move, Vinegar Hill was razed by the city, displacing black residents and destroying their businesses.
Bell-Burks’ father was one of three brothers to take the business reins from John Bell.
Bell-Burks said she always “admired” her grandfather, although he died when she was young. He rubbed off on her father and a prominent memory of the two were their attire.
“My dad hardly ever wore anything casual,” she said, “He always wore suits. Same thing with my grandfather.”
The couple said the family exemplified ways to treat people with respect, which has translated into their business.
The story of Burks and Bell-Burks began at Washington Park, where they met while serving as lifeguards.
Bell-Burks, in describing the past, made sure to remind her husband that she was a lifeguard before him and was actually the first woman lifeguard at the park.
Bell-Burks went on to be a teacher wherever Burks was stationed during in his 21-year service in the U.S. Army.
Burks retired as a colonel and entered the next stage of his career — running a funeral home. But first, he had to get his “most important degree:” an associates in funeral service.
Burks said the timing was “perfect” for the couple to take over the business. He was retiring from the army and looking for a new path.
“Everyone else in the family was pretty much locked in where they wanted to go and they were aging and the timing was perfect,” he said.
Bell-Burks returned to Charlottesville in 1994 to work with her father before she took over the business with her husband around 2001.
Bell-Burks hadn’t always planned to be in the funeral home business, but felt it was the right thing to do.
“I felt the need to come back to Charlottesville after his military service,” she said. “I really felt that I wanted this business to continue and I had a really had a strong desire for that. … That was what I felt deep in my innermost being. This was something I was not going to let go.”
Sue Friedman, executive director of the Jefferson School Foundation, said the couple are very “civic-minded.”
“They’ve been amazing supporters and benefactors of our community in so many ways,” she said. “Many people don’t realize all of the ways that they have and continue to be supportive of the community.”
Burks and Bell-Burks were instrumental in the renovation and completion of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.
The Jefferson School was built in 1926 and served as an all-black high school until 1964. It then was used for a variety of purposes until it was closed as a school in 2002.
“It really had been left in disrepair,” Bell-Burks said of the facility.
Starting in 2007, the city began the process of renovating the facility and establishing the African American Heritage Center.
Burks was president of the Jefferson School General Partnership and Bell-Burks corralled stakeholders for meetings on the heritage center, which culminated in an advisory committee.
Friedman said the couple are pillars of the community.
“They are, in my mind, just the example of how to be caring community members,” she said.
Charles Alexander, who helped integrate Charlottesville schools and is known in his educational work as Mr. Alex Zan, praised the couple for their work in the city and keeping the African American business open.
“They’ve just been instrumental, sort of an iconic business and family,” he said. “It’s hard to think of many or any that have been in the community that long.”
Burks said the couple enjoys serving the community.
“It’s a joy if you accomplish some things, your goals that you set out,” he said. “It’s rewarding, it’s exciting.”