7 Black Americans Who Changed Homeownership for the Better
The U.S. has come a long way in providing fair housing opportunities for all, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. Real change most often comes from ordinary folks who stand up to injustice and trigger institutional shifts for the better.
In celebration of Black History Month, we’re recognizing seven Black Americans who historically defied challenges related to housing rights, homeownership, and insurance. Their stories continue to inspire the next generation to do the work against discrimination within the housing market.
1. Anthony Johnson
1600 – 1670
Anthony Johnson endured forced labor on a Virginia tobacco plantation in the early 1620’s, though it’s unclear whether he was a slave or an indentured servant. He and his wife eventually found freedom, buying themselves out of bondage and settling on the eastern shore. From there, he prospered and bought 250 acres of land. The family raised their own livestock and were the example of success in colonial times; a rarity for a person of color at that time. It was uncommon, to say the least, and the specifics of how he pulled it off are still a mystery. Regardless, he is often called “The Black Patriarch” of early Black property owners.
2. Zipporah Potter Atkins
1645 – 1705
Zipporah Potter Atkins is in the history books as Boston’s first Black property owner, which was no small feat in the late 17th century — her home sale was finalized in 1670. Atkins was a free woman, but her father was a slave who left her an inheritance after his passing. She eventually went on to buy property and sell off pieces of it in the years that followed, but the specifics around the initial transaction remain unclear to this day. A retired Boston University professor only stumbled upon proof of the sale when browsing through records in the Massachusetts Historical Society. No matter how it unfolded, Atkins’s story is an astounding one.
3. John Merrick
1859 – 1919
Born a slave, John Merrick found freedom following the Emancipation Proclamation. He owned a handful of barber shops in Durham, North Carolina. He did well for himself and eventually bought property throughout an all-black section of his community, specializing in rental properties. Merrick was prosperous on his own but teamed up with two other businessmen to purchase a fraternal lodge that provided insurance policies to its members. It became the main supplier of insurance for the Black community.
Over the 25 years that followed, the business grew across the Southeast, but Merrick is perhaps best known for being one of the founders of the North Carolina Mutual Provident Life Insurance Company — which became the biggest Black-owned insurance company in the country. This is all to say that Merrick made a lasting mark on the insurance industry and remains a treasured symbol of Black entrepreneurship.
4. B.C. Franklin
1879 – 1960
Buck Colbert Franklin was an attorney who’s remembered best for helping survivors rebuild after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The series of riots devastated the bustling business district of Greenwood, which had been coined “Black Wall Street.” The majority of residents and business owners lost everything. B.C. Franklin survived, but racial tensions were high. The Tulsa City Council went on to pass an ordinance that made it impossible for the Black community to rebuild. Franklin spearheaded legal efforts to challenge it, taking it all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. He was ultimately successful and played a pivotal role in helping to reconstruct Greenwood.
5. Clarence Mitchell Jr.
1911 – 1984
Clarence Mitchell Jr. was a renowned civil rights activist who held a number of important positions. He was instrumental to the NAACP, serving in leadership posts for close to three decades. Mitchell was often seen at the side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he dedicated much of his life to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 came soon after. This prohibited discrimination in housing sales, rentals, and financing. Mitchell was also the youngest elected person to serve in Maryland’s State Senate. He was a powerful voice who lobbied for equal rights and pushed for change on the legislative level.
6. Ernesta Procope
1923 – 2021
Ernesta Procope was a trailblazer who helped Black homeowners secure the insurance they rightfully deserved, despite widespread discriminatory practices at the time, such as redlining. She also helped bring awareness to insurance disparities. Procope founded her own brokerage in Brooklyn that eventually grew into a Wall Street powerhouse that served major corporate accounts. Procope was a female business owner who started out in the early 1950s, which came with challenges all its own. Thanks to her hard work, marginalized homeowners throughout Brooklyn and beyond had access to much-needed insurance policies.
7. Patricia Robert Harris
1924 – 1985
Patricia Robert Harris broke many barriers of her time. Most notably, she was the first African American woman to serve in a Presidential Cabinet. She served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Carter. Prior to that, President Kennedy appointed her as co-chair of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights. Harris wasn’t one to shy away from a challenge and worked first hand toward achieving housing equality. She was a pioneer who left a strong legacy, particularly for Black women.