It was the Augusta version of the American success story.
In 1898 a young deliveryman named Solomon W. Walker decided he could sell insurance in our town’s black community as well as anyone.
He persuaded his uncle, the Rev. T.J. Hornsby, his brother, Thomas Walker, a cousin, Walter S. Hornsby, and a friend, J.C. Collier, to join him, and soon the Pilgrim Benevolent Aid Association was formed.
It would become the Pilgrim Health & Life Insurance Co. — the most successful and influential black business ever created in Augusta.
Pilgrim became the chief provider of insurance to Augusta’s black residents. By 1916, it had 58,000 policyholders. The headquarters building, which still stands, was dedicated in 1917 at 1143 Gwinnett St. (now Laney-Walker Boulevard).
Pilgrim grew because it focused on industrial life products, often called “burial policies,” typically valued at less than $1,000. The policies were sold door-to-door and premiums were collected weekly by a company agent.
Pilgrim grew quickly, expanding to Alabama in 1923, to Florida in 1930, and eventually to Florida.
The company not only grew its business, it grew its employees. It offered black men and women a business career, while developing many of the city’s leaders for decades to come.
A list of former company board members and employees reads like a who’s who in the black community. Aside from Walkers and Hornsbys, there was Joe Greene, a professor, author and member of the Georgia Board of Regents; Dr. T. W. Josey, physician, community activist and namesake of T.W. Josey High School; Ed McIntyre Sr., former mayor of Augusta; the Rev. Emmett Thomas Martin Jr., of Springfield Baptist Church; and Clarence Hollis Jr., community activist and comptroller for Morehouse College, and many, many more.
Atlanta Life Inc. bought Pilgrim in 1989 and merged with it in 1991, moving its offices to Atlanta. That might have ended a century of business in Augusta, but left a lasting legacy of leadership and success.