Anthony Overton

Jul 13th, 2014 | By | Category: Business
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Anthony Overton1865-1946 Anthony Overton was the founder of a multifaceted group of Chicago-based companies. The son of slaves, he ultimately presided over a cosmetics business, a magazine and a newspaper, a bank, and an insurance company.

Lawyer and Judge

Overton was born in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1865. Little is known about his mother, Marty Deberry, or his father, Anthony Overton, Sr. They apparently were released from slavery under Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It is known that the Overton family moved to Kansas around 1884, when Overton was age 18 or 19, just about the time he graduated from high school. He enrolled at Washburn College in Topeka that same year. Overton majored in law and received his bachelor’s degree in 1888.

After earning admission to the Kansas State Bar, Overton remained in Topeka and opened a law practice. He subsequently was named to the position of judge in neighboring Shawnee County. In 1892, Overton moved to Oklahoma and became treasurer in a county administration. Each of these positions brought him into close contact with businessmen and entrepreneurs, and he grew eager to become an entrepreneur himself. In 1898, at age 33, he moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and used his savings to found the Overton Hygienic Company. Its sole function, initially, was to market a type of baking powder he had formulated.

The baking powder was a success, and Overton’s sales gave him the resources to make and market a line of cosmetics and hair products targeting black women. Adopting a strategy still in widespread use in the cosmetics industry, he recruited homemakers to act as sales agents. Despite initial setbacks, sales slowly increased. In 1903, Overton’s entire enterprise was nearly demolished by a disastrous flood that swept through Kansas City and destroyed his offices, factory, and warehouse. He was able to find the resources to rebuild, however, and with redoubled recruiting and marketing, he survived the adversity.

In an attempt to outdo his competition—which included such successful black cosmetic innovators as Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone—Overton developed and manufactured all the chemical bases used in the products he sold. This gave him control over product formulations while reducing costs. Overton also learned from the success of others. Following the lead of other successful entrepreneurs, in 1911, he moved his entire business to the fertile commercial and industrial soil of Chicago.

An International Business

At the time of his move, Overton’s company already had well-developed markets throughout the United States, and internationally in Egypt, Liberia, and Japan. The number of door-to-door representatives approached 500, each selling a line of 60 products. The catalog included not only cosmetics and perfumes, but also other household products ranging from shoe polish
to cooking ingredients, extracts, and, of course, Overton’s original baking powder. Following the move to Chicago, the growth of his company was exponential: between 1915 and 1927, the assets of the company quadrupled from $250,000 to more than one million dollars.

Overton launched a monthly magazine called The Half-Century in 1916. Ajournai of African American culture, it covered a range of issues that concerned Blacks from news to art and theater, leavened with inspirational stories by African American writers. Amid the articles were advertisements for his cosmetics and other products. The magazine also provided a forum for biting editorials in which Overton railed against discrimination, poll taxes, and lynching. He argued that African Americans needed to fully engage themselves—just as he had done—in business and enterprise. Blacks, he said, had to recognize that they “were living in a commercial era and that the factors of paramount importance… are economy, industry—the making and saving of money—and business development.”

Like Booker T. Washington, Overton envisioned the growth of a vibrant African American economy that would be parallel and equal to that of the mainstream. He was a relentless and determined critic of Washington’s political opponent WE.B. Du Bois. Overton often accused Du Bois and his allies of “falsification, gall, treachery, bigotry, egotism, and borrowed oratory.” After a series of race riots in Chicago in 1919, however, when Blacks were subject to overt, widespread, and vicious mistreatment by the Chicago police, Overton changed his tune—at least partly—and upped the intensity of The Half-Century’s coverage of race and politics while proclaiming strong support for the recently formed NAACP

Analyzing the sorry state of the black economy, Overton became convinced of the need for a federally chartered, black-owned bank that could provide support and leadership for the nation’s considerable number of black-owned businesses. His dream came to fruition in 1922 when the Douglass National Bank of Chicago received its federal charter with Overton himself named as president. The next year, Overton again branched out by founding the Victory Life Insurance Company After 10 years of successful operation, Overton transformed The Half-Century into the Chicago Bee in 1927. He thought the Bee would be a more effective competitor to the highly successful Chicago Defender, which Overton viewed as inflammatory and counterproductive. Both the bank and the insurance company flourished until the 1930s when the Great Depression led to the collapse of Douglass National and forced Overton to give up control of Victory Life. But his core business, the Overton Hygienic Company, survived, with Overton remaining at the helm until his death on July 2, 1946.

Overton’s entrepreneurial daring and his public encouragement of other black business owners had far reaching implications in the African American community He is one of a handful of successful entrepreneurs who led black-owned enterprises into the 20th century. By having the foresight to own the entire manufacturing line of his cosmetics business, Overton was able to survive the Depression and live out his final years in comfortable affluence. Among his legacies is the landmark Chicago Bee building in which he housed his enterprises, a classic art deco structure located in Chicago’s historic black Metropolis-Bronzeville district.

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