Life Insurance Memphis Tn – Memphis, Tenn. (WMC) – Universal Life Building at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and Danny Thomas Boulevard have served as iconic Memphis landmarks for decades.
It was founded in 1923 by Dr. J. E. Walker, A. W. Willis, Sr. and M.W. Bonner, Universal Life became the nation’s fourth largest black-owned insurance company.
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After 18 years of vacancy, the iconic building has reopened and is ready to welcome Memphis entrepreneurs.
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“We’re ready,” said Joanne Massey, director of business diversity and compliance for the city of Memphis.
It is a public-private partnership between the city, which owns 43 percent of the building, and Self + Tucker Architects, which owns the building.
“Everything in this building is free and open to the public. All you have to do is walk through the door,” Massey said.
People have access to everything from computers to books, technical support, a drawing room, free training courses and much more.
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The city is working with the Black Business Association, the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, the Small Business Administration and several other organizations to offer the classes.
“We call it a one-stop shop where you can come here. We have other different partners and different organizations here, and best of all, it’s free,” said William Richardson of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center.
“Our target is at least 24 percent, but we’re definitely aiming for that 30 percent and we’re not going to stop there,” he said. “Juan Self, Self + Tucker Architects
“And to think if that building was torn down, what would that mean,” Jimmy Tucker said. “As a resident of Memphis, I think about what has happened in my life, now I see that this building has a chance to look well into the future, and I hope that it will inspire some young people … .
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Jimmy Tucker of Self + Tucker Architects knew this. He and Juan Self — co-founder of the architecture firm that recently renovated the building — delved into the building’s history as part of the revitalization.
They understood that the legacy of Universal Life Insurance Company – and the neighborhood in which it is located – was inseparable from the building where it operated for more than 50 of its nearly 80 years. Built in 1949, the iconic Egyptian Revival building is a testament to the grit and resilience of community leadership in the face of extreme racial prejudice and systemic barriers to economic mobility, as well as an enduring commitment to community and the common good.
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The story of Universal Life begins with its founder, Dr. Joseph Edison Walker. Born in 1879 in Tillman, Mississippi to sharecroppers, Dr. J.E. Walker opened a medical practice in Indianola, Mississippi before becoming president of the Mississippi Life Insurance Company in 1917, offering insurance to black Mississippians when white companies refused. He expanded the company significantly before racial prejudice and threats of violence forced him to move to Beale Street in Memphis.
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In 1923, after Mississippi Life came under the control of a white administration, Walker along with Archie Willie Sr. and Mark W. Bonner founded the Universal Life Insurance Company (ULICO). They set up shop on the second floor of the Brothers Bank at Third and Bill before moving into their own building at 234 Hernando Street. The building was designed by the Nashville-based firm of McKissack & McKissack, one of the nation’s first and most prominent African-American architectural firms.
Despite constant intimidation and systemic obstacles to their success, Dr. Walker believed that economic prosperity was the key to black progress and dedicated ULICO to “enhancing the economic prosperity of people of color.” In addition to providing insurance to the black community, ULICO invests in civic improvements, provides job opportunities and educational scholarships, and supports home ownership and entrepreneurship. The Hernando Street office also housed the Memphis branch of the NAACP, and Dr. Walker helped organize the Memphis Negro Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Community Welfare League, later renamed the Memphis Urban League.
ULICO’s commitment to the economic empowerment of the black community also led Dr. Walker and his son A. Maceo Walker founded Tri-State Bank in 1946. At the time of Tri-State’s founding, he was the only African-American owner in the city of Memphis, and in his first ten years he loaned over $10,000,000 to over two thousand families.
Under Dr. Walker’s leadership, ULICO quickly became a social and economic force in Memphis and beyond, opening offices in 11 states from Virginia to California. By 1945, it had become the second African-American insurance company in the country to reach million dollar capital status, and its expansion required a larger building. ULICO contacted the architectural firm of McKissack & McKissack again with the idea of redeveloping the First Baptist Church in Linden and Lauderdale. The church building was put up for sale as the neighborhood became more diverse and the congregation, like many other white churches of the time, wanted to move east.
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“The neighborhood has changed,” explains Jimmy Tucker of Self + Tucker Architects. “There was a lot of opposition to Foote Homes and Cleaborn Homes, a public housing development being built in that particular area. Universal Life was across the street from the FedEx Forum site, and the congregation knew they were looking for a bigger location.
They didn’t take it, however, and instead decided to buy a piece of land next to the church at the corner of Linden and Danny Thomas Boulevard. McKissack & McKissack completed ULICO’s striking new Egyptian Revival headquarters in 1949. “I can only believe that the founders of Universal Life wanted to make a statement,” says Juan Self of Self + Tucker. “They made a conscious decision not to move into the building,” agrees Tucker. “Consciously choosing the Egyptian Revival style, we consciously choose McKissack & McKissack as a design firm. It was about their brand and the kind of presence they wanted to continue in the community.
The decision to rebuild the former white church represented the economic independence and strength of the black community, and the partnership between ULICO and McKissack & McKissack represented the strength and capabilities of two of the most powerful African-American landlords in the South. The use of Egyptian forms and imagery, particularly the reed-like fluttering front columns with lotus capitals and bases, celebrated the achievements and craftsmanship of Africans and challenged the stereotypes of black inferiority that characterized the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.
As Tucker explains, it was a time when “African Americans were trying very hard to present themselves against negative stereotypes. Dr. Walker lived through this period and was given the opportunity to create this 33,000 square meter structure in the 1940s. I think this is part of the psychology and perspective he would have in choosing an architectural style that deals with African history. It was a really strong statement for them.
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In addition to visual features and beauty, ULICO’s new building is equipped with state-of-the-art office equipment, including its own underground printing press, employee lounge and community cafe. The underground cafe quickly became a community meeting place, hosting neighborhood parties and celebrations, as well as rallies and meetings within the civil rights movement. The Memphis branch of the NAACP also moved into the building, reinforcing the ethos of economic and political resistance espoused by the company and its headquarters.
Dr. Walker’s son, A. Maceo Walker took over as president in 1953 and continued his father’s legacy of growing the company and its surrounding community while supporting black businesses and families. Although African Americans were excluded from mainstream commercial entrepreneurship and opportunities during segregation, money generated in the black community was also reinvested in the black community. Capital raised by insurance companies such as Universal Life was returned to the community through loans and other investments—investments that the white companies refused.
Universal Life also invests in local educational initiatives, including sponsoring the first computer systems at LeMoyne-Owen College and inviting high school students into the office to shadow employees and connect with the professional world. His commitment to community economic mobility was exceptional.
Patricia Walker Shaw became the first woman to head a major insurance organization in the country (
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ULICO thrived and flourished until the 1980s. In 1983, Patricia Walker Shaw succeeded her father as president of the company, becoming the first woman to head a major life insurance and