African Americans in the Insurance Business: Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co.

Photo: Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co. Chicago 15, Illinois
Multigraph Division, Stock Room, HOME OFFICE (ca. 1950, postcard)

The Supreme Life Insurance Company (formerly Liberty Life Insurance Company) was the first Black owned and operated insurance company in the northern United States. 


Frank L. Gillespie was an Arkansas-native and insurance agent for Royal Insurance Company. He quickly noted the inferior quality life insurance policy provisions offered African Americans by the White-owned insurance agency. The Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co. (also referenced to as Supreme Life Insurance Company) was incorporated in 1919 by an investment group headed by Gillespie. The first Black-owned insurance agency outside of the U.S. southern states offered  African Americans a better quality life insurance than offered by White-owned agencies of the time. 
By 1921, Gillespie raised $100,000 to issue life insurance policies to Chicago's African American residents. The original offices for the young firm were set-up in a store-front and second floors of what was then known as Roosevelt State Bank. It is a two-story commercial building structure located at what when then referred to as the corner of 35th Street and South Parkway (now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive or known by the natives as King Drive).

Photo: The Supreme Life Building (Chicago)
(3501 S. King Drive, cir. 1985)

Located in the Black Metropolis-Bronzeville Historic District of Chicago, the historic Supreme Life Building was built in 1921 by architect Albert Anis. In 1924, Supreme Life Insurance Co. bought the complete bank building at 3501 S. King Drive. The Supreme Life company fully operated the structure from 1919 to 1962. It was designated a Chicago Landmark on September 9, 1998. 


By 1925, the company had written more than $5 million in insurance policies and opened branch offices in Michigan, Kentucky, Missouri, and Washington D.C. It was one of the few Black insurance companies to survive the Great Depression. After the Great Depression, Supreme Life expanded into one of the nation's largest minority insurance companies.

Photo: Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co.
Chicago, Illinois (ca. 1950, postcard)

Photo: Main Lobby - Supreme Life Insurance Co.
3501 South Parkway, Chicago Illinois (ca. 1950, postcard)

In 1960, the National Insurance Association (NIA) had 46 members. The 46 insurance companies across the nation were owned and operated by African American businessmen. Collectively, they had $1.65 trillion (not a typo) in insurance policies in force. The Supreme Life Insurance Company of America was the third largest Black life insurance company in the nation at the time. In 1960, NIA was holding $300 million in assets. See Abner, III, David, "Some Aspects of the Growth of Negro Legal Reserve Life Insurance Companies, 1930-1960" (Indiana University 1962 doctoral thesis), p. 65, 172.

Currently in Chicago, African-American operated insurance companies include Insurance Brokers Inc., which operates its Chicago home-branch offices at locations on both Chicago's south side and north side. Insurance Brokers was founded by the Jamaican-born business man and long-time Chicago native Herbert Witter. It offers diverse policies in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania. The W.A. George Insurance Agency is also a Black owned and operated bonded insurance agency  in Chicago and was established in 1972 by Mercedes George.

While the original NIA organization no longer exists, the National African-American Insurance Association (NAAIA) currently operates as national association for Blacks in the insurance business. The Chicago chapter of NAAIA is quite active.


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