Originally created 02/05/06

Pilgrim Life Insurance founders gave blacks security, employment



Solomon W. Walker II isn't exaggerating when he says the demise of The Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance Co. felt like losing a family member.

The ex-chairman and CEO of what was one of the nation's largest black-owned insurers, said signing off on Pilgrim's sale is the hardest decision he's ever made.

The 1989 buyout by larger rival Atlanta Life Insurance Co. was the final chapter for an institution that for decades was the backbone of black commerce in Augusta, a creator of wealth for generations of blacks and a proving ground for community leaders.

Even today, Pilgrim remains the most successful and influential black business ever created in Augusta.

For Mr. Walker, the company was more than that.

To understand his affinity for the firm is to know the company was founded by the grandfather for whom he is named. Solomon W. Walker, who was born just years after the abolition of slavery, had the equivalent of a third-grade education when he helped make payments on Pilgrim's 1898 charter with money earned by fighting in the Spanish-American War.

"I can tell you, making that decision in conjunction with the other officers of the company - once it was finally made - was like a death in the family," Mr. Walker said of the sale, which he hasn't spoken about publicly for the past 15 years.

"I don't mind telling you it hit me awfully hard to have to preside over the selling, and ultimate demise as it were, of a company founded by my grandfather," he said.

A victim of changing times and increased competition from larger companies, Pilgrim was on the brink of financial ruin when Atlanta Life picked up the storied company in a deal valued at a mere $1.5 million.

"It was a bitter pill to swallow," said Mr. Walker, now the affirmative action director for the Medical College of Georgia. "And yet I know we did the right thing. We had to preserve the integrity of the business and protect our policy holders in the long run."

For most of its history, particularly its golden years during the pre-civil rights era, Pilgrim was an institution synonymous with strength and security.

Benevolent beginnings

When slavery ended, blacks suddenly became responsible for their own financial future.

Because few white-owned insurance companies of the day did business with blacks, many began giving money to "benevolent societies" through their churches. The societies provided aid to those who became ill, and, in the event of their death, paid for a decent burial.

It was in this climate that Solomon W. Walker had a vision for a black-owned life insurance company, reportedly after seeing a white insurance agent act abusively to a black policy holder.

The grocery delivery boy enlisted the help of three other teens, his brother Thomas J. Walker, Walter S. Hornsby and J.C. Collier, to come up with the $25 needed for the benevolent society charter.

"These guys had to be about 16 at the time," said Walter S. Hornsby III, a former member of Pilgrim's senior management team and grandson of Walter S. Hornsby. "To get the money in there and get people to trust them, they needed help from someone who was respected in the community."

That guiding light turned out to be Walter S. Hornsby's father, the Rev. Thomas Jefferson Hornsby. The Pilgrim Benevolent Aid Association, as it was then known, was organized in the Rev. Hornsby's home at 1741 Milledgeville Road (now a vacant lot) on May 2, 1898.

The charter for the state's first black-owned insurance company was later paid off with help from the $2.50 Solomon Walker sent home each month during the Spanish-American War.

A 1905 change in Georgia law required all benevolent societies to come up with a $5,000 deposit for policy-holder protection. The law forced Pilgrim to pool its resources with several smaller associations, and the merged company became Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance Co.

By 1916, Pilgrim had 58,000 policy holders; a year later, it dedicated its headquarters building at 1143 Gwinnett St., now known as Laney-Walker Boulevard, the epicenter of black commerce in Augusta. The building still stands and is owned by The Walker Group.

As with many companies of its day, Pilgrim specialized in so-called industrial life products, also known as "burial policies," which typically had face values of less than $1,000. The policies were sold door-to-door and premiums were collected weekly in-person by a company agent.

Pilgrim prospered during this period, expanding operations to Alabama in 1923 and, seven years later, to South Carolina. It acquired two rival companies during the 1930s, and by 1951 it was doing business in Florida.

Economic engine

In the pre-civil rights South, a young black seeking a white-collar job could hardly find a better opportunity than working for a black insurance company.

"There was economic dignity from the standpoint of being able to have a job where you weren't actually breaking your back, where you could use your head and your skillset," said Ronald D. Brown, the president and CEO of Atlanta Life, the black-owned insurance company founded in Atlanta in 1905.

For Augusta State University professor Joseph D. Greene, landing a job with Pilgrim was an escape from the cotton fields.

Mr. Greene, 65, had aspired to work for the company since the 1940s, when Pilgrim home service agent Walter Dukes began paying visits to his family's Emanuel County farm.

"Here I was in the cotton fields, and Mr. Dukes had a shiny new car and a white suit - you can imagine what that did for me," said Mr. Greene, who became one of Pilgrim's top salesmen and eventually rose to the position of senior vice president. "It was a motivating force."

Mr. Greene, who also served as the chairman of the Georgia Board of Regents, devotes a large portion of his recently published memoirs, From Cotton Fields to Board Rooms, to his 32-year career with Pilgrim.

Black women, who often could not find jobs as secretaries in white-owned companies, made up the bulk of the company's back-office operations.

The company not only offered blacks a career but its mortgage operation also developed the Hornsby subdivision across the street from Hornsby Elementary (named after Pilgrim co-founder Walter S. Hornsby). It also financed the sale of many homes in the Belair Hills neighborhood near Fort Gordon.

Mr. Walker recalled when former Augusta City Council member and black community activist I.E. "Ike" Washington was turned down for a mortgage by a white-owned Augusta bank.

"He was told by the lender that that was too much house for him, so he came to Pilgrim, where he was welcomed with open arms," Mr. Walker said. "Of course, there was never any problem with him paying that loan off."

Former State Sen. Charles Walker (who is no relation to the Pilgrim's founding Walker family) told The Augusta Chronicle during an interview that in Augusta up until the 1960s, "all the black leadership came from Pilgrim."

A list of former company board members and employees reads like a who's who in the black community. Aside from Mr. Walker, Mr. Greene and Mr. Hornsby, who recently retired as assistant city manger for Augusta-Richmond County, other Pilgrim alumni include the late T. Walter Josey, physician, community activist, namesake of T.W. Josey High School; the late Ed McIntyre Sr., former mayor of Augusta; the Rev. Emmett Thomas Martin Jr., of Springfield Baptist Church; and Clarence Hollis Jr., community activist, now comptroller for Morehouse College.

Start of the end

When the third generation of Walkers and Hornsbys joined Pilgrim during the 1950s and 1960s, the winds of change that would eventually topple the company were just starting to blow.

Pilgrim began losing market share as desegregation progressed and larger, white-owned insurance companies opened their doors to middle-class black consumers, many of whom appreciated the wider variety of more-sophisticated products.

And the higher-value insurance products Pilgrim rolled out were not competitively priced compared to what larger insurance companies were offering.

"During the early years, our forefathers pretty much had a captive market," Mr. Walker said, adding that Pilgrim found it difficult to expand outside the black community. "As integration began to change the face of the marketplace, (white-owned companies) were able to cross over and begin to write more business in our community. We didn't have that luxury in the white community. They didn't find us as good people to do business with."

Pilgrim's model of selling low-value products door-to-door resulted in mounting operational costs that, when coupled with a shrinking market, kept it from meeting state regulators' surplus requirements.

Surplus funds are monies an insurer must maintain over and above the assets it keeps to cover liabilities to policy holders. Insurance regulations make it difficult for a company to boost the surplus through borrowing.

"Pilgrim was troubled from day one of my administration," said Mr. Walker, who took over as CEO of the company in 1979 after working his way up from a field trainee in 1958. "If (my predecessors) had a failing, it was in not anticipating the changing economic and social and political climate of the future. What hit us hit us unanticipated. Those of us that came behind them were put in a position of having to manage the new changes, for which there was no strategic plan."

After failed attempts to increase its surplus through loans and mergers with other companies during the mid-1980s, Pilgrim was declared "financially impaired" by the Georgia insurance commissioner in 1989. It had similar troubles with state regulators in South Carolina, Alabama and Florida, all of whom suspended Pilgrim's license to operate in their respective states.

Faced with the choice of going bankrupt, or turning its customers and employees over to a larger company, Pilgrim executives entered into discussions with Atlanta Life.

Atlanta Life, through an arrangement with the Georgia insurance commissioner, acquired Pilgrim for a fraction of what it was worth in 1989.

"December 1989," Mr. Walker said, recalling his resignation from the company. "That's a date burned into my memory."

Pilgrim initially operated as an independent division of Atlanta Life, but by 1991, the last vestiges of Pilgrim's Laney-Walker home office was moved to Atlanta, ending nearly a century of history in Augusta.

Legacy continues

Pilgrim's executives remain proud that the company always paid its bills and its claims during its company's 93-year existence, and that its former customers are still taken care of. Even today, many Atlanta Life customers are old Pilgrim policyholders.

"And we will have them well into the future," said Mr. Brown, Atlanta Life's CEO.

Mr. Brown, who was not with the company during the 1989 deal, said the pressures that put Pilgrim out of business led to the demise of dozens of other black-owned insurers.

"The number has just fallen off the cliff," he said.

Atlanta Life, with $202 million in assets, is known as one of the "big three" black insurance companies, along with North Carolina Mutual of Durham and Los Angeles-based Golden State Mutual.

The three survived the industry's downturn because of their size, and they continue to thrive by evolving into broad-based financial-services firms.

Pilgrim's former leaders came to grips long ago with the changes that forced the end of their era. But they still like to reminisce about the business that touch so many, for so long.

"It was more than just another company or business - a lot of people miss that," Mr. Walker said. "I miss it, in fact."

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

Key pilgrim dates



1898: Organized as a benevolent association

1905: Forced to merge with other societies to afford deposit required by new state law

1917: Begins writing industrial life policies

1923: Enters Alabama market1930: Enters South Carolina market

1931: Acquires Georgia Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Augusta

1948: Celebrates 50th anniversary with 700 employees

1951: Enters Florida market

1954: Co-founder Solomon Walker, regarded as the company visionary, dies1956: Co-founder Walter Hornsby, considered the chief operations officer, dies

1964: National Civil Rights Act passes

1986: Reports peak assets of $17 million

1989: Agrees to be acquired by Atlanta Life Insurance Co.

1991: Atlanta Life moves last remaining Pilgrim operations to Atlanta

Sources: AugustaArchives.com; Joseph D. Greene, The New Georgia Encyclopedia; The Augusta Museum of History

BLACK BUSINESS ICONS



Today: Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance Co., one of the largest black-owned insurers in the nation, was for decades an economic engine for Augusta's black community.

Feb. 12: The old Lenox Theater, in its heyday, was known one of the finest black theaters in the South.

Feb. 19: Dent's Undertaking Establishment, whose roots date back to the 1880s, spawned many of the area's other black funeral homes and remains a fixture of black business in the city.

Feb. 26: Augusta's Penny Savings Bank, forced out of business during the Great Depression, was one of the nation's first black-owned banks.



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