Remembering Ernesta Procope, the first Black woman to own a business on Wall Street

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 7, 2024 12:03 PM EDT
Ernesta Procope. Photo credit: Sarasota Herald-Tribune

The storied history of Wall Street begins from the 17th century with an actual wall. Wall Street was also the site of a slave market in pre-independence America and even some time afterwards. And when the slave trade ended, banks and states in the south sold securities on Wall Street to raise funds for plantations driven by slave labor. Today, Wall Street has become synonymous with the American and the global financial services industry.

But the place held by people of African descent in the annals of Wall Street has greatly and thankfully evolved from the menial to the mammoth. Ernesta Procope’s story exemplifies this departure into what is now very admirable.

Procope established the first black woman owned insurance brokerage firm located on Wall Street. Her legacy lives on through the role she played in bringing the modern American financial system closer to Black American reach.

“Here was a Black company from Bedford-Stuyvesant coming to Wall Street — that was significant. It showed that we had entered the mainstream of the American economy, and it opened doors for other Blacks,” Procope would later say about the significance of her business entering Wall Street.

Procope was born in Brooklyn, New York on February 9, 1923. Her father was an immigrant from Barbados who worked as a chief steward for Cunard Lines, a real estate owner and a postal worker. Procope showed early promise as a piano prodigy and had made her Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 13. But by the time she graduated highschool, her interests had shifted from music and to real estate and insurance. Procope attended the Pohs Institute of Insurance and received her broker’s license.

She founded E.G. Bowman Co., a private insurance agency in 1953 that served the mostly African-American residents of the Bedford-Stuyvesant area in Brooklyn. Procope began by brokering insurance policies for local small businesses and auto and homeowners in the underserved community. Her entrepreneurship skills grew the agency and ensured its prosperity.

The agency’s growth was curtailed by insurance companies’ reluctance to write business in the area during the mid 1960s. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, insurers canceled 90 percent of the firm’s homeowner clients in a single day. Procope went straight to New York Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller to advocate for her clients and demand a solution. Consequently, New York became the first state to enact FAIR (Fair Access to Insurance Requirements) Plan legislation for homeowners in high-risk areas. It has since been implemented in 26 states.

In addition to driving legislation, Procope hired limousines to bring insurance executives to Bedford-Stuyvesant. She showed them that properties in the neighborhood were valuable and insurable. This strategy paid off with Procope succeeding in finding a company to write the risks. The agency began to add commercial lines to its portfolio and had the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., a community development program by Robert F. Kennedy, as one of its first. The agency was broker of record for the colossal $8 billion Northern Pipeline Construction Project, insuring an 800 mile gas pipeline running through five states.

The firm had successfully brought in 25 Fortune 500 clients by the 1970s but its Bedford Stuyvesant address curtailed its efforts to integrate into the mainstream. In 1979, Procope made the decision to move the agency to the capital of the financial world — Wall Street. The E.G. Bowman Company consequently became the first major African American-owned business on Wall Street. The move to Wall Street added more Fortune 500 companies to the Bowman portfolio. Today the company is licensed in all fifty states with a prominent clientele that includes IBM, Avon Products, Philip Morris Companies, Heinz, Pfizer, General Motors and AOL/Time Warner.

Even after achieving mainstream success, E.G. Bowman has stayed loyal to its early customers in Brooklyn and continues providing insurance services to the people in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community. The company incorporated its engineering and safety services division, Bowman Specialty Services, LLP in 2000. Procope served on boards of various corporate and community non-profit organizations such as The Chubb Corporation, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and the New York Urban League. She was head of the Adelphi University Board of Trustees and a trustee at Cornell and Adelphi Universities. Procope has received honorary doctorates from Howard University, Adelphi University, and Marymount Manhattan College.

In 1972, Procope was honored with the Woman of the Year award by First Lady Patricia Nixon at a White House reception in 1972. She was appointed by President Gerald Ford as a Special Ambassador to the Gambia in 1993. Procope retired in 2016 and died five years later but her legacy forever lives on as the “First Lady of Wall Street.” Located on 5 Hanover Square, E.G. Bowman continues serving commercial lines of all sizes ranging from small and midsized business to municipal organizations and Fortune 500 companies.

In spite of the heights she reached, Procope was not one to forget the structural challenges that came the way of Black people in general and Black women in particular.

“Unfortunately, there remain vestiges of racism and sexism that continue to make our job more difficult than it should be. But significant progress has been made over the last 50 years. We look forward to an America where people are only judged by their abilities and talents and willingness to work,” Procope once said about her optimism for the future of African Americans and women in the finance industry.