Anthony Overton defied the odds for African Americans and became a wealthy and successful entrepreneur during the first quarter of the twentieth century His enterprise business empire, primarily established in Chicago, included the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company, the Douglass National Bank, the Chicago Bee, the Great Northern Realty Company, and the Victory Life Insurance Company Born a slave on March 21, 1865, in Monroe, Louisiana, Overton was the son of Anthony and Martha Deberry Overton After slavery ended, he attended local public schools and pursued his college education at Wash-burn College in Topeka, Kansas, and later the University of Kansas He graduated from the university in 1888 with the LLB degree In that year, Overton married Clara M Gregg and had four children He passed the Kansas state bar and practiced law in Topeka for a while.
He also served as a judge in the municipal court in Shawnee County, Kansas He was elected treasurer of Kingfisher County in 1892 Overton’s first business came when he purchased a general store in Oklahoma City In 1898, he founded the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company in Kansas City and at first developed and sold only one product Hygienic Pet Baking Powder He expanded his line to include flavor extracts and toiletries and soon realized the potential for success in cosmetics for African American women He peddle his products to expand his market, met some success, but filed for bankruptcy after the 1902 flood in Kansas City destroyed the manufacturing district His financial condition remained an in-house secret Recovery was practically immediate, and Overton concentrated on manufacturing high-quality products and those that would enhance the black race; consequently, skin bleaches, then popular in some areas, degraded the race and remained outside the scope of his business Then he added a sales force to handle his products He expanded his business to include markets in Egypt, Liberia, Japan, and other countries and also responded to the African American market in the South and Midwest.
From there he reached the Atlantic Coast Chicago had become a business center for African Americans; it followed that Overton would seek entry into that market as well, a purpose that would be served better if he moved his company there In 1911, Overton relocated to Chicago and used the network of railroads to distribute his products elsewhere He had patented his products under the High Brown trade name and expanded his line to include shoe polish and hair preparations The move proved financially rewarding, and the next year, 1912, Overton’s line included 52 items; an all-black sales force of 5 and 400 house-to-house agents marketed his products So successful was his staff that by 1915, 32 full-time employees were on force, and 62 products were available He added to the economic uplift of his race by employing more blacks; for example, in 1927 there may have been over 150 black women employees in his home and branch offices, promoting the 250 products that he had by that time As hair-care magnates Annie Turbo Malone flourished in St Louis and Chicago and Madam C J.
Walker in Indianapolis, Overton’s business held its own Overton diversified his business interests In 1916 he founded the variety magazine Half-Century; it addressed the interests of chiefly black conservative, educated, middle-class southern black women Emphasis was on racial pride, independence, and self-help and included the views of this highly opinionated entrepreneur Overton promoted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) but criticized WEB Du Bois and others whom he called elitist He also used the monthly and sometimes bimonthly magazine to advertise his High Brown line of cosmetics He expanded his empire further.
In Half-Century Overton had already cited the need for a bank, and in 1922 he opened the Douglass National Bank, serving as its first president As the Great Depression took its toll on financial institutions, the bank officially closed in 1932 He entered a new business in 1923 when he founded the Victory Life Insurance Company to provide more jobs for blacks and at the same time to increase his own financial strength The firm was well received and by 1925 had opened offices in Texas, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, the District of Columbia, and elsewhere Two years later it expanded into New York City, then Indiana and Virginia A series of unethical practices on Overton’s part led to the company’s suspension in New York and New Jersey; he was ousted, and the company was reorganized on April 5, 1933, as the Victory Mutual Life Insurance Company At some point in the mid-1920s he founded the Great Northern Real Estate Company A shrewd and enterprising businessman, in 1922-1923 Overton built the Overton Hygienic/Douglass National Bank Building and moved his businesses into that facility He leased space to Chicago’s black professionals, housing, for example, the Theatre Owners Booking Association an organization that managed black entertainment His failed bank and insurance company caused him to look cautiously at his continuing enterprises; he moved Overton Hygienic from the Douglass bank building to the Chicago Bee building that had been erected in 1929.
It housed the newspaper as well as apartments Overton had, in fact, founded the Chicago Bee, and he continued to operate the newspaper and the manufacturing company there until the early 1940s, when the newspaper failed Although Overton had served well Chicago’s African American community and profited from them, he did so under continuous rivalry with banker and real estate developer Jesse Binga, who, in 1921, had opened the first black bank to operate under Illinois’ charter As the end of his life approached, Overton lived relatively well and in financial comfort from the assets that he was able to retain He died on July 3, 1946 Active in the Chicago community, Overton was a board member of the Chicago Urban League He was a member of the YMCA, the Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Elks, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Sigma Pi Phi (the Boule), and the Appomattox Club In 1927, he became the first person in the field of business to receive the Spingarn Medal; he was similarly recognized the next year when he received the Harmon Foundation Award While Overton prospered from his highly diverse financial enterprise, he also provided numerous jobs for the black community in Chicago and elsewhere For a third of the twentieth century, he was one of Chicago’s leading black businessmen and contributed significantly to the development of the South Side.