Ernesta Procope, the ‘First Lady of Wall Street’, Dies at 98

By Laurence Arnold

Ernesta Procope, whose insurance company was greeted as the first Black-owned business on the boulevard of American finance when it relocated its office to Wall Street in 1979, has died. She was 98.

She died on Nov. 30 at her home in Queens, in New York City, according to the New York Times, citing her brother-in-law Frederick O. Terrell. 

Ernesta Procope in 1980. Photographer: Bettmann/Getty Images

As founding president of E.G. Bowman Co., which billed itself as the largest Black-owned and woman-owned insurance broker in the U.S., Procope made a splash with her arrival at 97 Wall Street in Manhattan. Walter Page, chairman of Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., hosted a reception for the new neighbor, the American Banker newspaper reported.

Until the move, E.G. Bowman had been based in a storefront in the majority-Black Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Procope — then Ernesta Bowman — founded the company in 1953.

“I honestly felt I couldn’t stay in Bedford-Stuyvesant and operate the kind of business I think I’m going to have in the year 2000,” Procope said, according to a 1980 article in People magazine. “When I think about integrating into the economic mainstream, I can’t necessarily depend upon the Black consumer market for the product I have to offer.”

‘First Lady’

At the time of the move, her firm had grown from three employees, with a focus on home and car insurance, to a 33-person brokerage servicing commercial accounts with Fortune 500 companies, including General Motors Co., International Business Machines Corp., Kraft Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. Since 2012 E.G. Bowman has been located at 5 Hanover Square, two blocks off Wall Street.

She became known as “the first lady of Wall Street,” Black Enterprise magazine said in 1993.

Procope, who held the title of company chairman in recent years, served on the boards of Chubb Group Inc., Cornell University and the New York Urban League, and she was a former chairman of the board of Adelphi University.

Ernesta Gertrude Foster was born Feb. 9, 1923, according to public records, though she often said she was born in 1931. Her parents were Clarence and Elvira Lord Foster, immigrants from the West Indies, according to the Encyclopedia of African American Business and People magazine. Her father was a chief steward for the Cunard White Star Line.

An accomplished pianist, Procope performed at Carnegie Hall when she was 13 and attended New York’s High School of Music & Art, now part of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, according to a biography prepared by the company.

Firm’s Origins

She studied at the Pohs Institute of Insurance and Real Estate, and earned her broker’s license, to support the real-estate ventures of her first husband, Albin Bowman. She founded E.G. Bowman in 1953 after his death.

A year later, she married John Procope, a marketing and advertising executive who later was publisher of the Amsterdam News, the Harlem-based weekly newspaper.

E.G. Bowman was modest in its early years, selling auto-and home-insurance policies costing $25. Procope spent much of her time on real estate, rehabilitating and selling about 500 brownstones in Brooklyn from 1955 through 1970, according to the company biography. Jet magazine, in 1956, put her on the cover as “New York’s lady builder,” the “first Negro woman to build homes in New York state.”

The first major insurance account won by Procope was with the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a community-development agency. Other early clients were PepsiCo Inc. and the U.S. Information Agency.

Shocked’ Executives

To build E.G. Bowman, she paid for limousines to bring insurance executives from Manhattan so they could see that Brooklyn had homes worth insuring, according to her biography: “They didn’t know that Bedford-Stuyvesant had substantial, middle-class homeowners, Blacks and Whites, who needed and deserved coverage. They were shocked.”

She assembled a corporate-client base that included American Express Co., Philip Morris Cos., Tiffany & Co., Avon Products Inc. and RJR Nabisco Inc.

After the urban riots of the late 1960s made insurers wary of writing policies for minority communities, Procope worked with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and state legislators on what became the New York FAIR Plan, guaranteeing insurance coverage to homeowners in low-income neighborhoods. Similar legislation has been adopted by more than two dozen states.

John Procope, who left the Amsterdam News in 1982 to work at E.G. Bowman, died in 2005. The couple had no children.

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