Born into the waning days of slavery in either 1864 or 1865 in Monroe, Louisiana, Anthony Overton was an astute Chicagobusinessman and entrepreneur, as well as one of the most powerful black men in the early 20th century. Anthony and his family moved to Kansas City when he was a young man, away from the memory of enslavement in the south. During his early career, he earned a law degree and served as a municipal judge in Kansas. In 1898, he founded the Overton Hygienic Company, a cosmetics manufacturing firm. Overton moved his growing business to Chicago in 1911, where he became a leader in the Bronzeville neighborhood, expanding his operations to include a bank, a newspaper, and a life insurance company. By the time of his death in 1945, he was one of the wealthiest and most connected men on the south side, and was an important black national and international figure as well, as his “high brown” cosmetics line enjoyed a wide distribution.
Overton’s commercial successes were due in part to the limited options available to African American consumers in the early 20th century. Shortly after moving to Chicago, Overton’s cosmetics business began to gross over $1 million dollars annually. Shortly thereafter, he began to branch out into other areas of business to serve the burgeoning black community, as the
Great Migration led tens of thousands of southern blacks to relocate in the urban industrial north. Confined to a relatively small area on the city’s south side, the Bronzeville neighborhood provided Overton with an immediate customer base. At a time when black customers were routinely refused service at the city’s whiteowned banks, Overton organized the Douglass National Bank in 1922. Despite becoming an important and popular institution in the black community, the bank, like so many others, closed during the Great Depression. The loss of the bank also took down
the Victory Insurance Company, another of Overton’s endeavors to provide life insurance for black Chicagoans. In addition to these projects, Overton founded a black newspaper in 1926, and the Chicago Bee narrowly survived the financial upheavals of the 1930s and remained in print until Overton’s death in 1946.
Overton’s impact on the development of Chicago’s black community was very significant. Although known for paying his employees an extremely low wage, he nonetheless provided much needed jobs as well as cultivated blackcontrolled businesses at a time when such was very unusual. During the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement in 1965, a Chicago Public School was named after Anthony Overton to commemorate his role in the Chicago’s Black history. In 2013, despite community protests against the decision, the CPS school board closed the community elementary school.
Baldwin, Davarian. Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2007.
Reed, Christopher Robert, The Rise of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, 19201929. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2011, 72.
“Unsung Black Business Giants,” Ebony, March 1990, 96100
— Dr. Lara Kelland