Peterson and Williams Funeral Home in Opelika is celebrating its 100-year anniversary of operating as a family-run business.
The funeral home was established in 1922 and is now managed by the fourth generation of the Peterson family, who serves the community and helps families through loss and tragedy.
Thomas Peterson III, 48, is the current manager of the funeral home and is the fourth generation of his family to operate it. His mother, Birdie Peterson, who has worked at the funeral home since 1997, is the assistant manager as well as a funeral director and embalmer.
“It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and it took a lot of prayer,” Peterson said.
Mayor Gary Fuller said the business has remained constant in Opelika while other businesses have come and gone over the years.
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“The owners of Peterson and Williams Funeral Home have witnessed many changes in the industry,” Mayor Gary Fuller said. “Through it all, Peterson and Williams’ mission of humbly serving family’s with dignity and respect has never changed.”
Billy Allen, the president of the Lee County NAACP, has worked at the Peterson and Williams Funeral Home for the past two years and said the Peterson family is a “pillar of the community.”
“As a young child growing up in Opelika, they were an inspiration to me and gave me a lot of determination to make a better life for myself,” Allen said. “Seeing that they could do it during that time and being an African-American business gave me—and others also, but me in particular being an African-American young man – a lot of good examples to follow to be a successful young man.”
Peterson, 48, said the funeral home began in 1922 as a partnership between friends.
L.C. Williams, a mortician, asked William Peterson, Thomas’ great grandfather, to open the business with him.
William Peterson was originally from Hurtsboro, Ala. Later he moved to Tuskegee and eventually settled in Opelika around 1910.
Prior to the partnership with Williams, William Peterson owned a grocery store and a restaurant in Opelika, less than 60 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and more than 30 years before the Civil Rights movement began.
“Being an African American, that had to be real hard,” Peterson said. “My great-granddad was born in 1875, I think, so there was no question was his parents slaves or not. … There’s a lot of sacrifices to be made just to get here. It had to be the grace of the Lord to help us get this far.”
After Williams asked if he’d join with him in the funeral home business, Thomas’ great-grandfather decided to close the grocery store and restaurant to focus on that one thing.
Over the years, the funeral home was passed along to Peterson’s grandfather, Thomas Sr., then to his father, Thomas Jr., and now to him.
Peterson said this line of work is important because it involves helping people when they are most vulnerable, as it’s their last chance to see their loved ones.
“I enjoy it so much because you’re helping somebody through the worst time of their life,” he said.
Peterson remembers when the tornado struck Beauregard in 2019 and killed 23 people. He oversaw funerals for nine of them, and he said that two of the bodies were not “viewable.”
He said that was especially difficult for those families because they couldn’t have closure.
At the age of about 13, Peterson said his father started to teach him about the trade, and he knew he would pursue the career when he grew up. He said he used to tell his grandmother, “When I get old, I’m gonna go to work there and wear a suit and tie like my dad.”
That’s exactly what he did.
After graduating from Opelika High School, he attended Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service for mortuary science.
“Dad put down a good blueprint for us to follow,” he said. “We just follow the same blueprint he’s been doing since the 1970s, just treating people right, treating people fair. You can’t make 100 years without treating people right, treating them fair and having respect for them.”
Peterson said he likes following in his father’s footsteps.
“He always told me and my brother, ‘I don’t care if a person has a dollar or if they have a million dollars, you ought to treat them with respect.’ That’s what he instilled in us, and that’s what I instill into my daughter,” he said.
Peterson is married to Sharon, a Lee County corrections officer, and they have a 16-year-old daughter, Sincere, who plans to become a physician’s assistant.
In his retirement, Peterson’s father still lives in Opelika and comes to help out at the funeral home from time to time.
Peterson said the 100-year anniversary seemed to sneak up on them, but it feels like just another year.
“Really, it was God’s will. There’s not too many businesses in Opelika or Auburn that’s 100 years old, and we’re just glad to be one of them.”