Charles E. Warford, founder of the Warford-Walker Mortuary in the North Heights neighborhood and beloved pillar of the Amarillo community, died Wednesday night. He was 92.
“A Charles E. Warford only comes along once in a lifetime,” Morris Overstreet, Warford Mortuary Co. LLC president, told the Amarillo Globe-News.
Warford helped form the Amarillo’s United Citizens Forum — a support group for cultural and historical programs in the city — in 1981. He was recognized for his service at Mount Zion Baptist Church, Potter-Randall County Community Action Corporation, Boy Scouts of America and the United Political Organization of Texas — among numerous other service and leadership roles Warford held in his 92 years.
In 2002, the Amarillo National Association for the Advancement of Colored People honored Warford with the Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding service, dedication and commitment to the organization.
When the North Branch YMCA is reconstructed and opens later this year, it will be christened the Charles E. Warford Activity Center. A resolution to rename the prominent northside landmark was unanimously passed by the Amarillo City Council in August.
“I didn’t do anything unusual, I just followed suit,” Warford said after the resolution passed. “I’m here today not because of what I have done, but standing on the shoulders of others who really made this ball roll, who have been so helpful to this community.”
Inside the lobby of that center, community activist Keith Grays said visitors will walk through photographs, recordings and newspaper clippings detailing and preserving the life and legacy this “model citizen” who chose to focus his energy on others rather than himself.
“He always had time to talk to you,” Betty Nickerson, former North Branch YMCA director recalled fondly of Warford.
Warford moved from San Angelo to Amarillo with his single mother, Nellie Parker, in 1937. His father had died two years prior.
As a teen, Warford was an original “Dogie” in Matthew “Bone” Hooks Dogie Club, a Boy Scout-like troop for African-American boys during days of segregation.
He attended Patten School, the Amarillo school for African-American children where the basketball uniforms were hand-me-downs from the white schools and chemistry labs were nonexistent.
“In a situation like that, one has every reason to be bitter, but he went beyond that,” Overstreet said.
“I remember one time he said to me, ‘When I moved to Amarillo my mama had to pay taxes for Amarillo College but I couldn’t attend because I was African-American.’ There’s a lot of irony in that, isn’t there? You have to pay taxes for an institution you could not even attend. But that didn’t cause him to be a bitter person.”
Even segregated to the loft of Liberty Theater in downtown Amarillo, Warford is remembered to have said, with a smirk, that he “saw the same movie” as the white folks seated below them.
So instead of attending AC, Warford commuted to Butler College in Tyler until 1943 when he was drafted into World War II.
He and his wife Wilma welcomed their daughter, Carol Warford Shepherd, shortly before he departed.
Black soldiers were limited to being mess attendants and cooks during WWII, Warford said in Globe-News archives, but during combat, all soldiers were on hand, which developed camaraderie across racial lines.
According to Globe-News reports, Warford was on the USS Sims DE154, a destroyer escort that was in the D-Day invasion of France in 1944, as well as in the Pacific at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
On the morning of Easter Sunday in 1945, the destroyer escort survived a Japanese kamikaze attack off Okinawa, then assisted other crews as their ships burned.
“I remember our galley, we just had them laid out everywhere. I looked down at this kid with part of his face blown off and thinking, ‘These are nothing but kids,’” Warford told the Globe-News in 1996. “There I was 19 years old. It doesn’t take long to become a man out there.”
Warford returned to Texas after the war and said the camaraderie vanished, entrenching soldiers back into the world of segregation.
“You went your way and they went theirs,” he said. “The war didn’t bring about any changes.”
Turning back to his education, the veteran and young father desired to be a dentist but couldn’t afford the schooling, so he attended Landig Mortuary School in Houston in 1947.
Warford worked in Dallas for a time where he heard a “preparatory speech of what was to come” from a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr.
He managed funeral homes in Abilene and Henderson before returning to Amarillo in 1962 to begin his own business, Warford Mortuary at the time, located on North Hughes Street.
The business became known for its integrity. Warford never looked to make “big bucks” off a family’s loss.
“’If you can’t make a dollar, make a friend’ — his profession, it wasn’t about the dollar,” said Richard Walker, Warford’s business partner who came to work at the mortuary in the 1970s.
During a time when African-American communities across the United States did not have many business professionals to lead their communities, ministers and funeral directors were often charged with the responsibility because of their education.
Warford stepped into that role, Morris said.
Warford was elected president of the Independent Funeral Directors Association of Texas, Inc. in 1969, and in 1971 he was named co-chairman of the Texas Association of Developing Colleges and the United Negro College Fund.
Morris said Warford was active in predominantly white associations as well as predominantly black associations.
“Black, white and brown, the county, the state, the nation,” Morris said.
With status as a self-employed business professional, Morris said Warford had the perfect platform and freedom to speak out about the needs of families living across the Amarillo railroad tracks.
As the African-American Civil Rights Movement took flame, it was a 20-something Warford who went with younger black activists to protect them during sit-ins at the Woolworth Department Store.
Grays said it was Warford’s integration into all ethnicities, all denominations of faith and all aspects of the Amarillo community that broke barriers, creating the foundation for others to integrate rather than feel they should self-segregate.
“He was the face that was different in a crowd of businessmen and citywide settings,” said Grays.
Warford’s relentless pursuit of service to his community forged a path to allow younger generations of African-Americans in Amarillo to succeed, said City Councilwoman Freda Powell.
“I would like the community to remember his legacy and all that he has done for us,” Powell said. “All the doors he opened for myself, which has made Amarillo a better community for me because it’s allowed me to do a lot of things because of him and because of the some of the battles he has had to fight.”
Walker said Warford inspired him to get his education join the mortuary business.
“In being around him you see how that person is and you want to be like him, even though those standards he set pretty high, but it made you want to be like him or try to do things like he did,” Walker said.
When the Warfords were named as the African-American Man and Woman of the Year at the inaugural Charles and Wilma Warford Honors in 2016, Mildred Darton, a longtime employee and friend of the Warfords, said any need in the community could be taken to the funeral director on Hughes Street.
Warford didn’t just care for the dead, Darton said. Civil rights, tax information, missing birth certificates, financial need, even crying babies — the answer was always, “Take it to Warford.”