Saturday, December 15, 2018

Anthony Overton (1865-1946), a banker and manufacturer, was the first Negro to lead a major American business conglomerate.

Anthony Overton
Anthony Overton, the son of Anthony and Martha Overton, was born in Monroe, Louisiana. At some point, after the Civil War ended, his family moved from Louisiana to Topeka, Kansas. His father had been born into slavery and was among the slaves emancipated by Abraham Lincoln. His father ultimately became a small business owner and made sure young Anthony had greater opportunities. Anthony attended Washburn College in Topeka, and after graduating with a degree in Chemistry, he studied law, earning his legal degree from the University of Kansas in 1888. He briefly worked as a lawyer and became a judge in Shawnee, KS.

By the late 1890s, he had gone into business, opening his own grocery (not liquor) food store in Kansas City, Kansas. In 1898, Anthony established the Hygienic Manufacturing Company, which produced a number of goods for drug stores and groceries. The products included the nationally known "High Brown Face Powder," which was "the first market success in the sale of cosmetics for black women."
In 1911, he moved his business from Kansas to Chicago, where he established the Douglass National Bank in 1929, the second nationally chartered black-owned bank in the United States.
This is a surviving national $5 currency note from the Douglass National Bank of Chicago. Note the handwritten signatures on the bill. The Bank (Charter #12227) issued the following types of bills: 1902 $5 Five Dollar Bill; 1929 $10 Ten Dollar Bill; 1929 $20 Twenty Dollar Bill; 1929 $5 Five Dollar Bill.
He went on to develop a highly diverse conglomerate, including the Great Northern Realty Company, and the Victory Life Insurance Company. 
The Spingarn Medal
In 1927 The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded him its Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by a Negro. That same year, he was also given the prestigious Harmon award's first award and Gold medal in Business. He was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. In addition, there is an elementary school in Chicago that is named after him.

Anthony Overton's Business Conglomerate History.
Overton began with the Overton Hygienic Building at 3619-3627 South State Street in the heart of the Bronzeville neighborhood in the Douglas community of Chicago’s Southside.
Overton Hygienic Building at 3619-3627 South State Street, Chicago, Illinois.
In 1922, Overton commissioned architect Z. Erol Smith to designed and build the Overton Hygienic Building which became the prime business address of the community for a number of years. Supported by a reinforced concrete frame, the Overton Building has street facades of dark red brick with extensive trim in white-glazed terra cotta. An impressive terra-cotta plaque in the center of the fourth-floor façade proudly carries the name Overton Hygienic Company. In addition to his successful cosmetics enterprise, Overton would later operate the Chicago Bee newspaper franchise, Victory Life Insurance Company, Douglass National Bank, and Northern Realty Company from this business facility and his second building The Chicago Bee Building.

The Chicago Bee Newspaper and Chicago Sunday Bee, a weekly newspaper operated by predominantly female staff. (1926–1946)
Overton founded the Bee in 1926. The Chicago Bee was a weekly newspaper for Blackscompeted with the "Chicago Defender," then the largest black-owned newspaper in the United States. The newspaper was unusual because one of its managing editors was a woman, Olive M. Diggs.

Anthony Overton wanted a publication that would replace his now-defunct "Half-Century Magazine," a home and homemaker publication targeting Black women who consumed his products. Overton had used Half-Century Magazine to promote his line of black-oriented cosmetics for men and women and he envisioned a similar role for the Bee. 
Overton also felt the Defender promoted sensationalism, gimmickry, and exploitation of the fears and prejudices of its readers. Overton promised a more sedate newspaper in tone and content which would adhere to professional journalistic standards and appeal to middle-class, conservative black Chicagoans. Overton promised readers of the Bee a newspaper that would dedicate itself to “higher education for Negroes, cordial relations between the races, civic and racial improvement, the promotion of Negro business, and good, wholesome and authentic news fit for any member of the family.” 

In 1929 Overton hired Southside architect Z. Erol Smith, to design a new building for the newspaper’s operations and eventually his manufacturing business. The three-story, nearly block-long Art-Deco edifice was completed in 1929 at a cost of $200,000 and named the Chicago Bee Building, located at 3647 South State Street.
The Chicago Bee Newspaper building is an Art Deco structure that stands as a beautiful icon of the Bronzeville neighborhood in the Douglas community of Chicago.
Overton meant the building to be a symbol of a successful Black enterprise. In fact one Chicago Bee editor, James Gentry, coined the term “Bronzeville” to describe both the skin color of the newly arriving Blacks from the South and the then vibrant Southside neighborhood that was the center of black business and culture in the city. 

In order to accomplish this aim, Overton hired Chandler Owen, cofounder of the socialist publication "The Messenger" as the newspaper’s managing editor. Owen and Overton clashed over politics but Bee’s owner recognized his managing editors' remarkable newspaper skills and instincts. It should also be noted that for most of the years of its existence during the Great Depression and World War II, the paper was mostly staffed by women. 

Despite his grand desires, Overton’s Chicago Bee never took off as he had hoped. It achieved a readership of only about 50,000 at its peak in the mid-1930s, far less than it rival, the Chicago Defender. Moreover, the Great Depression took a toll on many of Overton’s other businesses which closed because of the economic downturn. Their failure indirectly starved the newspaper for vital capital it needed to expand. Although not directly related to the decline of the Bee, the black business center of Chicago moved to 47th and South Parkway by World War II and the Bee and its building were no longer viewed as symbols of the possibility of black capitalism. Overton managed to keep the Chicago Bee running until his death in 1946.

The three-story Chicago Bee building was one of the most picturesque in the neighborhood being designed in the Art Deco style of the 1920s. All of Overton's enterprises shared this building until the early 1940s when the newspaper went out of business. The cosmetics firm continued to occupy the building until the early 1980s. The building originally had upper-floor apartments. It also housed the offices of the Douglass National Bank and the Overton Hygienic Company, during the 1930s. The Overton Hygienic Company was nationally well known as a cosmetics firm for Negroes.

Overton Hygienic went out of business in the early 1980s. In the mid-1990s, the City of Chicago purchased the building and it is now the Chicago Bee Branch of the Chicago Public Library system. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 9, 1998.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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