Black History Month: Contributions of the Allen and Wills families

Editor’s note: This is one article in a series celebrating the history and achievements of Black Americans in Champaign County.

By John Bry

Contributing writer

Guy F. Allen spent most of his life along Buckeye Street in Urbana. Born in 1908, he was the son of Harry and Clara (Guy). For many years Harry Allen operated a grocery store on Buckeye Street. Guy’s grandfather was the Rev. William Allen, who was the long-time Pastor of the Second Baptist Church that also once stood on Buckeye Street. Guy’s grandmother Nancy (Wills) hailed from Yellow Springs and was part of a prominent African American family in Greene County. It would be through his grandmother’s family Guy Allen would find his occupational calling and a career path that made him a successful businessman in Urbana.

Guy Allen would graduate from Urbana High School in 1926, attended Urbana University for two years, but then moved to Cleveland to engage in the funeral home business with his grandmother’s relatives: the Willses and the Slaughters. By 1930, Guy Allen passed the examination with the State Board for Embalmers and graduated from the Cleveland College of Mortuary Science. When Guy Allen passed his examination, he was employed by the Slaughter Brothers Funeral Home in Cleveland.

By 1931, Guy Allen had returned to Urbana and joined forces with Harrison Medley who was already established as the local African American funeral home director who operated a parlor from his home on Hill Street. The Medleys also had a family connection to Guy Allen as well. A few years later, the Medleys and Guy Allen would part company. The Medleys were operating a funeral home by that time on East Ward Street, and Guy Allen would be joined by his brother William in the operation of their funeral home on Buckeye Street.

Aside from being known for his respected funeral chapel, Guy Allen also owned and managed a service station on East Market Street and served on several city boards and commissions. The Allen legacy as leaders in the funeral industry in Ohio was well known with the Wills and Allen families in Cleveland.

Guy Allen’s uncle J. Walter Wills established one of the two oldest African American funeral homes in that city known as the House of Wills. The House of Wills Funeral Home was a sprawling and massive structure that still stands today. It contained multiple funeral parlors so several services could take place at one time. It contained a grand auditorium and was furnished in opulent style. When J. Walter Wills had no direct heir surviving to carry on the family name or business, he adopted Guy Allen’s brother Harry who had been working for his uncle in Cleveland since the 1930s. Mr. Wills legally adopted Harry Allen whose surname would become Allen-Wills and made him president of the company. Guy Allen’s brothers William and Walter would also become engaged in the House of Wills Funeral home and were legally adopted and added the name Wills to their Allen surname.

When Guy Allen passed away in 1966, the Urbana Daily Citizen made the following statement in an editorial: “The quality of any community and its steady growth through the years depends almost solely on the quality of its leadership. Guy Allen was one of the leaders who helped Urbana and Champaign County attain the status they enjoy today and helped lay the groundwork for greater days that will follow.” The funeral home bearing Guy Allen’s name on Buckeye Street continued through 1967 when it closed for good after 35 years of service. Guy Allen, along with most of his brothers who took the Wills name and operated the legendary House of Wills in Cleveland, are buried in Oak Dale Cemetery in Urbana.