Most White People Just Don't Trust a Black Business Very Much: How the Walker Family Overcame Economic and Racial Discrimination to Become Successful Professional Business Owners in Memphis in the Twentieth Century
Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Dr. Kimberly Perez
Joseph Edison (J.E.) Walker was an African-American man born to an impoverished, sharecropping family in the heart of the Mississippi Delta after the Civil War in 1879. Even from an early age, he was determined to break out of the station his family had been relegated. There were few educational and occupational opportunities for Walker in Tillman, Mississippi, but against all odds, he received his undergraduate degree from Alcorn State College and a medical doctorate from Meharry Medical College. After graduating, Walker opened a medical office to help the people of the town; however, his local community mistreated him. White citizens often terrorized his office because they thought he was too successful and took too much business from the white doctors in town. Feeling threatened but not defeated, Walker overcame the oppression, left the medical field, and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Walker greatly desired to help African Americans achieve equal economic opportunities, which led him to open two professional businesses within a city that traditionally limited African Americans economically.
Walker’s first company was the Universal Life Insurance Company which offered Blacks in Memphis access to insurance as African Americans were often denied insurance at white firms. Walker had to fight discrimination and Memphis political corruption for his businesses to succeed financially. However, Walker’s definition of success was not confined to finances. He constantly gave back to the Black community to spark change in Memphis and overcome the gross income disparities within the city.
Walker and his son, Antonio Maceo (A.M.) Walker opened a second professional business in Memphis in 1946, Tri-State Bank of Memphis. The father and son team decided to open the bank when A.M. was turned down for a loan at a bank that predominantly served whites. Through Universal Life and Tri-State, the family was able to help Black Memphians politically with voter registration drives; economically by giving loans, jobs, training, and education scholarships; and socially by building Black neighborhoods to provide safe housing for citizens who were traditionally limited to condemned housing.
The Walker family’s businesses represent a small sphere of professional Black businesses that succeeded despite the difficulties within the city of Memphis. The city limited Black businesses to small service venues such as barber and beauty shops, and small restaurants. J.E. Walker was able to rally the Black community to support his business. In turn, he gave back to the Black community, which led to the Walkers’s businesses becoming a powerhouse in Memphis. The family’s success was an inspiration to African American business owners throughout the nation, as they accomplished what many have sought and failed to achieve because of persistent discrimination within the country. Universal Life Insurance Company and Tri-State Bank of Memphis both lasted over sixty years as the Walkers overcame significant economic and racial limitations in Memphis. The family’s appeal to the Black citizens of Memphis as customers and investment in the Black community through building residential real estate, providing educational opportunities and scholarships, and spearheading voting drives to solidify the customer base in both the financial and insurance industry. Their approach to business, which uplifted the Black community, enabled them to succeed, despite the barriers they faced.
Pleasants, Leslie, "Most White People Just Don't Trust a Black Business Very Much: How the Walker Family Overcame Economic and Racial Discrimination to Become Successful Professional Business Owners in Memphis in the Twentieth Century" (2022). Master's Theses. 3207.
© 2022 Leslie Pleasants