The HOUSE OF WILLS, a funeral home established in 1904 as Gee & Wills, was among the most long-standing and successful AFRICAN AMERICAN businesses in Cleveland. It was the city’s second-oldest black-owned funeral home, opening 9 years after James A. Rogers’ undertaking business (1895) and 2 years before ELMER F. BOYD’s funeral home (1906). The House of Wills was reportedly the largest black funeral home in the state.
Gee & Wills originally opened in Wills’ late father-in-law John L. Lee’s house at 2323 Central Ave. The partnership dissolved in 1907 after Gee’s death, at which time J. WALTER WILLS, SR., began to operate under the name of J. W. Wills Co. For most of the next 60 years Wills’ sisters and sons were among the funeral home’s staff, which numbered up to 50 workers. In 1912 the expanding business moved two blocks east to 2529 Central Ave. So-called “slum clearance” to make way for the PWA-built Cedar-Central Apartments (see PUBLIC HOUSING) in 1935, forced Wills to move to 2340 E. 55th St., but after only 6 years this location also yielded to another housing project, Carver Park Homes.
In 1941 the House of Wills moved one block south to a large building at 2491 E. 55th St. that originated as Gesangverein Hall (see GERMANS). The House of Wills served primarily black families but directed the funerals of people of many backgrounds. Into the middle decades of the 20th century, when most comparable public facilities barred African Americans, the House of Wills offered a regular meeting place for social clubs, music recitals, civil rights activities, and other black community gatherings.
Wills’ son, J. Walter, Jr., died in 1967, and Wills, Sr., continued to oversee the family business up to his own death in 1971. A second location, operated by Wills’ adopted son Harry A. Wills, opened that same year at 14711 Harvard Ave. in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood. The House of Wills slumped in the early 2000s and abruptly abandoned its E. 55th St. building in 2005. Nine years later the business, still officially named J. W. Wills Co., lost its state license amid allegations of fraud and closed permanently.
Updated by Mark Souther