Anthony Overton may have been the “Prince of Chicago” but he got his business start in Kansas City. Join author Dr. Robert E. Weems Jr. for a new-book Q&A online July 28.
A hundred years ago, Anthony Overton (1864-1946) was considered the most successful Black businessman in America, the owner of a popular magazine, newspaper, insurance company, realty firm, bank, and cosmetics and hygiene products business.
Overton was perhaps the most important figure in African-American business history that no one had written a book about – until now, says Dr. Robert E. Weems Jr., the author of “The Merchant Prince of Black Chicago: Anthony Overton and the Building of a Financial Empire.”
On July 28, Watermark Books in Wichita will feature the new book in a Q&A Zoom meeting with Weems, Wichita State University’s Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History.
“I compare him with Warren Buffett,” Weems said, mentioning the billionaire who has lived in a mid-sized house in Omaha since 1958. “Overton enjoyed the investing, the deal making, but he was low key, non-materialistic. He didn’t own an automobile, and the widowed Overton usually lived in his grown children’s spare bedroom.”
Overton was born in Monroe, Louisiana, to parents who went from being slaves to successful members of their community. His father’s status as a businessman and former state legislator attracted threats from racists who were regaining control in the South in the 1870s, so the family fled to Topeka, KS, where a community of Black refugees had grown.
Overton graduated from Topeka’s Washburn University and attended the University of Kansas for two years before dropping out. Stories about Overton being a successful young man were repeated frequently in articles about him, but are mostly myth, said Weems, who spent several years and research trips investigating Overton. In actuality, Overton struggled until he was in his 30s.
“I think this makes him more complex than just a man with a King Midas touch who was successful at everything,” Weems said. “By the late 1890s, he had four children and had the motivation to be successful at something so he could feed his family.”
Overton’s Hygienic Manufacturing Company started in 1898 in Kansas City, MO, and later moved to Kansas City, KS, before relocating to Chicago in 1911.
His beauty products put him in direct competition with Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Malone, Weems said. While they used personal testimony in their marketing, Overton, as a man, couldn’t. Instead, he recruited his daughters to appear in advertisements, and, in an era when African-American products were not sold or demonstrated in major stores, he set up a special office for his daughters and attractive female employees to demonstrate their line of personal care products.
He started a women’s magazine in part to market his products, and this success led to him being a dominant presence on the national business scene, establishing a conglomerate that also included Douglass National Bank (the second nationally chartered Black-owned bank in the U.S.), the Great Northern Realty Company, Victory Life Insurance, and the Chicago Bee newspaper.
In 1927, Overton became the first business person awarded the NAACP’s Springarn Medal, which is given annually for outstanding achievement by an African American. The award cited Overton’s Victory Life Insurance as the first Black company certified by the state of New York.
Unfortunately, Overton’s empire fell during the Great Depression, but he rebounded a few years before he died in 1946.
Weems’ book “The Merchant Prince of Black Chicago” is available at Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas Ave., Wichita. To register for the book’s Q&A Zoom session at 6 p.m. Tues., July 28, visit www.watermarkbooks.com/event/robert-weems-virtual-event.