For most of the twentieth century, African American-owned insurance companies controlled more wealth than any other African American enterprise and played an outsize role in shaping cities and suburbs. This talk discusses how these insurance companies negotiated the (often vexed) aims of pursuing financial profit while trying to create more equitable cities. In efforts to reverse the economic “sub-priming” of African Americans, these companies used housing developments, corporate architecture, infrastructural investment, and advertising to redress discriminatory forms of urbanism and racial stereotypes. In this talk, the urban and architectural interventions of African American insurance companies are evaluated in relation to two different visions of urban development: “actuarial urbanism” versus “reparative urbanism” (i.e., urbanism directed toward racial and economic reparations).
In the 1940s through 70s, several of the largest of these insurance companies commissioned sumptuous new headquarters, one of which was the only skyscraper ever commissioned by an African American corporation. In planning for these buildings, the companies' executives deliberated if and how to employ African American architects, contractors, and builders. I use the histories of these new insurance office buildings to engage questions of Black capitalism and Black Marxism. While recent scholarship has focused on the biopolitical mechanisms of the Euro-American-owned insurance industry, the history of African American insurance demands a more subtle analytical framework, as these companies’ efforts vacillated between the biofinancial logics of actuarial techniques and, on the other hand, strategies of care, uplift, and political contestation.
Ginger Nolan is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California. Her research examines relationships between architecture, media, infrastructures, and race in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She has published two books with the University of Minnesota Press: Savage Mind to Savage Machine: Racial Science and Twentieth-Century Design (2021) and The Neocolonialism of the Global Village (2018). She is currently writing a book on the role of African American insurance companies in twentieth-century urban and architectural development.