P.H. Willard brought Atlanta Life Insurance to Southeast Texas

INSURANCE

P.H. Willard’s surviving family members will always remember his legacy helping expand life insurance access for the Black community.

Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which services Black residents and families, expanded operations with a Beaumont location on Forsythe Street prior to the mid-20th century. P.H. Willard was tasked with overseeing the region.

David Willard, P.H. Willard’s cousin, said Atlanta Life was believed to be the nation’s largest Black-owned business at the time.

“When they were looking to expand into new cities and new territories, they would sort of try to attract people who had a great deal of respect in the community. Of course, it would be easier for them to issue life insurances policies to people in the community because they were known, they were respected, they came from a respected family or things of that nature… There was a lot of respect for (the Willard family) at the time,” David Willard said.

RELATED: Beaumont’s first Black-owned mortuary built on legacy of service

Atlanta education launches everything

The Beaumont native and Charlton-Pollard High School graduate attended and later graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, where he met his future wife, Othelene. P.H. Willard then moved to Atlanta to teach biology at Clark College, where he was introduced to Atlanta Life, his daughter Nora Lee Alexander said in an email.

Upon bringing Atlanta Life to Texas around 1925, P.H. Willard hired agents from Lufkin, Silsbee, Orange, Port Arthur and Beaumont, along with three clerks, according to Alexander.

“These agents were given the opportunity to go door to door soliciting small amounts of revenue for weekly premiums. During this time, after the Depression, money was at a minimum for the African American community,” Alexander said in the email. “These premiums included money for Ordinary Ins.(Death) and a small amount for health. During this time of segregation, many opportunities were limited for this community.”

Alexander said she worked the company for an hour on Saturdays, starting at age 11 until she was 21. She said she learned how to do bookkeeping, balance cash inflow, make bank deposits and tally numbers.

“My experience there was priceless,” she said. “My experience with the Atlanta Life has followed me with techniques that have helped me in making sound financial decisions… Both of my parents were involved in promoting influence and respectability in our community.”

A challenging era

During the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and into the ’50s, with Jim Crow laws still in effect, it was difficult for Black communities to obtain life insurance.

“African Americans had to do everything for themselves. Nothing that white America had was provided to African Americans, even if it meant them losing money,” David Willard said. “You’d think in a business sense that insurance company would have no problem. They wanted to get as many insurers as they could because it meant more to their bottom line, but that was not the case.”

Atlanta Life’s presence in Beaumont became even more significant, because it wasn’t previously commonplace for Black residents to even take out insurance policies, David Willard said.

“People wanted insurance policies. Folks were dying at a much younger age than they do today. So, being able to have something like that was a big deal for the African American community. And it just so happens that the Willard family was set up in a way to be able to provide a lot of these things for the very first time to the African American community in this area,” he said. 

Joyce Willard, who was married to P.H. Willard’s cousin Percy, said Atlanta Life and P.H. Willard helped Beaumont’s Black community improve their knowledge about how to buy insurance and to understand insurance a bit better.

“P.H. was a very point-blank person, real business-like. Very highly-intelligent man,” she said.

She also said P.H. Willard helped inform people that they can get insurance policies to help bury loved ones who passed away.

“I think he enlightened the Black community about insurance and how important it was to purchase it,” she said. “They didn’t have access to any, and that’s what he really concentrated on.”

P.H. Willard, who had an orchid greenhouse behind his two-story home on Concord Street, became so successful selling life insurance in Beaumont that he ultimately joined Atlanta Life’s national board of directors, David Willard said.

“From all appearances, he was a very good businessman, very successful. He known to be spendthrift… He held on tight to every dollar he had,” David Willard said.

A strong legacy

In all, P.H. Willard worked for 54 years before retiring, Alexander said.

P.H. Willard was also on the board of directors of Willard & Willard Funeral Home, which was incorporated in 1929 and was Beaumont’s first Black-owned funeral home business. 

With that, paired with setting up life insurance and housing services for African Americans, the Willard family was in a prime position to thrive in the area and became well respected by both the Black and White communities, David Willard said.

Although the Willard family sold the building to the Catholic Diocese of Beaumont several decades ago after P.H. had retired, David Willard said that same building is still in use across the street from St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica and St. Anthony School.

And P.H. Willard’s work with Atlanta Life endures.

“The man just broke barriers in many areas,” Joyce Willard said. “I think he helped a lot of ladies who had gone to secretarial school. And not just ladies, but men as well to get jobs.”

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