By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Michelle Pitts still cries at every funeral she attends, and as the owner of the New Pitts Mortuary, she attends a lot. The day she doesn’t cry is the day she plans to sell the business. Being able to sympathize with people and feel their pain reminds her she has a heart.
Pitts has a caring heart, it’s part of the reason her husband Terrence Pitts wanted her to take over the business once he died. She has the ability to grieve with people, but she also makes an effort to comfort them. People are coming in at their weakest moment, sometimes they’re prepared and sometimes they’re not. If she can make them smile or crack a laugh, she would have succeeded.
Pitts was born and raised in Milwaukee. She attended Hopkins for grade school, Harambe for middle school and graduated from Rufus King before obtaining her associate’s degree through MATC. As the daughter of a pastor, she became a well-known member of her church and within the community.
She married her first husband, Henry Redd when she was young, and thus began her venture into the world of entrepreneurship. Together they operated a popcorn truck which soon gave way to watermelons. Pitts remembers standing at the back and hollering prices. For $4, people could buy two ripe watermelons.
After a year or so, they decided to reinvent themselves. At the time, seafood was slowly on the rise. It was rare to find it in the supermarket or even a restaurant and a market on North Avenue was the only place that sold it. But Pitts and Redd saw the potential and soon after they opened Redd’s Snappers Sea Food.
Over the businesses 30-year run, there were five locations. Pitts opened the location on 60th after her divorce.
“I enjoyed the business but it shifted,” she said.
While the seafood business continued to thrive, Pitts soon acquired a new one.
In 1995 she married Terrence, but shortly after he discovered he had terminal cancer and died later that year. Terrence had come from a small family and wanted to leave the business to his wife. But Pitts wasn’t sure she could handle it. Dead people unnerved her a bit, she said, but Terrence had faith in her.
“He constantly told me over and over on his deathbed that I had to keep the funeral home open,” she said.
After he passed, Pitts spent a long time meditating on what to do. Because they hadn’t been married for long, but the funeral home was up for auction, so she had to make a decision. One day, while mediating she said the voice of God spoke to her and she knew what she had to do.
Armed with her lawyer, Pitts attended the auctioning in 1996. There were only 15 other people there. She had made up her mind and when the auctioneer began the bidding war, only Pitts made a move. “That’s exactly how it started,” she remarked.
Because she was still running Redd’s Snapper Sea Food, Pitts left the funeral director Cornelius Cobbin in charge. Between 1996 and 2004, Pitts estimated they were receiving 20 to 25 cases a year. At that point, Pitts decided to let her children handle the seafood and she’d try her hand at the funeral home.
By 2007, the number of cases jumped roughly 300 a year. “I work in that funeral home every single day,” she said. And of the 300 cases, Pitts misses an average of 20 a year.
As an entrepreneur, Pitts soon learned the key to being successful is waking up every day ready to fight. Life tends to put obstacles in the way but waking up with determination makes one capable of weathering the storm.
“One of the biggest things I learned is that you’ve got to fight,” she said.
As a female entrepreneur, Pitts had to work twice as hard. People discriminated against her. When she started working the funeral home, they told her to get back to frying fish. But Pitts never gave up and people saw how serious she was about her work.
“I could do whatever I wanted as long as I put my heart into it,” she said.
Although her daughter sold the last of Redd’s Snapper Sea Food, Pitts still owns New Pitts Mortuary. It’s been in business now for 50 years. She hopes that one of her granddaughters may take it over some day. Owning a business is overwhelming but knowing she’s made someone’s day a little brighter makes it worth it.