When Ernesta Procope founded one of the most important Black-owned insurance firms as a storefront business in 1953 in the U.S., she knew she had to triumph over challenges usually faced by small minority-owned businesses in a world dominated by big, White-owned companies.
And she did just that, transforming her storefront insurance brokerage in Brooklyn into what was described as the nation’s largest insurance agency owned by a Black woman, with headquarters on Wall Street. Her agency, E.G. Bowman Co., started brokering policies for small businesses and homeowners mostly in the underserved African-American community in New York City before expanding to commercial and government accounts.
Procope’s company handled accounts for big commercial and nonprofit clients such as Pepsico, Avon Products, and other Fortune 500 corporations as well as the New York City Housing Authority. Despite catering to big businesses, Procope made sure that African Americans and individuals in poor areas were not left out when it came to matters of insurance.
According to The New York Times, when major insurers were not willing to underwrite policies in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a mostly Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, Procope’s firm hired limousines to ferry insurance executives there from Manhattan. These major insurers believed that Bedford-Stuyvesant didn’t have middle-class homeowners who deserved coverage. Procope made them realize that they were wrong.
Then came civil disorder in the 1960s that caused many insurers to deny insurance to homeowners in Bedford-Stuyvesant and other areas where Black and other minority groups lived. Procope stepped in and was able to persuade then-Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, and the state Legislature to ban the discriminatory practice in the insurance industry known as “red-lining.”
She also appealed to the state to establish its Fair Access to Insurance Requirements plan which guaranteed homeowner insurance to people in high-risk areas. Other states in the U.S. have adopted the plan since then.
After helping to bring into place the Fair Access to Insurance Requirements plan, Procope stepped foot on Wall Street in 1979. Her insurance firm, which became one of the first major Black-owned businesses there, also described itself as the largest Black-owned insurance brokerage in the U.S.
Procope said in an interview with the American Agent & Broker magazine that as a Black company from Bedford-Stuyvesant coming to Wall Street, “it showed that we had entered the mainstream of the American economy, and it opened doors for other Blacks.”
As time went on, Procope successfully bid for the account of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation that was started by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy before she founded Bowman Specialty Services that provided engineering and safety assistance for the construction of the United States portion of the Alaska pipeline, according to The New York Times. Procope would also sit on directorate boards for several governmental, educational, corporate, and civic entities while mentoring many African-American professionals.
But being Black and a woman, Procope faced many obstacles to success. “I bumped around and hit my head on stone walls,” she told Fortune Magazine.
The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Procope was born Ernesta Gertrude Forster on February 9, 1923, in Brooklyn and was raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Her father, Clarence Forster, who was born in Barbados, was a chief steward for Cunard Lines and later owned real estate. Her mother, Elvira Forster, was from St. Lucia, in the British West Indies.
Procope loved to play the piano growing up, and even performed in a recital with other children at Carnegie Hall when she was 13. She graduated from the High School of Music and Art before heading to Brooklyn College where she left after a year to marry Albin Bowman, a real estate broker.
Bowman was at the time thinking of how to take care of the property insurance for his holdings as insurance companies were unwilling to enter African-American neighborhoods. Bowman encouraged Procope to attend the Pohs Institute of Insurance and Real Estate. She received her license in 1950.
Bowman died in 1952. By that time, Procope had learned almost everything she needed to about insurance so she founded E.G. Bowman in 1953. She married John L. Procope, an advertising executive, that same year. John Procope became publisher of The Amsterdam News until 1982 when he joined E.G. Bowman as chairman.
That same year, a New York City agency accused Procope’s firm of mishandling some of the city’s insurance funds. Her firm was cut off from city business but came back strong when city authorities said in 1984 that it had made a mistake and cleared the firm’s name. Her husband later died in 2005.
And before retiring in 2016, Procope received numerous awards and recognitions. In 1993, Ernst & Young named her Entrepreneur of the Year. In 1972, she received the Woman of the Year award from Pat Nixon, the first lady, in a ceremony at the White House. President Gerald R. Ford later appointed her special ambassador to The Gambia.
On November 30 this year, Procope, who became known as the ‘First Lady of Wall Street’, passed away at her home in Queens at the age of 98. Her company still operates.