On This Date, Something Happened: The Universal Life Insurance Company

Posted by Holly Whitfield | March 28th 2011 3055 0

(Editor’s note: I’m on a quest to catalog all of the places in the Memphis area with historical markers in a new feature called “On This Date, Something Happened.)

The Universal Life Insurance Building, Memphis, Tenn.

This is the neon sign outside of the Egyptian-Revival style building that once held the Universal Life Insurance Company. The company, which was founded in 1923, became the fourth largest African-American-owned insurance company in the country.

Here’s the full text from the historical marker:

“Founded in 1923 by Dr. J.E. Walker, with co-founders A.W. Willis, Sr. and M.W. Bonner, this family business grew to be the fourth largest African-American-owned life insurance company in the United States. Dr. Walker’s son, A. Maceo Walker, continued the business from 1952 until 1983. He was succeeded by his daughter, Patricia Walker Shaw, who ran it until her death in 1985. Descendants of all three families made significant contributions to the company’s growth.

Designed by the African-American architectural firm McKissack and McKissack and constructed in 1949, this building houses the national headquarters of the Universal Life Insurance Company. The Egyptian-Revival style building is an ongoing example of the interest that African-Americans developed in the 1920s in Egyptian art. During the era of racial segregation, it was one of the few places where Blacks could gather for their civic and social affairs.”

Currently, though, the building at Linden and Danny Thomas has fallen on hard times. It’s seemingly empty, and there are a few broken windows. The amazing neon sign on the corner either doesn’t work or is never turned on. Here’s hoping that the huge old building is given some new life sometime soon.

Go There:

Universal Life Insurance Company

Corner of Linden and Danny Thomas, downtown.

Author: Holly Whitfield

I write about what’s going on with Memphis music, food, arts, events, sports, people, and culture. Memphians love Elvis and barbeque with a passion that must be seen to be believed, but there is so much more to this place.

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  1. Virginia Ann Knox Ross says:

    I was employed at The Universal Life Insurance Co in 1968 before I moved to Charlotte NC. I was a student at Henderson Business College and many of us were hired from the College to work at Universal Life. I worked in the Lapse Department. I only worked there for a short-time but met my first husband in the onsite Cafeteria. Many years have since passed, by I can remember how proud I was being employed by a Black owned company.

  2. Anthony Lewis says:

    What happen to all of the black own insurance company?And why are we still selling out ? The same black agent are still working in the life insurance market today . This is not hard to figure out.

  3. I was an Insurance Agent with Universal Life

    Insurance Co. in 1981.

    Durning the time I worked as an I nsurance debt Agent

    I found that with out our services many black famiies

    would have been uninsuranced.

    Premiums were higher but insurance was nessary !

    Universal Life allowed poor minority family to have insurance.

    I will miss our strong minority giving company.( Universal Life Insurance Co.)

  4. Kathleen Hurt says:

    Universal Life was one of the best companies I ever worked for.  I worked for the Sr VP Actuary Larry Wynn.  He wasn't the easiest person to work for but he demanded professionalism and loyalty.  He and Pat Shaw Maceo's daughter taught me so much and made me the insurance professional I am today.  If more companies had the values of Universal the world would be a better place!

  5. Barbara Gray says:

    I was in Memphis,Tn this weekend, I was so surprised to see the building my mother and farther talked so much about. They were so very proud to be members of a black owned business. They were owners of a black gas station and cab company.I know that they were influenced by Universal Life .

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