Titled “The Legacy of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company: More than a Business,” this noteworthy exhibition tracks the distinguished accomplishments of the first wholly black-owned business in L.A. Established in 1925, with a one room office opening on Central Avenue in 1928, GSM, first called the Golden State Guarantee Fund Insurance Company, grew so fast it had to move into a larger space in three months. Under the leadership of co-founders William Nickerson Jr., George Beavers Jr., and Norman O. Houston (whose portraits are seen in the exhibit) the company spread into other states, with a grand new headquarters commissioned in 1948 by local architect Paul Williams at the current Western and Adams Blvd site. At that time two murals were also commissioned titled “The Negro in California History – Exploration and Colonization of Events in African American History from 1527-1850” by Harlem Renaissance artist Charles Alston, and “The Negro in California History – Settlement and Development of Events in African American History from 1850-1949” by social activist-artist Hale Woodruff. In 1965, William (“Bill”) Pajaud began curating the largest corporate owned collection of African-American art -- on a $5,000/year budget, having started in the company himself in 1957 in the PR department. While the company’s purpose was to sell insurance to African-American families, it also served the community in various ways, such as providing educational opportunities to local black youth (e.g. employment and even drawing lessons by Charles White).
With loans from UCLA Library Special Collections, the California State Insurance Commissioner, Alden Kimbrough, Bill Pajaud, Ivan Houston and others, the exhibition includes photo blow-ups and diagrams of the two murals so viewers may better understand their historic details. These are supplemented with fascinating photographs of the artists conducting preliminary research, overseeing the installation and the grand unveiling. (A mural research committee included the late Washington Irving Branch librarian Miriam Matthews.) Several works from the corporate collection are united on display too, such as photos by Willie Middlebrook (see TNN issue #24, June 2012). Unfortunately in 2007 ninety-four works from the collection were auctioned off. The collection included works by such distinguished artists as Henry O. Tanner, Richmond Barthe, Samella Lewis, Charles White, Bettye Saar, etc. The CAAM hopes to acquire the remaining collection.
Most poignant are the many company archives on display. Putting its faith in the future of a black middle class at a time when segregation still thrived, the GSM became the largest black-owned company in the West. Company calendars and internal communiques emphasize the GSM mission of giving young black people a chance. An entirely African-American staff pose in one annual company photo after another for decades. Most telling is an advertisement showing a claims adjuster handing a payment check to an injured black policy-holder. You can have complete faith in our ability, it expresses.
The exhibition runs through the end of December 2013. California African American Museum is located at 600 State Drive, Exposition Park. Admission is free. Closed Mondays. Call 213-744-7432 or see www.caamuseum.org for hours.