July 2, 2021
Black-Owned Life Insurance Companies
The Richest of Legacies  
Staff in front of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company building, in business from 1901 to 1990, Jacksonville, Florida, undated.
Precursors to black-owned life insurance companies can be traced back to plantation life where enslaved people sought to care for their sick and provide appropriate burials for the deceased. Often these burial services were carried out in secret, but, dating back to the eighteenth century, records show how formal benevolent or mutual aid societies were used to provide assistance when others would not. 
Depiction of a "midnight slave funeral" by Hamilton Pierson, 1881.
“A Brief History of the Insurance Business,” published by Howard University in 1915, provides insight into how these societies on the plantation worked:  “The general plan seems to have been to select some one [sic.] who could read and write and make him Secretary… members would come by ones and twos, make their payments… and quietly withdraw… The President of such a Society was usually a privileged slave who… could go and come at will… In the event of the death of a member provision was made for decent burial, and all the members as far as possible obtained permits to attend the funeral. It is reported that… every obligation was faithfully carried out. This was the first form of Insurance known to the Negro from which his family received a benefit.”[1]
Richard Allen (left) and Absalom Jones (right).
The formal organization of these benevolent and mutual aid societies can be traced back as early as the 1780s. The African Union Society (AUS) of Newport, Rhode Island is considered the first. It was established by formerly enslaved Newport Gardner and Pompe (Zingo) Stevens in November of 1780. Shortly after, the Free African Society (FAS) was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1787 by Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Absalom Jones, founder of the first black Episcopal congregation, and other prominent black ministers in the area. Religious in nature, The Free African Society was a “club where members of Philadelphia’s black elite could socialize and forge business relationships with one another… the FAS also extended its help to the city at large. The Society’s most famous contribution to the city was the help members provided during the yellow fever epidemic in 1793, which killed thousands of Philadelphians.”[2] In terms of the first actual black-owned insurance company, it was called the African Insurance Company and founded in 1810 in Philadelphia. Joseph Randolph served as the company’s first president, with Cyrus Porter as treasurer and William Coleman as secretary.[3] While it only appears to have lasted for three years, it provided a model for successful post-Civil War insurance companies.
Publications of the American Economic Association, Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, by Frederick L. Hoffman, F.S.S., statistician to the Prudential Insurance Company of America, August 1896.
But still that did not stem the effects of an 1896 study by Frederick L. Hoffman, a statistician at the Prudential Life Insurance Company, called Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, which justified the logic that African Americans were “uninsurable.” Ernesta G. Procope, founder of E.G. Bowman Insurance Company, the first African American owned business located on Wall Street, recalled how this discrimination of insurance companies persisted well into the twentieth century: “The insurance companies… would write you the premium up higher than it would be for some other person your age. There was discrimination… they used to write industrial insurance like twenty-five cents a week… that was the only type of insurance that they might write for you but it would be rated up higher if they did write it at all.”[4]
Founders of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, left to right: John Merrick, Charles C. Spaulding, and Dr. Aaron Moore, undated.
However, African Americans took matters into their own hands and continued forming their own insurance companies. Thomas L. McLeary, founder of Premier Network Service Group, the first national African American property, casualty and financial services firm, told of the birth of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance in 1898: “Back when emancipation came… there became a need for black people to get buried… there were many needs when the slaves were freed. But that was… a critical one… And there was a gentleman [John Merrick] who… owned barbershops all through North Carolina at that time… in all white communities and when someone black died, he passed the hat in this barbershop, and that's how people got buried. Well he and a physician [Dr. Aaron Moore]… and a few other business owners [Charles C. Spaulding]… said… let's form a burial society… which evolved into the life insurance company and they did very well.”[5]
Left: Alonzo F. Herndon, undated.
Right: An Atlanta Life Insurance branch office, undated.
Similarly, Ronald Brown (1953 - 2008) explained the founding of Atlanta Life Insurance Company, where he served as President and CEO from 2004 until his death in 2008: “[It was] started in 1905 by Alonzo Franklin Herndon, who… was a former slave and made his money initially with barbershops… he purchased an insurance company that was struggling [for one hundred and forty dollars]… that was the beginning of what we now know as the Atlanta Life Insurance Company… During that time period, even if you had money, and you were a black person, you might not be able to get a proper burial because the white organizations just would not sell you insurance… And a lot of folks realized that that was much less of a traumatic impact on a family if you had burial insurance… And it became one of the largest by being very good at… acquiring other African American insurance companies and making them part of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. At one point in time, Atlanta Life was the largest African American insurance company in the nation.”[6]
Left: Frank L. Gillespie, 1925.
Right: The Supreme Life Insurance Company building, Chicago, Illinois, c. 1930s.
Then there was Supreme Life Insurance Company which became the first black insurance company in the north when it opened in Chicago in 1919, founded by Frank L. Gillespie who previously worked in “the colored department” at Royal Life Insurance Company. It later merged with three other black insurance companies. Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson (1918 - 2005), who had gotten his start at Supreme Life Insurance, recalled its history in his HistoryMaker’s interview: “Mr. [Harry] Pace went to New Jersey and started an insurance company in New Jersey [Northeastern Life Insurance Company]. His friend, Truman Gibson, Sr., started a company [Supreme Life and Casualty Company of Ohio] in Columbus, Ohio. And a man named [Frank L.] Gillespie had started the Liberty Life Insurance Company in Chicago… in 1929, they had the big crash, and these three companies were on the verge of going out of business. And they somehow decided that if they could merge and be one company, they could make it… we came into a period when there were a lot of mergers, but this was really the first merger in the country… And so they came together and called it the Supreme Liberty Life [and later, Supreme Life Insurance Company].”[7]
Left (left to right): George A. Beavers, Jr.; William Nickerson, Jr.; and Norman O. Houston, undated.
Right: Breaking ground for the new Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, Los Angeles, California,
c. 1940s.
West of the Mississippi River was Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, founded by William Nickerson, Jr., Norman Houston, and George Beavers in 1925. Chemist and academic administrator Grant Venerable recalled his mother, Thelma, working there: “Her first and only job was as a bookkeeper for Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company… it was the largest black-owned business west of the Mississippi River [by 1945]… it employed many, many black Americans in Los Angeles. Many people became close friends through their Golden State affiliation. The first office was on Central Avenue, then it built a big, new beautiful building [in 1949] at the… edge of the Sugar Hill neighborhood, where the well-to-do Negroes--as we put it then--lived in great, big mansions.”[8]
The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company is now home to the South Central Los Angeles Regional Center, and designated as a City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument.
In the later part of the twentieth century, however, these companies saw decline, with Supreme Life Insurance of Chicago and Golden State Insurance of Los Angeles eventually closing their doors in 1995 and 2009, respectively. Thomas L. McLeary further explained: “They [insurance companies] were the largest [black] business… in America… and then integration came. And black people could now buy insurance from white companies… who wouldn't sell to us before… and they lost the top of their market. They used to insure all of the doctors and the lawyers and… government workers. But they lost that market. They all went to the white companies. So… they were relegated to a lower end of the market economically and they continued to sell small policies, burial insurance.”[9] This has additional negative impacts on the community: “One of the things that insurance companies have to deal with, unlike a lot of other businesses, is how do they disperse surplus? And historically, African American insurance companies dispersed a lot of their surpluses into the African American community… [It] is not coincidental that as we’ve seen the decline and disappearance of African American insurance companies, we’ve seen a simultaneous decline in the infrastructure of ambience of African American communities.”[10]
North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company staff in front of their offices in The Mutual Building, Durham, North Carolina, undated. 
However, while many African American life insurance companies are no longer in existence, we must celebrate North Carolina Mutual which is now in its 123rd year and Atlanta Life Insurance Company which is in its 116th year. Let their rich legacies live on!
The Fourth of July
A family gathers at the park for a picnic, July 4, 1925.
We hope all of you a wonderful holiday weekend! See some of our HistoryMakers’ memories below:
A Fourth of July family reunion of Howard Adams’, featuring dinner (left) and the dessert table (right).
Consultant Howard Adams recalled his family reunions: “The Adams Family Reunion that meets every two years, Fourth of July weekend with lots of food, lots of hugging and kissing. We will have 300 to 400 people every time. We've been doing it for about 80 years.”[11]
Cooking pigs in the ground, undated.
Hospitality company founder Ronald Jewell’s family’s Fourth of July would always involve a picnic: “The Fourth of July, they would come and have big picnics. My father… He'd kill a pig and bury him in the ground with hickory wood and cook him… overnight. And it would just fall off the bone.”[12] For Former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., “July Fourth… included huge parties at our house in the backyard… in a lower middle-class neighborhood in Queens, and a lot of folks who were there from the South. And I can remember barbeques.”[13]
Young people gathering on the beach at Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, 1973.
Real estate broker Monica Cost, recalled meeting her husband on the Fourth of July on Martha’s Vineyard: “The Fourth of July was a popular time for young black folks on Martha's Vineyard, so every year, there'd be this young, between college and early professional crowd that would congregate there and just enjoy life. So I met Donald there.”[14]
Left: Maureen Bunyan early in her career, undated.
Right: An American Legion Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Wisconsin.
For former TV anchor Maureen Bunyan growing up in Wisconsin, she won first prize: “It was a Fourth of July speech contest and the theme was why I am glad to be an American and I wrote a speech… and I went to the Foreign Legion Post… composed of men who were veterans of World War II… of the Korean War… and they were all white men. And I got up in front of all these middle-aged white men and gave a speech about being an immigrant [from Aruba] and coming to the United States and… I won first prize and I got $100.”[15]
Fireworks display in Washington D.C., undated.
And let’s not forget the fireworks! Law professor Larry Gibson remembered: “Fourth of July… in Washington [D.C.] they had fireworks but they couldn't have 'em in Maryland… So Fourth of July was either going over [to see relatives in D.C.] or sneaking in [to Maryland] from Washington, D.C. [the] fireworks.”[16]
Deon Stewart and his daughter Semiyah, of New York, watch a fireworks display on the east side of Manhattan, July 4, 2018.
If you missed last year’s Fourth of July newsletter about the history of the holiday, read it here: https://conta.cc/2By3xCv
[1] George Washington Hines and George William Cook. “A Brief History of the Insurance Business,” Howard University Press, 1915, accessed June 28, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/resource/dcmsiabooks.negroinsurance00howa/?sp=13&r=-0.293,0.148,1.523,1.196,0
[2] Shirley Yee. “FREE AFRICAN SOCIETY OF PHILADELPHIA (1787- ?),” Black Past, February 10, 2011, accessed June 28, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/free-african-society-philadelphia-1787/
[3] Elliot Partin. “THE AFRICAN INSURANCE COMPANY (1810-1813),” Black Past, January 4, 2011, accessed June 28, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/african-insurance-company-1810-1813/
[4] Ernesta G. Procope (The HistoryMakers A2006.091), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, June 13, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 10, Ernesta G. Procope talks about the insurance industry and its history.
[5] Thomas L. McLeary (The HistoryMakers A2006.155), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 10, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 4, Thomas L. McLeary describes the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company.
[6] Ronald Brown (The HistoryMakers A2007.115), interviewed by Denise Gines, March 28, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 2, Ronald Brown describes the history of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.
[7] John H. Johnson (The HistoryMakers A2004.231), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, November 11, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, John H. Johnson discusses the merger creating Supreme Liberty Life Insurance.
[8] Grant Venerable (The HistoryMakers A2013.100), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 9, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, Grant Venerable talks about his mother's education and employment in Los Angeles, California, and the Sugar Hill neighborhood in Los Angeles.
[9] Thomas L. McLeary (The HistoryMakers A2006.155), session 1, tape 5, story 4.
[10] Professor Robert Weems, interview by Kai Ryssdal, How the decline of Black-owned insurance firms widened the wealth gap, Marketplace, July 20, 2020. https://www.marketplace.org/2020/07/20/how-decline-of-black-owned-insurance-firms-widened-wealth-gap/
[11] Howard Adams (The HistoryMakers A2012.034), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 8, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 4, Howard Adams describes his photos.
[12] Ronald Jewell (The HistoryMakers A2004.259), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, December 14, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Ronald Jewell remembers holidays during his childhood.
[13] The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2004.266), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, December 17, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Eric Holder talks about his childhood environs.
[14] Monica Cost (The HistoryMakers A2007.130), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 10, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 7, Monica Cost describes her family.
[15] Maureen Bunyan (The HistoryMakers A2012.230), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 29, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 5, Maureen Bunyan talks about her involvement in her school newspaper and her introduction to public speaking.
[16] Larry Gibson (The HistoryMakers A2004.093), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, September 20, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 1, story 6, Larry Gibson recalls holiday traditions from his childhood.