Sunday, June 7, 2020

Robert E. Weems Jr.'s "The Merchant Prince of Black Chicago"

Robert E. Weems Jr. is the Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History at Wichita State University. His books include Business in Black and White: American Presidents and Black Entrepreneurs in the Twentieth Century and Building the Black Metropolis: African American Entrepreneurship in Chicago.

Weems applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Merchant Prince of Black Chicago: Anthony Overton and the Building of a Financial Empire, and reported the following:
Page 99 provides a discussion of how Anthony Overton entered into the realm of insurance (by establishing the Victory Life Insurance Company in 1924). This business maneuver was significant in that Overton had no previous experience in the insurance industry. However, Overton, by 1924, was the president of a major personal care products company (Overton-Hygienic Manufacturing Company), as well as the president of the second national bank chartered by African Americans (Douglass National Bank). Consequently, the self-assured Overton possessed the audacious belief that he could establish a successful insurance company.

One of keys to Overton’s commercial success was his control of The Half-Century Magazine, a prominent African American periodical that regularly featured advertisements for Overton-Hygienic products, the Douglass National Bank, and later the Victory Life Insurance Company.

In terms of the Victory Life Insurance Company, Overton, early on, received the support of Rev. Dr. Lacy Kirk Williams, the pastor of Chicago’s Mt. Olive Baptist Church. Mt. Olive was reputed to be the largest African American Baptist church during this period. Moreover, in 1925, Williams became the president of the National Baptist Convention, the largest African American religious organization in the nation. To put this in context, I want to share a couple quotes from page 99 that were taken from Merah Stuart’s classic 1940 book An Economic Detour: A History of Insurance in the Lives of American Negroes. First, “Negro business owes a debt of gratitude to the Negro church, it has received great assistance from it. In the development of all types of commercial enterprises, the doors of the church have ever been wide open…the voice of the ministry has been constantly raised and its influence exerted in active advocacy and defense of Negro owned and operated enterprises.” Consequently, “when Anthony Overton took the initial step to organize Victory Life Insurance Company in 1923, he had no more enthusiastic supporter than Dr. L.K. Williams. Dr. Williams subscribed for a substantial block of the stock when it was first put on the market; and later was elected a member of the board of directors.”

Besides possessing such assets as extreme self-confidence, a popular marketing outlet, and the support of a prominent African American minister, page 99 of The Merchant Prince of Black Chicago also discusses how Overton’s fledgling Victory Life Insurance Company attracted the favorable attention of a New York black investor, Dr. Phillip Maxwell Hugh Savory. Savory not only invested $3,750 in the embryonic Victory Life, but helped facilitate Victory Life’s historic expansion into New York State in 1927.

According to author Ford Madox Ford and the so-called “Page 99 Test,” if a browser were to read page ninety-nine of a book, the entire book’s quality would be revealed. In terms of how this may apply to The Merchant Prince of Black Chicago, I would say that page 99 provides insights as to how Anthony Overton, to quote from the book’s subtitle, built one segment of his “Financial Empire.” Thus, the “Page 99 Test” would have some relevancy. In fact, it would hopefully stimulate the browser to actually buy the book to ascertain what happened to Anthony Overton before he organized the Victory Life Insurance Company and what happened to him afterwards.

A very important aspect of The Merchant Prince of Black Chicago, which is not a part of the “Page 99 Test,” is its examination of “fact” versus “fiction” related to Anthony Overton’s early life. Most pre-existing works situated Anthony Overton as a literal young “renaissance man” between his sixteenth and thirtieth birthdays (1880-1895). During this period, his alleged activities included: being a teenage business prodigy in Topeka, Kansas; earning a law degree from the University of Kansas and returning to Topeka as a municipal judge; working as a Pullman porter; and opening a variety of successful enterprises and being elected to political office in Oklahoma Territory. Moreover, Overton himself contributed to this narrative of his teenage and young adult experiences.

A number of research trips helped me to conclude that the “renaissance man” depiction of Anthony Overton’s formative years was patently false. Ironically, it appears that the development of this genre did a disservice to his legacy. The struggles and frustrations he endured early in life makes his later extraordinary success all the more compelling. Moreover, it appears that the steely determination he developed as a young man helped him to survive later in life when the Great Depression turned his world upside-down.
Learn more about The Merchant Prince of Black Chicago at the University of Illinois Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue