Ernesta G. Procope, a Big I New York member agent, who transformed a storefront insurance brokerage in Brooklyn into what was billed as the nation's largest insurance agency owned by a Black woman, died on Nov. 30 at her home in Queens. She was 98 years old.
Procope began brokering policies for local small businesses and homeowners when she opened her business, E.G. Bowman Co., in the early 1950s. Decades later, she was handling accounts for major commercial, institutional, and nonprofit clients like PepsiCo and other Fortune 500 corporations, as well as the New York City Housing Authority.
Along the way, she fought to provide African Americans and people in poor areas with access to insurance. When major insurers were reluctant to underwrite policies in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a largely Black Brooklyn neighborhood that they considered marginal, Procope's firm hired limousines to ferry insurance executives there from Manhattan.
They “didn't know that Bedford-Stuyvesant had substantial, middle-class homeowners—Blacks and whites—who needed and deserved coverage," she told American Agent & Broker magazine.
When civil disorder in the 1960s prompted insurers to deny insurance to homeowners in Bedford-Stuyvesant and other sections where Black and Hispanic people predominated, she helped persuade Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York and the state legislature to ban redlining—the wholesale denial of coverage by neighborhood.
She also pressed the state to establish its Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan for homeowners in high-risk areas who would otherwise have been denied standard policies. It was a model for similar programs in other states.
Procope arrived on Wall Street in 1979, and her firm became one of the first major Black-owned businesses there. It was described as the largest Black-owned insurance brokerage in the United States.
“Here was a Black company from Bedford-Stuyvesant coming to Wall Street—that was significant," she said in the magazine interview. “It showed that we had entered the mainstream of the American economy, and it opened doors for other Blacks."
Procope retired in 2016. Her agency, E.G. Bowman Co., is a Big I New York member, joining in 2005.
“Ernesta Procope was no doubt a pioneer in an industry that had a miniscule number of Black-owned independent agencies at that time," says Jerald L. Tillman, founder, National African American Insurance Association (NAAIA). “She also was a tenacious consumer advocate in her fight to defeat 'redlining' in our industry. We, at NAAIA, salute Ernesta Procope for her valuable contributions and achievements in our great industry."