By Kim Nickerson
William Nickerson, Jr., was a pioneer and entrepreneur of Black business in Los Angeles, and an enthusiastic visionary, a humanitarian and motivator to many African Americans. He was the founder and first president of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, the first African American life insurance company on the west coast and the largest African American life insurance company in the state of California.
William Nickerson, Jr., was born on a farm in San Jacinto County, Texas, on January 26, 1879, to William Nickerson, Sr. and Emma Poole. His father and mother were born into slavery. Nickerson was the only son and had three sisters. As a boy he worked on the farm, raising cattle, chickens, and geese; planting and harvesting corn, cotton, and sugar cane, except during the five months of the year when he would walk four miles over rough roads to school. He loved to read and would read long into the night by the light of a kerosene lamp. After graduating from high school, Nickerson entered Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, where he studied economics. Later he received a Teacher’s Certificate from Prairie View College in Prairie View, Texas. With his certification, Nickerson taught public school in San Jacinto County for four years. In 1905 Nickerson went to work as an Underwriter for Southern Mutual Benefit Association, a white insurance company in Dallas.
He married Bertha B. Benton of Carthage, Texas in 1906. Nickerson and his wife had eight children. Nickerson soon left the school because of discrimination toward black teachers. He was underpaid and could not support his family. In 1908 he organized American Mutual Benefit Association of Houston, Texas. With Nickerson’s hard work and determination, American Mutual grew and became known throughout the state as, “the most outstanding Negro business west of Chicago.”
In Houston, Texas, in the early 1900’s, there was only one black-owned newspaper. Enterprising Nickerson saw a need and believed that black people should have more than one voice in the publishing world. In 1916, he started the Houston Observer and later, along with Clifton F. Richardson and H. F. Edwards, organized the Informer Publishing Company to publish the Houston Informer in 1919.
After the Houston riots and World War I, Nickerson, a political activist, targeted the Democratic Primary System and brought suit against the Democratic Party functionary to permit black people the right to vote in May of 1921. Soon after, Nickerson’s phone rang. It was the voice of a man who said, “Nickerson you and some other niggers dare to sue white people. We understand that you are one of the leaders. Tonight we are coming to get you.” Nickerson informed his friends and they were prepared with rifles and guns in hand as they waited all night but no one ever came. Mrs. Nickerson begged her husband, “Let’s leave Texas,” saying, “Take us to California. I would rather eat bread and drink water in a distant land and have peace than to be in a land like this where there is utter confusion and constant fear of violence.”
On June 11, 1921, Nickerson, his wife and eight children traveled by Southern Pacific Railway to California. They arrived in Los Angeles, on June 13, 1921. The next year, Nickerson organized a branch of American Mutual Benefit Association. Under Nickerson’s management, the branch prospered. He recognized a need for a life insurance company owned and controlled by black people in California. In 1925, he founded Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company. With humble beginnings he started the company in a small one room office at 1435 Central Avenue. Golden State Mutual received its first charter on July 23, 1925 and immediately began offering life, endowment, and health and accident insurance to the community regardless of race or color. Among the original officers of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company were William Nickerson, Jr., (President), George A. Beavers, Jr. (Vice President), and Norman O. Houston (Secretary/Treasurer).
In the 1930’s, convincing black Americans to buy life insurance in the time of a depressed economy was not an easy task. When Nickerson, needed to recruit agents to the company, Nickerson used various methods to gain new agents. He often used animal parables. His favorite was, “The Little Black Hen,” a story of perseverance. Nickerson would confidently stand on desks, chairs, and sometimes even table tops to gain attention, persuade, and motivate. In May 1939, Nickerson returned to Bishop College to receive an honorary degree in the field of Business.
In 1949, the famous African American architect, Paul Williams, designed the strikingly beautiful landmark we know today as the home office, located on Western Avenue and Adams Boulevard, in Los Angeles. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, speaking at the 60th Anniversary Celebration of Golden Statue Mutual Life Insurance Company, said that “Golden State is a shining example of true economic development in our community.” In 1955, the Nickerson Gardens Housing Development in Watts, 1,056 housing units built on 68 acres, was dedicated to Nickerson’s lifetime achievements. The project served as a model for housing projects throughout the United States.
William Nickerson, Jr. died in 1945 at the age of 66. In addition to heart complications, Nickerson had contracted pneumonia. Dearly loved by his family, business associates and employees, Los Angeles mourned.
Kim Nickerson, is the youngest grandchild of William Nickerson, Jr., an actress/poet and 1985 UCLA graduate. Kim currently works in Los Angeles as a Special Education “substitute teacher.”