'Passing The Hat'
" History is Storytelling."
- Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
Thomas L. McLeary
William Lucy
Ronald Brown
Timuel Black 
Lloyd Wheeler
Spencer Leak, Sr.
Reverend Dr. Leon D. Finney, Jr.
For over a century, black owned funeral homes have been serving black communities, keeping African American funeral traditions alive. These institutions withstood segregation and became one of the most profitable ventures for black entrepreneurs. Uniquely tied to the prevalence and growth of black funeral homes were life insurance companies that were formed to help cover funeral costs. But perhaps the oldest practice was “passing the hat.” Insurance chief executive Thomas L. McLeary recalled, “ When someone black died, he passed the hat in this barbershop, and that's how people got buried. ” Similarly, civil rights activist and union leader William Lucy spoke about city workers in Memphis who died on the job and whose families had to gather collections for their funerals, “ They had no insurance. The city had no responsibility or felt no responsibility to give them any kind of a decent burial, and which is not necessarily unusual for public works and sanitation yards. And so passing the hat and collecting money is not new. So they had to pass the hat, collect money for the services and all that. ” As a result, black owned insurance companies stepped in to supplement the cost for burial services. North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, founded in 1898 by black community leaders in Durham, North Carolina, grew to become one of the largest and oldest African American owned companies in the U.S. Thomas L. McLeary noted, “ There was a gentleman who was a barber by profession who was a freed slave…Well he and a physician got together and said, ‘You know let's form a burial society.’ So they formed this burial society which evolved into the life insurance company and they did very well. They were the largest business in America you know in the 1900s. ” As black entrepreneurial growth expanded in the twentieth century, black owned burial services continued to serve African American communities throughout the U.S.

Investment chief executive Ronald Brown , detailed the necessity of black insurance companies who served the black community when white organizations refused, “ 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. So at a minimum, people wanted to be able to be buried properly. And a lot of folks realized that that was much less of a traumatic impact on a family if you had burial insurance.” Historian and history professor Timuel Black recalled how he got his start selling insurance in Chicago during segregation, “W hat we did was guarantee that our policyholders would have a decent funeral. At this time, white insurance companies were not taking any blacks. There is no funeral service for blacks that you could get outside of the black community, none. And my job was to sell these people this small insurance policy, if someone passed, they would get a full service funeral--a very dignified funeral. ” However, not all black owned insurance companies adopted the practice of selling door-to-door policies. Insurance executive Lloyd Wheeler recalled how Liberty Life Insurance Company grew their business to become the largest African American owned company in the North, “ And the black public back in those days, they were only concerned about enough money to bury somebody. So, they were able to sell a lot of those weekly premium policies under the name of burial insurance. But in our company, we started out with what we'd call the ordinary insurance, which were policies you sold by the face amount of insurance. Now eventually our company did join that weekly premium crowd because that's really where the market was. But we didn't start out that way.

Funeral director and state government official Spencer Leak, Sr. spoke about his father’s transition into the funeral business in Chicago in the 1930s, “ He was an insurance salesman during that time. And I think because of the close association that insurance companies had with funeral homes--there were what you call burial insurance companies who insured African Americans just for the purpose of having funds to be able to bury a loved one…Because of segregation, and the fact that there were so many black people now moving into Chicago, the need was there for black funeral homes to take care of their dead. So, therefore, the transition from insurance agent to funeral director was a very easy transition.” Reverend Dr. Leon D. Finney, Jr. also remembered how his grandfather T.J. Huddleston started out selling burial insurance but transitioned into owning his own burial insurance company and several funeral homes in Mississippi, “ Selling burial insurance, which was one of the early enterprises that African Americans got involved with in the rural South…And he started out selling burial insurance…and so my grandfather, T. J. Huddleston, decided that he would withdraw from the association and started his own company, which became the Central Burial Association. Out of that association would come not only a thriving burial insurance business, but would also become the precursor to the Central Funeral Homes that my grandfather owned and operated in Mississippi. ” As the act of “passing the hat” was customary practice within the black community, the advent of black owned burial services and insurance agencies provided another avenue for black families to access public services in the era of segregation.
Next week, The HistoryMakers heads to New York City to honor American Express CEO Ken Chenault who stepped down this year after thirty-seven years of service, spending the last seventeen as chairman and CEO. When he took over in 2001, Chenault was only the third black CEO to run a Fortune 500 company and was later joined by Don Thompson at McDonald’s, Ursula Burns at Xerox, Roger Ferguson at TIAA-CREF, Kenneth Frazier at Merck, and Marvin Ellison at J.C. Penney, among others. As one of the most respected CEOs in history, Chenault leaves an indelible legacy on the history of blacks in corporate America.
The United States Air Force Academy Chapel, El Paso County, Colorado
This week, we held very productive meetings with the United States Air Force Academy and the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. We held two sessions at the Air Force Academy, which were organized by Electronic Systems Librarian Jo Ann Soriano and were w ell attended by faculty and students. It was also announced that The HistoryMakers Digital Archive was gifted to the Academy by the class of 1965's African American alumni, special thanks to HistoryMaker Fletcher "Flash" Wiley for his efforts in making this possible. Mr. Wiley is also working on convincing African American alumni of other military service academies to do the same.

We also met with Martin Garnar, Dean of the Kraemer Family Library at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs as well as several faculty members. We would like to thank those in attendance and look forward to forging potential future partnerships.
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
"Lost somewhere between sunrise and sunset. Sixty golden minutes each set with 60 golden seconds. No reward is offered for they’re gone forever."

- Mark Stansbury, radio talk show host and academic administrator
Our apologies for errors in last week's newsletter:
It was brought to our attention that in our video we misidentified Dabney N. Montgomery as a pilot for the Tuskegee Airmen, when he actually served as support personnel. Additionally, in 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen collectively received the Congressional Gold Medal as it was not awarded to any specific individual.

Master Chief Petty Officer Vincent Patton III was also misidentified in our video.

Lastly, it was President Harry S. Truman that signed Executive Order 9981 which desegregated the Armed Forces.

We would like to thank our subscribing community for their diligence in keeping our content accurate and we sincerely apologize for the errors.

-The HistoryMakers
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