— Joe Keyerleber, Washington
The Southern Aid Society of Virginia was the country’s first black-owned and black-operated insurance company. It was founded in Richmond in 1893, a time when many white-owned insurance companies wouldn’t write policies for black businesses or people.
Though the company’s primary aim — aside from turning a profit, of course — was to help African Americans get adequate, reasonably priced insurance, there were secondary benefits, too. As a writer for the NAACP magazine the Crisis pointed out in 1940, Southern Aid offered “to some of the hundreds of young men and women who were then graduating from high and normal schools employment in keeping with their training rather than forcing them to resume employment of a menial character.”
At that time, Southern Aid employed about 300 men and women, primarily in Virginia and the District.
And as the Seventh Street building illustrated, Southern Aid also built properties that could rent space to black-owned companies. At that time, there were apparently those who felt that insurance companies should not invest in real estate. However, the Crisis writer argued that constructing office buildings not only “filled a pressing need of business and professional activities, but gave both the company and the race in these cities a higher status, and its business a degree of permanency which counteracted the harmful effects which the failures and disappearances of many organizations had left in such communities.”
The Seventh Street building was designed by Isaiah T. Hatton, an African American architect who also designed the Dunbar Theatre within it. Hatton also designed many homes and buildings in the area, including the Whitelaw Hotel on 13th Street NW, which opened in 1919 as the city’s first luxury hotel for African Americans. (Today, it’s subsidized housing.)
In 1975, Southern Aid, then called the Southern Aid Life Insurance Co., was bought by Atlanta Life Insurance Co. Atlanta Life, founded by a former slave named Alonzo F. Herndon, was the second-oldest black-owned insurance company in the country. It’s still in operation today.
Last week’s column about refurbishing the Freedom statue atop the U.S. Capitol prompted some recollecting from Arlington County’s Gordon M. Thomas. In June 1973, Gordon started a nine-month stint as an elevator operator in the Senate wing of the Capitol.
Gordon was one of a dozen or so elevator operators, mostly young people prone to mischief. They were so tired of hearing the same spiel from the Capitol tour guides — “Freedom is a lady, not an Indian. She is 19½ feet tall and she faces east” — that Gordon and his co-workers came up with some trivia of their own to share with tourists.
Wrote Gordon: “By the time we elevator operators had churned those nuggets around for a while, we had come up with a story that the statue was a pregnant Indian and that she signified the birth of the nation. Further, she was facing east so as to keep a close watch on the Washington Redskins, who were then resident at RFK Stadium due east of the Capitol.
“Anytime we offered up these whoppers to unsuspecting tourists, they seemed to take it hook, line and sinker — just as they did the story about the small restaurant at the top of the Capitol dome which only had three tables and for which reservations needed to be made six months in advance. The restaurant offered great views of the city, particularly as the dome rotated — once an hour on warm days, and once every two hours on cold days.”
Well, there’s certainly enough hot air to power a rotating dome-a-teria.
If you used to work at A.V. Ristorante Italiano, the place on New York Avenue NW that closed a few years back, drop Answer Man a line. He has some questions for you.
Send your questions about the Washington area to answerman@ washpost.com. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost. com/johnkelly.