The forces that drew together Cox and Perry at that wooden conference table in Memphis were greater than either of them could have imagined. Insurance companies like Cox and Perry’s built their fortunes providing products and services to an almost exclusively black clientele. Beginning in the early 1880s, white-owned insurance companies cited what they claimed were scientific, neutral, and objective measures of diseased, inferior, and degenerate black bodies. They ignored social and economic factors such as poverty and segregation and scientists’ inherent racist biases to argue blacks were not only inherently inferior in vitality but also prone to social and physical diseases. They then relied on such science to justify charging higher rates, reducing benefits, and denying coverage altogether. Ironically, by the 1920s, many of the same companies coveted the client base of black companies, though notions of black inferiority and degeneracy persisted.
Successes like Cox and Perry’s had also raised the hackles of state insurance commissioners, who sometimes colluded with white-owned insurance companies to exert various forms of legal pressure and bureaucratic intimidation. Commissioners bullied and, in many cases, dismantled black-owned insurance companies and other financial organizations that lay within their regulatory reach. Reform-minded politicians and regulators compelled the state to protect legitimate social institutions. Too often, however, they narrowly defined legitimate institutions. Though some companies were certainly in need of reform, the state responded in ways that treated blacks’ economic and political agency, especially building financial institutions, as a threat to, rather than a model of, the possibilities of democracy and economic opportunity.
In addition to the external pressures of aggressive competition and rapacious regulation, practical and personal matters dogged Cox and Perry. Corporate fraud and mismanagement as well as personal ambition and rivalries underlay conflicting motives for their merger. Together, all of these forces undermined Cox’s vision to create the largest black-owned insurance company in the United States. It also led to the rapid demise of both Cox’s and Perry’s companies.
Minnie Geddings Cox faced considerable challenges in building and maintaining a successful insurance company. Uncovering her experiences involves considerable challenges as well. The lack of business records and personal correspondence force a reliance on other records, such as census data, newspapers, biographies, and other published primary source material. These materials cannot convey a complete picture, particularly the thoughts, feeling, and motivations of key actors. A full financial picture of the company also eludes even the most determined scholar. However, it is imperative to reconstruct stories like Cox’s that have been marginalized in large part because of the paucity of sources.
In building and maintaining a successful insurance company, Cox shared the experiences of other business owners, regardless of race or sex. She had to create and implement a marketing and growth strategy, stay abreast of trends and developments in the industry, and hire and manage employees. She also had to work with a board of directors, shareholders, company officials, and customers. She stayed apprised of regulations in the industry, filed state reports, and paid taxes and fees.
In other ways, race, gender, and class intersected to work to her advantage and disadvantage. Because of her race, she faced considerable challenges in building a successful business. Cox lived and worked in Mississippi, “the most southern place on earth,”
a place where the siren song of New South rhetoric stressed inclusion in a national (and global) drive for U.S. economic ascendancy at the same time it crystallized racial hierarchies. Blacks lacked adequate access to capital, credit, and training, which not only hampered their ability to compete but also left them vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement. Threats and actual instances of violence also underscored efforts to keep blacks’ ambitions in check.
However, because of race, the insurance industry excluded a broad swath of potential clients and created an underserved market. Fraternal insurance initially filled the gap, and its success led to the creation of insurance companies. These companies appealed to race pride and positioned their businesses as tangible evidence of black self-help, uplift, and progress.
Cox’s gender added another layer of complexity. She strived in an industry that positioned women as dependents in dire need of the protections that insurance products offered. Women were not imagined as either the proper producers or consumers of insurance products. In addition, her leadership over and the power she exercised in a corporation were unusual for a woman: black or otherwise, inside or outside of the insurance industry. The early twentieth-century notion of captains of industry invoked a masculine image of “legitimate”—and preferred—leadership in the business community. However, she placed trusted male advisors in key positions, which allowed her to appear removed from the main workings of power.
Class, too, presented challenges and opportunities for Cox. Black insurance companies acted with profits in mind; they were sometimes accused—and often justifiably so—of preying on the lower classes. Poor- and working-class customers sometimes could not afford to keep up with their payments, even though they were only a few cents a week. Many were illiterate and sometimes cheated out of their rightful benefits. However, Cox also promoted men and especially women who would have worked in fields and kitchens to white-collar jobs, but she did not hesitate to deny sharecroppers and domestics benefits if the company could. Finally, blacks who appeared too successful could incur the wrath of jealous whites.
The 1923 encounter between Cox and Perry then represented a nexus of race, gender, and class within early twentieth century U.S. capitalism but also in the black separate economy. Cox, forced to operate at the margins of the insurance industry, met the challenge and created a successful company. Her experiences with Mississippi Life reflect the limits and possibilities of black female corporate leadership at the turn of the twentieth century.
A Monument of Protest: Origins of the Mississippi Life Insurance Company
Minnie M. Geddings was born in the small town of Lexington, Holmes County, Mississippi, in 1869 to former slaves William and Mary (or Elizabeth) Geddings. Few details exist about her early life, though it appears she lived a life of some privilege compared to most other blacks living in the Mississippi Delta.
Her parents owned a restaurant. Cox attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, graduating from its normal school program around 1888. As part of one of the largest cohorts of women (over 100) attending Fisk in the period, Cox imbibed not just an industrial education but also a sense of the leadership potential of educated black women.
She returned to Mississippi and taught at the new colored public school in Indianola. Cox’s future husband, Wayne Wellington Cox, worked there as principal. In Minnie, Wayne found a woman equal to his ambitions; his future wife purchased the first of her significant real estate holdings a year before they married in October 1889. The couple had one daughter, Ethyl.
In 1891, Republican President Benjamin Harrison appointed Cox postmistress of Holmes County, making her the first black woman postmaster in Mississippi.
However, around 1902, whites in the Delta—roiled by the combination of a severe drop in cotton prices, attempts by President Theodore Roosevelt to strengthen the southern wing of the Republican Party, and an aggressive political contest for governor—channeled their frustrations onto blacks. Cox found herself caught in the crosshairs. Cox’s college education, land and property holdings, civil servant position, and comfortable salary placed her at the center of white resentment and made her a target of violence. In December 1902, after several months of threats and provocations, Cox resigned as postmistress and refused to return to the Indianola Post Office. She and her family fled Indianola.
President Theodore Roosevelt refused to accept her resignation and closed the post office. Newspapers from the period referred to incident as the “Indianola Affair.” The Indianola Affair sparked the first major national debate about race, states’ rights, and federal power since Reconstruction, making Cox a minor footnote in contemporary history textbooks. However, her experiences during the affair shaped her philosophy of building businesses and wealth and inspired other enterprising blacks.
After spending more than a year in exile in Birmingham, the Coxes returned to Indianola in early 1904. By late 1904, they organized the second black-owned bank in the state, the Delta Penny Savings Bank, which opened for business in early 1905.
The Coxes organized the Mississippi Beneficial Life Insurance Company a few years later, in 1908.
The Delta Penny and Mississippi Life were hardly alone. Hundreds of other black-owned businesses sprang up throughout Mississippi in the early 1900s. Indeed, tens of thousands of black-owned businesses throughout the country ushered in what Juliet E. K. Walker has described as the “Golden Age of Black Business.”
The growth of the black group economy, businesses owned by blacks focused on an exclusively black clientele, represented more than a capitulation to segregation.
They represented a practical riposte to Jim Crow, a system of laws and customs that blocked blacks’ ambition and progress through segregation and discrimination, denial of education and civil rights, economic repression, and violence.
Wayne Cox described the Delta Penny, Mississippi Life, and other black-owned businesses in the state as “monuments of protest to the injustices inflicted upon him and his wife” during the Indianola Affair.
His sentiment expressed that blacks refused to operate at the margins of the Jim Crowed economy and would create businesses and economic opportunities for themselves and others.
Minnie Cox’s business experiences reinforce what scholars already know about the difficulties of living within the political economy of the Jim Crow Delta.
They also contribute to and challenge what we know about black business and activism in the “First New South,” the period from 1865 to 1920.
Blacks in general and black women in particular negotiated a deep set of contradictions. They confronted conflicting messages about their place in this “new” South. Caught between optimistic New South ideology and brutal Jim Crow reality, business provided an effective but very often problematic strategy for dealing with social and economic changes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century New South. Despite assurances by Booker T. Washington and the optimism expressed by other “Negro captains of industry,” a coterie of successful, influential, self-made men charged with the double duty of creating wealth and social prosperity in the black community while fulfilling political and cultural obligations to it, a straight line did not proceed from the growth of the black group economy to peaceful racial relations and a progressive business climate.
In addition, captains of industry invoked a decidedly masculine image of black business leadership. When passionate advocates talked about the importance of successful businessmen as the keystone of black economic, social, and political progress, they meant businessmen. In particular, the insurance industry relied on gender-infused rhetoric that promoted masculine responsibility and duty for dependent and vulnerable women, rhetoric that rendered women the objects of protection and men the ideal producers and consumers of insurance products. Black women certainly challenged such constructions of their role in the industry. Indeed, businesswomen like Cox and others challenged male bodies as the legitimate—and preferred—leaders in the black business community and in the insurance industry.
However, Cox was not a typical black businesswoman. Unlike her contemporaries in the industry, particularly Maggie Lena Walker of the Independent Order of Saint Luke in Richmond, Virginia, Cox does not fit comfortably in well-elaborated histories of “Sable Victorians”: women who shaped and mobilized a politics of respectability through reform, community and social-service institutions, and conventional comportment.
More sustained focus on black women’s entrepreneurial activities brings to the fore what scholars have too often treated as peripheral and negligible elements of black political and social struggles. Entrepreneurship provides a means to understand the many ways blacks have struggled to strike a tenable balance between personal agency and structural constraints. It also provides a way to reconfigure black women’s participation in the economy, nation building, and politics.
Negro Wizards of Insurance: The Development of the Black Insurance Industry
In the decades after the Civil War, blacks contributed to the growing popularity of industrial insurance. Industrial insurance policies were marketed primarily to wage workers. They provided modest benefits on death for small, weekly premiums of a few cents.
They duplicated similar types of insurance, sometimes called endowment insurance, offered by fraternals, or secret societies.
Large companies like Prudential and Metropolitan Life counted blacks among their clients. Blacks paid more for these policies than whites, sometimes as much as three times more if they worked in hazardous occupations, largely because insurance companies routinely charged higher rates on black lives in slave insurance policies.
In 1881, Prudential turned to statistical studies of higher black mortality rather than impartial or traditional practices to set premium rates. The company argued that increased risk justified raising premium rates, cutting benefits, and, in some cases, denying benefits altogether. Higher black mortality was not a fallacy. However, the emerging field of actuarial science capitalized on a growing body of statistical evidence and on racist, eugenic pseudoscience to justify stripping blacks of their benefits. For example, in his 1896 work Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, Frederick Hoffman, a pioneer in actuarial science and a staunch white supremacist, warned clients like Metropolitan Life that blacks were on the road to extinction, based not on “sentiment, prejudice, or the influence of pre-conceived ideas,” he asserted, but hard science.
These allegedly scientific, neutral, and objective measures ignored social, political, and economic factors such as racist discourses, segregation, and poverty to “prove” that blacks were not only fundamentally inferior in vitality but also inherently prone to social and physical diseases.
By the early twentieth century, mortality tables such as the Glover Life Tables relied on cherry-picked census data to substantiate startling disparities in black and white mortality rates. Some figures reported black death rates that were twice and even treble the rates for whites. Increasingly throughout the twentieth century, the insurance industry and other kinds of social services and programs relied on actuarial science and other applied social sciences, arguing that scientific bases rather than racial sentiment justified the exclusion or disparate treatment of blacks.
In addition to scientific narratives, industry professionals also exercised social pressure to treat African-American clients differently. In 1903, an anonymous agent in Beekman, New York, wrote that a number of “superior Negroes” had approached him for insurance, but the agent’s company refused to insure them. The editor responded, “I do not know of any reputable company which writes negro risks, save with very great caution. Such companies as the Mutual Reserve and others of the off-color sort, write them freely, or used to do so.”
Within their professional networks, insurance professionals maligned companies that underwrote black risks and exercised social pressure to keep agents and their companies from insuring black clients.
As major insurance companies dropped and shunned black clients, black-owned insurance companies filled the void—but not immediately. Around the same time that John Dryden experimented with the Prudential Friendly Society, pioneers like William W. Browne of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers and Thomas Stringer of the Colored Masons and Colored Knights of Pythias created new models of fraternal insurance within black secret societies.
These models borrowed elements from society’s like Dryden’s, such as classes of risk based on age. They also capitalized on longstanding features of black secret societies, such as their conviviality, orientation toward self-help, and secrecy.
As racial hierarchies hardened in early twentieth century US culture, economy, and society, these societies also served as circuits of capital for black businesses, loans, and mortgages. The bureaucratic administration, by-laws, and hierarchical leadership associated with running a fraternal insurance business provided unmatched opportunities for business education, training, and leadership. Coupled with their mystery, ritual, and sociability, blacks carved out a space to enact civil and economic rights denied them in larger society. Thousands of secret societies, mutual organizations, and related groups sprang up in black communities from the 1870s to World War I.
However, fraternal insurance presented its own challenges. Policies offered limited benefits; it was not unusual for an individual to own several different policies with as many societies. Corruption and mismanagement were not uncommon. Customers longed for more anonymity; they desired the financial benefits without the need for secret handshakes and passwords, the numerous fees associated with membership, or the internal jealousies and social jockeying that often emerged in these societies.
It was not until the 1890s that black-owned stock and mutual insurance companies formed. Ironically, most grew out of the disintegration of the True Reformers. As the True Reformers became more and more successful, Browne grew more suspicious of those in power around him. Many high-ranking True Reformers left and formed their own fraternal insurance organizations and formal insurance companies. Booker L. Jordan, former general manager of the True Reformers’ Mercantile Department, co-founded the first chartered black insurance company, the Southern Aid Society, in Richmond, Virginia, in 1893.
The number of insurance companies continued to grow.
Mississippi Life, 1908–1916
In 1908, Wayne and Minnie Cox joined these growing numbers of insurance companies when they opened the Mississippi Beneficial Life Insurance Company, the first black-owned insurance company in Mississippi. Their decision was a bold one, driven by their ambition to create “monuments of protest” after what they had suffered during the Indianola Affair. In 1910, Mississippi Life took an even more momentous step: It became the first black-owned company to offer whole life insurance benefits.
Secret societies enjoyed a monopoly on insuring blacks in Mississippi. Secret societies proliferated because they required little upfront investment and were subjected to minimal regulatory oversight before the early 1910s. The most popular groups in Mississippi—and stiff competition for Mississippi Life—included the Masonic Benefit Society, Knights and Daughters of Tabor, and Odd Fellows. In 1909, for example, no fewer than 46 black secret societies held licenses to do business in the state. None of the established black-owned insurance companies in the country operated in Mississippi, and none of them offered whole life insurance.
The decision to offer whole life, when no other black-owned company offered such products, was a bold and ambitious move on the part of Mississippi Life’s board.
Wayne Cox and Dr. William Attaway undoubtedly pushed the board to make such a bold move. As Supreme Secretary-Treasurer of the Woodmen of Union, Wayne had first-hand knowledge of the financial success and popularity of fraternal insurance. As a practicing physician, Attaway was also aware of the financial benefits. Attaway studied the available literature and taught himself the insurance business; contemporaries characterized him as “the Negro Wizard of Insurance.”
Attaway warned that without a black-owned insurance company in Mississippi, white-owned companies would monopolize the black market. He likened the situation to economic enslavement: As fraternals faded away due to their lack of commercial sophistication, white companies swept in and blacks would be forced to carry policies that not only exploited them but also contributed nothing to their communities. Although whole life insurance products cost more than industrial insurance products, they provided an affordable investment vehicle with higher payoffs. Attaway quit his practice, which reportedly earned him $10,000 a year, to devote his full attention to Mississippi Life.
Mississippi Life may have been the first black insurer to offer whole life, but it was not the first to want to do so. The very high reserve requirement presented a major impediment for any company interested in starting a legal reserve company. Most states required a minimum $100,000 paid-in capital. By contrast, industrial insurance companies required much less, and fraternals could operate without even a formal charter in many states. In November 1910, Mississippi Life’s board amended the company’s charter, increasing the capital requirement. An exception in Mississippi’s insurance laws allowed that only half of the capital, or $50,000, had to be paid. However, Mississippi Life could not sell whole life outside of the state until the full amount was paid. The Coxes and board raised an additional $25,000 in capital at $200 a share. Undercapitalization would only be one of the myriad problems faced by the young company.
The Coxes clashed with Mississippi Life’s presidents. Attaway was brash and outspoken, perhaps much more than the Coxes could afford to tolerate given the threats of violence against Cox during the Indianola Affair. In addition, Attaway may have seen himself as more forward thinking than the Coxes. He proposed a number of reforms, such as constructing a black mortality table. The company failed to adopt such reforms. However, it was almost impossible for any black-owned fraternal and insurance company to construct such a table at this time. None of the companies collected and pooled together a comprehensive set of mortality statistics. In addition, only about twenty years had passed since blacks entered the field, a relatively short period of time on which to base reliable calculations. Finally, no black actuaries existed. Black insurers were certainly aware of these issues and struggled to address them.
Public hostility between the Coxes and Attaway erupted when he campaigned to relocate the company’s headquarters to his hometown of Greenville, a larger town nestled on the Mississippi River. However, the Coxes refused and, as majority stockholders, led the board to shut down Attaway’s plans. They then removed him as president of Mississippi Life and helped elect Andrew J. Howard in 1914.
Howard, a math professor, possessed very little executive experience and even less insurance knowledge. He expressed only a nominal commitment to Mississippi Life—financially and professionally. Howard did not fulfill pledges to purchase the requisite amount of stock, and he devoted little time to the day-to-day operations of the company. He continued to maintain his residence in Ebenezer, nearly 70 miles from Indianola. A manager recalled that Howard paid little attention in board meetings. He quickly adjourned meetings, collected his check, and darted out before the last train left for Ebenezer.
With no effective leadership, the problems of Mississippi Life mounted: fraud, lack of experienced and qualified agents and employees, and low salaries. Mississippi Life had only a few hundred thousand dollars of insurance-in-force, despite having 27 district offices in the state. By comparison, the fraternals Knights and Daughters of Tabor headquartered in Mound Bayou, Colored Odd Fellows in Holly Springs, and the United Reformers in Vicksburg each had more than $1 million of insurance-in-force in 1916. Mississippi Life managers and agents absconded with policy payments. Claims languished unpaid on the books. The board had not raised any additional capital in four years, and debts ballooned to $13,000. Internal rebellion wracked Mississippi Life’s board, which seemed more concerned with returns on investment rather than protecting the company or enacting reforms.
Such poor internal housekeeping reflected poorly on the board’s management. Since its inception, Wayne Cox served as Chairman, and Minnie Cox—the only woman executive and board member—served as Secretary-Treasurer. The Mississippi Life board included some of the largest landowners and most prominent civic, professional, and business leaders in Mississippi and nearby Memphis, Tennessee. For example, Dr. W. P. Kyle, who served as the company’s Medical Director, was also president of the Mound Bayou Bank in the all-black town of Mound Bayou. Vice President Thomas Henry Hayes Sr. founded what had been, until 2011, the oldest black-owned business in Memphis, T. H. Hayes and Son Funeral Home. He co-founded the Union Protective Life Insurance Company and served as Vice President of the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust in Memphis.
These men looked to Wayne for leadership—not Cox. As long as he tolerated the rampant fraud and mismanagement in the district and local offices, no one else would step forward to address it. Without a list of district or local offices in the state, one can only speculate the reasons such inefficiency and mismanagement were tolerated. It is likely that each board member was granted some autonomy over the offices in and near his hometown. As long as Wayne insured a dependable stream of dividend income, allowed board members the public stature associated with a prestigious black-owned company, and granted them autonomy over affairs in their local spheres of influence, they chose to do nothing to address the internal problems racking Mississippi Life.
In addition to these crippling internal problems, threats from outside caused major concern. White intimidation from individuals, competitors, and state bureaucrats threatened not only the solvency of the company but the safety and lives of its workers. White planters kept Mississippi Life agents from visiting sharecroppers and tenant farmers living on the planters’ property. White agents from rival companies and ordinary citizens followed agents after they made collections, attacked them, stole the premiums collected, and tore up the policies. Executives and owners of rival companies pressured the state’s Insurance Commissioner, Thomas M. Henry, to exercise whatever regulatory power—and extralegal pressure—he could call to bear to close Mississippi Life. At one point, Henry told the Mississippi Life board that the company could stay in operation “only as long as it did not get into trouble with the white agents and the white companies.”
White insurers tested the commissioner’s resolve. They charged that Mississippi Life agents tricked and pressured their black clients to switch insurers.
Wayne relied on his connections with influential whites on more than one occasion to convince the commissioner not to pull the company’s license.
He could do little against the extralegal intimidation. However, by 1915, Mississippi Life and its co-founder Wayne Cox were both seriously ailing. His health steadily declined throughout 1915, and he died in a segregated cottage built specifically for his accommodation at Stafford Springs, a sanitarium and resort, in Vossburg, Mississippi, on April 10, 1916.
Minnie Geddings Cox Takes over Mississippi Life, 1916–1920
Cox immediately took full charge of her and Wayne’s personal and business affairs. She managed the financial affairs, paid dividends, and paid off civil court judgments for both the Mississippi Life and the Delta Penny. In 1917, the court awarded her Wayne’s small amounts of profitable stocks in other companies, including several black-owned firms; his 85 percent controlling interest in the Delta Penny; and his 100 shares of Mississippi Life stock.
Cox operated in the shadows during her husband’s lifetime, but now she stepped into the limelight.
It is important to consider why, as Secretary-Treasurer of the company since its founding, Cox ignored clear signs of mismanagement and fraud in its ranks for nearly a decade. While Wayne respected her partnership in all areas of their personal business lives—managing their scores of rental properties, lending money, and entertaining business colleagues—he could ill afford her assertiveness among his colleagues. He had to appear in charge. Wayne Cox was a well-respected businessman and politician, and Cox did not want to undermine his public image. As long as the bank remained on solid footing and the couple continued to enjoy personal success, they were content to allow the executive officers of Mississippi Life to operate unfettered.
If Cox chose to step into her husband’s unexpired term, as some wives of powerful executives did, few would have expected her to serve in more than a titular role. For example, Jessie Gillespie Herndon became vice president of Atlanta Life after her husband Alonzo Herndon’s death, but she deferred the day-to-day management of the company to her stepson and board.
However, Cox orchestrated a bold plan to revive Mississippi Life. Cox held the most powerful office in the company: As secretary-treasurer she exercised direct control over both the company’s finances and administrative functions. Cox became a force with which to be reckoned. She drew on the expertise of the general manager, Merah Stuart, and local Indianola physician Dr. Joseph Walker, Wayne’s initial choice for president in 1908.
Cox removed Prof. Howard from office, loaned Walker the money he needed to purchase the requisite number of shares, and advanced Walker’s election to president of Mississippi Life in 1917.
Cox, along with Stuart and Walker, transformed Mississippi Life in less than a year. They sold the outstanding $40,000 in shares so the company could sell life insurance outside the state. They cured the $13,000 encumbrance, modernized office procedures, increased office staff, hired experienced agents, and streamlined the district office system. They rooted out corruption and inefficiencies that had bled the company for nearly a decade. Premium income increased to over $194,000. By the end of the decade, Mississippi Life expanded into Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. In 1920, premium income surpassed the half million mark (or more than $5.9 million in 2015 dollars). The entire sales force topped 250 men and women.
The reforms extended to the branch offices. Walker instituted quarterly district meetings to train and inspire agents. The district meetings were part pep rally, sales training, and industry education. The two- to three-day meetings featured luncheons, dinner banquets, and awards ceremonies with keynote speeches by Mississippi Life stockholders, officers, or board members. Leading sales agents in the company led sales training workshops in which agents role-played common sales scenarios, such as how to meet objections or promote the company’s products. The best solutions won prizes. Training sessions featured subjects such as “Efficiency,” “Salesmanship,” “An Agent’s Duty,” and “How to Increase a Debit.” Nurses and physicians provided information about health-related topics, such as the spread and prevention of infectious diseases. The district meetings assured that agents received vital training and helped them stay committed to the company.
The biggest change occurred in 1919 when Cox changed the company’s name, removing “Beneficial” to create Mississippi Life Insurance Company. The name change symbolized the company’s disassociation with fraternal insurance. Many insurance companies formed at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth included words like Beneficial, Benefit, and Benevolent in their names to link them with fraternal insurance in the minds of potential customers. By the late 1910s, many saw the association with fraternalism as a detriment. With the elision of one word, Mississippi Life asserted an identity that resonated in the context of a modern insurance industry that had become increasingly more complex, professional, and corporate. It also affirmed that Cox was now in charge.
The changes in the company led to positive growth but not without making some complicated decisions about its customers. Though the industry emphasized the ways insurance represented provision and protection in the event of death, insurers made money by not paying claims—even legitimate ones. Mississippi Life dodged paying legitimate claims. For example, Pleze Oates, a thirty-year-old farmer living in Mound Bayou, bought a whole life insurance policy in November 1915 and faithfully paid his $12.94 quarterly premiums. After he died in February 1919, Oates’ father Washington tried to collect the $1,000 benefit. Mississippi Life refused to pay the full amount, claiming that Oates had an unpaid $70 loan against his policy and that his policy had lapsed a month before his death due to non-payment. The company offered to pay $150, which represented the “paid-up endowment value.”
Oates’ father sued. He produced evidence that Oates had applied for and paid off a small loan June 1918. Oates applied for a new loan for $70 but died before signing the promissory note or receiving the funds. Washington produced the unsigned policy loan agreement and Oates’ cancelled checks showing premiums paid in full through March 1919.
The company certainly had not expected Oates to keep such accurate records. Indeed, it relied on policyholders’ poor recordkeeping and lack of resolve. The decision to offer Oates’s beneficiaries a pittance, despite the fact that Oates had faithfully paid his premiums for nearly four years, reflected a calculated decision to force the client to prove the company owed the benefit. Whole life benefits paid three to ten times more than typical industrial or fraternal policies. Unlike fraternal insurers, who often made a public display of paying premiums as a way to bolster the fraternal’s reputation and increase members’ loyalty, Mississippi Life maintained layers of bureaucracy between themselves and the policyholder. It often made better business sense to question rather than pay claims. The court ruled against Mississippi Life and ordered it to pay the full $1,000 plus six percent interest and court costs.
Despite losing some suits, Mississippi Life was a veritable success. Unfortunately, its newfound success made it even more vulnerable to white hostility. It again became the target of marked resentment from white companies who refused to stomach serious competition. In addition, the mass migration of blacks out of the South for better-paying jobs and opportunities in the North and Midwest occurred at a time when wartime demand for cotton and foodstuffs augured unprecedented demand and profits for planters. More than 100,000 blacks left Mississippi between 1915 and 1920. The mass movement of blacks fueled resentment and heightened anxieties.
White men in Indianola, their ranks swelled by poor white migrant workers, subjected the company to a sinister but long-standing form of harassment: They sexually threatened and may even have attacked the company’s female office workers and sales agents.
The headquarters maintained an estimated workforce of fewer than 20 people, but the presence of the black women who worked there did not go unnoticed. Working at Mississippi Life enhanced black women’s options and financial autonomy. Census records highlight that at least one of the women working as a sales agent reported that she did not know how to read or write.
It is not known if she worked strictly on commission or received some wage, but working as an agent was infinitely better than the only other jobs available to black women in Indianola: domestic, washer woman, and laborer.
By 1919, the widow Cox could no longer rely on the intercession of the influential whites she and her husband had cultivated for nearly 40 years. Perhaps these sympathetic whites had passed away, succumbed to the intimidation of their peers, or performed their own social calculus and believed continued association with Cox was more a detriment than a benefit. However, it is more likely that Cox performed her own calculus. Indeed, communities around the country were erupting in riots and indiscriminate violence, fueled in part by resistance to black soldiers returning from service in World War I and to black migration. In the Mississippi Delta region, one of the most violent riots in U.S. history occurred in 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas, when mobs there brutally repressed an agricultural labor reform movement.
Cox refused to tolerate the threat of rape and the explicit comments and gestures directed against her female workforce—and, indirectly, against their husbands, brothers, fathers, and male co-workers. She certainly realized that lynchings and mob violence were the only one-sided “justice” blacks resisting sexual terror would ever receive. She also realized many whites in the small town and largely rural county would never countenance the sight of women like sales agent Lucille Washington; clerks Willie May Brown, Marthia Porter, Paeolo Wallace, Velma Capshaw; and stenographer Minnie Ashwood. Many whites felt these women should be working in their kitchens or fields—not in the headquarters of one of the largest black-owned life insurers in the country. They expressed their outrage through violence and intimidation. Blacks responded through organized protest, armed resistance, and flight, which comprised grassroots and associational resistance in the period. Cox decided to move the headquarters of the company to Memphis.
In 1919, Cox approached the board with the idea of moving the company out of the state. New Orleans was offered as a possible new location, but Cox and a number of other board members settled on Memphis because of its geographical, economic, and strategic advantages. It was about 135 miles north of Indianola, and both the city’s black population and “Black Wall Street,” anchored by Beale Street, were thriving. By 1920, only a handful of black fraternals offered insurance in Tennessee, though Mississippi Life, North Carolina Mutual, Atlanta Life, and Standard Insurance of Atlanta, the other leading black-owned legal reserve insurers, operated small district offices in the city.
The board tried to keep the company’s move a secret, but word of its plans leaked. The backlash was immediate. Dr. Joseph E. Walker recalled local reactions: “[M]any of the local stockholders sold their stock; policyholders threatened to cancel their policies; school teachers met and sent in petitions; [and] ministers who had used their pulpits to boost the great enterprise now spoke out against it.”
Those white merchants who profited from the business of the company’s employees and customers also complained bitterly about Mississippi Life’s planned departure.
The reaction of state regulators was more perplexing. As long as the company obeyed the insurance laws and displayed the proper obeisance, regulators avoided efforts to close the company. Commissioner Henry was unwilling to part with the $100,000 in assets and securities deposited with the state. The business could move, but its money had to remain. To avoid a protracted battle, Cox left the company seal in the hands of fellow board member and close friend W. W. Phillips in Kosciusko, Mississippi, and on August 19, 1920, left for Memphis. Mississippi Life opened its new headquarters at 234 Hernando Street in Memphis.
The Beginning of the End of Mississippi Life, 1920–1923
The “Delta blues” followed Cox to Memphis. A Mississippi Insurance Department examiner trekked to Memphis and claimed the company was impaired $20,000 through mismanagement in the Ordinary Department. Cox disagreed with the examiner but wrote a personal check to cure the impairment. In February 1921 at the stockholders meeting held in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Cox and the board discharged the supervisor of the Ordinary Department. The time in Clarksdale proved profitable for Cox: She convinced several smaller stockholders to sell her their shares, strengthening her majority position in the company. By 1923, she owned 85 percent of the shares in Mississippi Life, which were worth the equivalent of $1.2 million in 2015 dollars.
Memphis also presented its own kind of “blues.” White resentment had been a problem in Indianola, and now, as one of the largest and newest black-owned business in Memphis, black resentment became a serious problem. Mississippi Life’s home office at the corner of Hernando Street and Beale Street physically represented the company’s imperfect entry into Memphis’s black community.
Beale Street in Mississippi quickly emerged as one of the nation’s successful Black Wall Streets, enclaves of thriving black-owned businesses and communities.
By the end of World War I, Beale Street boasted two banks with combined deposits of $1.5 million (or $17.9 million in 2015 dollars), a coffin manufacturing company with a factory in Memphis and assembly plants in five other cities, a grocery store chain with 15 stores, a hotel, nightclubs, restaurants, and other service businesses.
People of all classes mingled on and around Beale Street. Mississippi Life became the largest business near Beale Street when it opened its new office in the late summer of 1920. However, its arrival revealed some of the deep fissures of intraracial politics and class in the city.
The company’s icy reception was part formal politics and part cultural politics. Robert R. Church Jr., scion of one of the wealthiest blacks in the country, and arguably the most influential black in Memphis and the Mid-South, controlled Memphis politics. Church, a Republican, founded the Lincoln League in 1916 and helped form the state’s first National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) branch after a gruesome lynching in 1917. Because Republicans had almost no chance of election in the solidly Democratic South, Church backed Democrats at the local level whom he believed would help blacks. As a testament to Church’s political influence, 19 of the 20 candidates for local offices in the fall of 1918, including mayor, had been promoted and supported by Church and his Lincoln League. However, once elected, many politicians reneged on campaign promises to black constituents.
Mississippi Life ventured into this dynamic political, economic, and social climate—but not completely unaware. George W. Lee served as district manager of Mississippi Life’s Memphis office. Lee’s ambition and business acumen established him as one of Church’s most important machine lieutenants. However, Joseph Walker strongly resisted entreaties to join the Church faction. It is not known if Cox supported Church’s powerful political machine. Whether she did or not, she gained the ire of Church’s enemies who assumed she allied with him and the enmity of Church supporters who assumed she had not.
The other part of the hostility to Mississippi Life stemmed from cultural politics. Memphis’s black civic-business elite was not necessarily a tight-knit community, but the looming presence of Mississippi Life could not be ignored. Cox did not seek its good graces as part of her tactical calculation in moving to Memphis. A contemporary observed that “no invitations to open doors were extended for publicity meetings, no public banquets were held, no private dinners were served, nor was there publicised [sic] anywhere an ‘Open House.’”
It is also not likely that she curried favor from Memphis’s circle of elite black women beyond maintaining ties with those friends and acquaintances she already had. The unintentional snub moved Memphis’s black middle class to shun Mississippi Life in social and economic circles.
By 1923, Cox wished to sell her company. Her decision may have been motivated by the company’s success or her frustration with other well-to-do blacks. Mississippi Life’s president Dr. Joseph Walker probably expressed some reservations about the sale. A cautious and conservative executive, he certainly insisted on a full vetting of any potential buyer. Cox relied on Walker in the past, but now he represented an impediment. She needed him out. She nominated her son-in-law Dr. Wayne Howard of Bessemer, Alabama, for president, and demanded Walker’s resignation.
At first, Walker refused to step down. He trusted his long record of accomplishments to speak well of his benefit to the company. It is not clear how much money he still owed Cox on her 1916 loan that allowed him to buy the required number of shares to sit as president of the company. The move to Memphis exhausted his personal savings. If he still owed Cox money, she probably exercised that leverage over him. Unable to prevail over Cox, Walker formally resigned on February 22, 1923. Dr. Howard, unlike his brother, former president Prof. Andrew Howard, did not assume even token responsibility at Mississippi Life. He remained in Alabama rather than move to Memphis. Cox, in complete control of every aspect of Mississippi Life, could direct its sale with no interference.
Desire and means were only two components of a successful sale. She needed a buyer—and not just any buyer. Without question, the buyer had to be another black insurer. Appeals to race pride had been a mainstay in the black separate economy, particularly among insurance companies, large and small. The field of potential buyers was small, but the right one seemed to appear in Heman Perry, founder of Standard Life Insurance Company of Atlanta. It is not known when Cox and Perry first met to discuss a sale. When Perry called on her, by coincidence or invitation, his reputation as the wealthiest black financier preceded him.
Perry organized Standard Life of Atlanta in 1908. In 1913, Perry brokered a financial deal with Atlanta Life to protect it from white competitors. That same year, Standard Life became the first black insurance company to offer whole life insurance products exclusively. The insurance company formed part of a stable of Perry companies, which included Citizens Trust Bank, an engineering and construction firm, and a pharmacy. In 1924, Perry gained national prominence when Forbes magazine featured him as the richest, most successful Negro businessman in the world. Among the black community, he was known as “The Daddy of Negro High Financing.”
In Perry, Cox met a formidable ally—and foe. By the early 1920s, unknown to all but a handful of insiders, Standard Life teetered on the verge of financial collapse. Perry desperately needed the assets of Mississippi Life to save his empire. Desperation led him to seek acquisition of Cox’s company by unscrupulous means. Early in 1923, Perry dispatched his actuary James R. Cothran, an associate actuary with the John A. Copeland firm of Atlanta, to the Mississippi Life offices on Hernando Street. Cothran, concealing his association with Perry and perhaps implying he was acting in an official state capacity, asked to look over the company’s books. The office complied. He suggested that Mississippi Life engage his services and allow him to invest and grow its cash surplus. If the Mississippi commissioner balked, Cothran bragged that he would bring the power of the national professional association of actuaries to bear against Henry.
Initially at least, Cox was unaware of Perry and Cothran’s ulterior motives. Mississippi Life did hire Cothran, a move it could not have made without Cox’s knowledge or approval. Cox knew the commissioner’s capriciousness regarding Mississippi Life, but she felt Cothran could provide leverage she needed against Commissioner Henry. Perhaps she felt the recent controversy over Henry’s handling of state funds and his removal from office for a short time in 1922 also provided leverage she needed to resist his demands.
To be sure, Cox’s motivations may have been completely self-interested: She would agree to anything Perry wanted to grease the wheels of the sale to Standard Life.
Armed with the knowledge that Mississippi Life was indeed on solid financial footing and the “cash cow” Perry needed to ease his financial troubles, he then tried to woo away Cox’s key employees. For example, Perry invited General Manager Merah Stuart to Atlanta and feted him in grand style: tours of the city and Perry’s businesses, expensive dinners, and meetings with top executives at Standard Life. In late September 1923, Perry offered Stuart a $6,000 a year position in Standard Life’s soon-to-be-launched industrial life insurance department. Perry gave Stuart little time to mull his options: The position started on November 1.
Stuart resigned from Mississippi Life and left Memphis for Atlanta. Once at Standard, Stuart quickly surmised that neither Perry nor anyone else was interested in creating a new industrial life department. When Stuart protested, Perry bragged that Commissioner Henry planned to pull Mississippi Life’s license because it had hired an actuary, Standard Life’s own Cothran, without Henry’s permission. Soon after their confrontation, Stuart traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, to meet with the commissioner to ascertain if the threat against Mississippi Life’s license was accurate.
Henry told Stuart that because of repeated “confusion and disobedience to [his] orders,” he did indeed plan to revoke Mississippi’s Life’s license.
Its last day of business, Henry proclaimed, would be December 31, 1923. Stuart immediately left for Washington, D.C. to confer with Mississippi Life’s General Counsel Perry W. Howard, the brother of the current and former Mississippi Life presidents. Atty. Howard was Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney General, the highest-ranking black federal appointee in the country. Howard assured Stuart that he would handle Henry “in fifteen minutes.”
Howard called his brother in Bessemer and later spoke with Cox. Cox must have made it clear to her attorney that she intended to sell. He then advised Cox, his brother Howard, and Cox’s daughter Ethyl Cox Howard that they should sell their combined shares to Perry under the following three conditions: Perry had to pay them in cash; the minimum acceptable offer was $125 per share; and Perry had to pay attorney’s fees and expenses. Cox and her attorney agreed that Perry must understand that, should he choose to sell Mississippi Life later, he could only sell to another black insurance company.
A few days after Atty. Howard’s consultation with Cox, Perry met with the attorney to hammer out the deal at the black-owned Whitelaw Hotel in Washington, D.C. Perry agreed to all of the terms and even sweetened the deal. He offered $150 a share and offered to reimburse Cox the $20,000 she paid in 1921 to satisfy the impairment alleged by the state examiner. Howard stressed again that Cox’s $128,000 (or $1.8 million in 2015 dollars) and the others’ proceeds had to be paid in cash.
Perry assured him cash would not be a problem.
In early November, Cox, Dr. Howard and Ethyl, Atty. Howard, and Perry met in the small town of Bessemer, away from the prying eyes of Memphis. Cox was not feeling well, and it did not help her condition that Perry showed up without the cash in hand. He claimed he had simply neglected to wire the funds. Instead, he offered personal checks of $20,000 to each member of the family and $4,500 for the attorney’s fees and three promissory notes for the remaining balance. Atty. Howard insisted Cox wait until the personal checks cleared before moving forward with the promissory notes. This time, she heeded his sage advice. As none of the checks cleared Citizens Trust, any doubts about Perry’s financial condition were confirmed.
Atty. Howard, together with Lt. Lee and Stuart (who had returned to the ranks of Mississippi Life), mobilized to protect the company. The attorney threatened legal action against the state of Mississippi, and Memphis District Office Manager Lt. George W. Lee and Stuart threatened to dissolve the company’s debits. A desperate Perry suggested that Cox deposit $80,000 of Mississippi Life’s cash surplus in Citizens Trust, which was also in dire straits. He could then use those funds to pay Cox, Dr. and Mrs. Howard, and Atty. Howard most of the money he owed them. In essence, Perry suggested using Mississippi Life’s own money, much of it Cox’s, to pay for her company.
Cox deposited $20,000 of Mississippi Life’s surplus in Citizens Trust, probably against her attorney’s counsel. Four of Perry’s personal checks subsequently cleared. The motivations acting on Cox’s decision to spend her own money to save the sale came from various quarters. Her actions undercut Howard, Lee, and Stuart’s efforts to save the company, but Cox must have believed that combining Mississippi Life and Standard Life would resolve Perry’s financial problems while achieving her ultimate goal of creating the largest black-owned life insurance company in the country. Few were aware of the seriousness of Perry’s financial troubles, and Cox may have believed that he needed an infusion of cash to help with a temporary financial difficulty. Perry was finally able to borrow the remaining funds to complete the sale from Southeastern Trust Company. Southeastern Trust already possessed virtual control of Citizens Trust and Perry’s holding company, Service Company, which meant that the white-owned company effectively controlled not only Standard Life, but also Perry’s numerous other firms.
On December 10, 1923, Perry and the top officers of Standard Life, Commissioner Henry, and a Southeastern Trust officer arrived at the Mississippi Life offices with a check for $86,000, significantly less than the original terms.
Perry refused to give Cox the check until she and Dr. Howard transferred their stock to Service Company, elected Perry president, and elected the two Standard Life officers he brought with him secretary-treasurer and vice president.
Cox realized that her hands had been on the lever even as her carefully laid plans barreled out of control.
Cox assessed her options. Commissioner Henry’s threat to revoke the company’s license was more than an idle one. Atty. Howard could challenge the action in court, but it was unclear how long it would take to get the company’s license reinstated or how much it would cost to do battle with the state of Mississippi. If she kept the company, she would operate in a hostile environment with the added burden of an uninterested and inexperienced president, her own son-in-law, at the helm. Walker’s removal and Stuart’s quick defection also gave her pause about who she could really trust. She was 54 years old, and she had spent much of her life fighting to build and then preserve the monument of protest she and her husband created. She took the money and signed over the company to Perry. The ink was hardly dry before the new officers wrote checks transferring all of Mississippi Life’s liquid assets to Perry. Perry endorsed those checks to the white Southeastern Trust agent present at the meeting, a partial payment against his more than half a million in debts.
In a little over a year, Standard Life would cease to exist as well. On February 16, 1925, the remaining stockholders and the new officers met in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Secretary James Robinson—Perry did not attend—advised the stockholders that Standard Life was transferring its majority stock to Southern Life, a white-owned insurance company in Nashville connected to Southeastern Trust. The acquisition of Standard Life, flush with Mississippi Life accounts, immediately ranked Southern Life among the ten largest insurance companies in the South.
With the stroke of a pen, Mississippi Life, the monument of protest Cox and her husband built in defiance of efforts to circumscribe black initiative, was no more.
From the beginning, Southern Life struggled with its new acquisition.
Black policyholders refused to pay their premiums to white agents. Many customers allowed their policies to lapse, transferred their business to other black-owned firms, or cashed out their policies. Mississippi Life staff and agents walked out of the Hernando office in protest. Twenty-seven managers representing 600 agents in five states traveled to the Memphis offices to join protests against the takeover. Will Harris, the owner of Southeastern Trust and new secretary-treasurer of Southern Life, publicly grumbled, “I wonder why Perry would try to sell his people to members of other races, and can’t deliver [them].”
By the end of 1925, Southern Life looked to dump its Mississippi Life business. In an ironic twist, Joseph Walker, the ousted former president, purchased Mississippi Life’s accounts and moved Universal Life, the company he formed less than a year after his dismissal, into Mississippi Life’s former headquarters on Hernando Street.
The realities of the world of commerce had steeled Cox. She thought in business terms but also in terms of legacy to the race. She wanted profits for herself and other Mississippi Life shareholders but she also wanted to keep the company within the race. Others shared her vision for and commitment to create a powerful race company. One newspaper stressed that the merger “would give the Race [sic] the largest insurance company that has ever been operated by Negroes and enable them to do a work that would be very far reaching in many phases of business.”
She chose to sell Mississippi Life to another powerful black insurance company—but not the most obvious choice, North Carolina Mutual (ncmic), already the largest insurance company in the race. Her nephew defected to ncmic, and she resented him and ncmic for it.
A mixture of vision, resentment, and ambition drove Cox to create the largest black-owned life insurance company in the country as the ultimate monument of protest for a life spent fighting Jim Crow through enterprise.
Minnie Cox and her experiences building Mississippi Life reveal the novel experience of an enterprising black businesswoman, but her story shifts our attention away from the typical ways of describing early twentieth century black women. No extant evidence has been uncovered of Cox’s involvement in the clubwomen movement or fraternalism.
She does not appear to have taken any meaningful role in any Mississippi colored women’s club; Mississippi’s black clubwomen’s social reforms and institution building centered in Vicksburg and Jackson. No orphan’s homes or industrial schools for delinquent girls were built in or near Indianola. The Coxes would certainly have been at the forefront, or at the very least the benefactors, of such institutions. Cox was of a different stripe than Sable Victorians, more interested in the benefits of commercial aspirations than in traditional expressions of social reform and uplift. She represents a different way for black women to be: She strengthened families and left a legacy by charging fair rents and interest rates to the more than two dozen families sharecropping on her land; providing mortgages and affordable rents to hundreds of blacks living on both sides of the tracks in Indianola and in the town’s rural hinterlands; hiring blacks in respectable, white-collar positions; and paying claims to sustain families in the event of a loved one’s death.
When Mississippi Life started business in 1908, Cox’s more well-known contemporary Sarah Breedlove Walker, more famously known as Madam C. J. Walker, was only just beginning to build what would eventually become a beauty culture empire. Walker had not yet rebuffed Booker T. Washington’s snub at the 1912 National Negro Business League meeting with the famous washtub speech that helped crystallize a narrative of black womanhood, business ambition, activism, and uplift. Cox too was a woman of action, melding praxis and theory together as she carved out a successful business in the heart of the Mississippi Delta in the first decade of the twentieth century.
With no letters or diaries and merely a few public records in her own hand, one must endeavor to understand Cox based on what she did rather than what she tells us. For Cox, the politics of respectability did not easily combine with the separate group economy to justify black women’s participation in the “public,” or more accurately commercial, sphere or to defend what Stephanie Shaw, a historian of black professional women, describes as “socially responsible individualism.”
Historian Tiffany Gill notes the difficulties black women experienced in articulating and claiming their place in black business development through “the gendered rhetoric of economics and entrepreneurship within the racial uplift ethos.”
Minnie Cox’s personal life and professional career reveal those difficulties.
The significance of individual achievement accounted for something, though one can debate how much it meant. The success and even the eventual failure of Mississippi Life celebrate Cox’s hustle and business acumen but they also reveal their costs. It is important not to erase the critique of capitalism in general and the black separate economy in particular that grows organically out of the relationship between consumers and owners. Cox’s relationship with the community she alternately depended on, served, and exploited reveals the precarious and fraught relationship between “black business” as “black power.” Cox, her contemporaries like Maggie Lena Walker, and even her nemesis Heman Perry shared in the political, social, and economic repression borne by the masses of blacks but claimed a measure of agency that they felt distinguished them from those masses and qualified them for wider rights of citizenship. Rather than stake a claim based largely on ideologies such as comportment, moral superiority, and intellectual advantages, enterprising women like Cox undergirded class distinctions based on economic reality rather than cultural ideology. Minnie Cox’s leadership of Mississippi Life after 1916 reflects the limits and the possibilities of black business operating under the limitations of an industry that marked women as dependents rather than economic agents and in a business climate marked by Jim Crow.