Anthony Overton, business pioneer


Anthony Overton
Date: 
Tue, 1865-03-21

*The birth of Anthony Overton on this date in 1865 is celebrated on this date. He was an African American lawyer and businessman.

Born into slavery in Monroe, Louisiana, after the Civil War his family moved to Kansas. He attended public schools and, in 1888, earned a bachelor of law degree from Topeka's Washburn College. After admission to the state bar, he practiced law for a while and even served for a year as a judge. His heart was not in law, and he yearned to apply his logical mind to creating a business of his own. He observed the success of businesses around him, as small enterprises grew into larger ones, and sometimes into empires. Besides the potential wealth that could be acquired if one was successful, Overton was drawn to the endless creative possibilities of business. He began to study all aspects of manufacturing and retailing.

In 1898, he moved to Kansas City, Missouri. There, with his savings of almost $2,000, he founded the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company, and manufactured a product he called Hygienic Pet Baking Powder. For some time he had closely followed the progress of women's cosmetics and hair products, an industry showing profits in the millions. He decided that this was an important market, and began to create cosmetics specifically suited for the complexions of black women. The company grew, in spite of suffering a severe financial loss caused by the great flood of 1903, which almost demolished Kansas City's business district. With bankruptcy looming, Overton brushed himself off and redoubled his selling efforts, successfully reaching what one biographer called "a market that was ripe for tapping." He patented his cosmetics and a line of perfumes under the name "High Brown." In a move that was unusual, he insisted that the company create its own odor bases for its perfumes. While sales throughout the United States flourished, Overton began to tap international markets. He was soon getting orders for his products from Egypt, Liberia, and even Japan. By the time he moved his company to Chicago in 1911, his company employed a salaried sales force, as well as 400 door-to-door sales people. By 1912, Overton Hygienic manufactured 52 products. By 1915, the number had risen to 62, and the company was capitalized at $268,000. In 1927, the company's Bradstreet rating exceeded $1 million.

In 1926, The Chicago Bee newspaper publishing business was founded as one of Chicago's African American newspapers. Overton affirmed his confidence in the viability of the Black Metropolis of Bronzeville Chicago by commissioning architect Z. Erol Smith again to design a new three-story building to operate his new newspaper publishing business in a separate facility as his research and development, and manufacturing operations. The Chicago Bee Building features a richly ornamented facade executed entirely in terra cotta. It was one of the most picturesque of the historic buildings in Bronzeville as the only one designed in the Art Deco style of the late 1920s. Although construction started at the beginning of the Great Depression, the building was ready for occupancy by 1931. In addition to the Chicago Bee newspaper, the building would house the offices of the Overton Hygienic Company after the Douglass National Bank closed in 1932.

The newspaper closed in the early 1940s. The Anthony Overton Elementary School on Chicago's South Side was later named in honor of Overton. Anthony Overton died on July 2, 1946.

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Overton, Anthony