Ernesta Procope, an insurance trailblazer who was the first African American woman to open a company on Wall Street, died peacefully in her sleep on Tuesday, Nov. 30, at her home in Queens, N.Y.
During Procope’s youth, she was a piano prodigy who performed at Carnegie Hall at age 13. As a young woman, she transferred her interests to real estate and insurance.
In 1953, she founded her company, E.G. Bowman Company, Inc. as a storefront insurance agency in Bedford Stuyvesant, and for the next six decades, built it into the largest minority-owned insurance brokerage in the country. Procope’s influence extended throughout the insurance industry, culminating in her recognition by PropertyCasualty360.com as one of its “Top 25 Living Legends of Insurance.”
Procope also was the architect of the historic NY Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan. The FAIR Plan ensured that marginalized communities would have equal access to homeowners’ insurance. In 1968, Procope encouraged New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to combat redlining in Bedford Stuyvesant and the resulting cancellation of many of her client’s insurance policies. Her efforts spurred FAIR Plan legislation in 26 states.
In 1979, Procope moved E.G. Bowman to Wall Street, making it the first Black-owned and woman-owned business to be located in the world’s financial capital. Through creativity and determination, Procope built E.G. Bowman’s insurance brokerage and loss management client list to include many Fortune 500 companies, as well as countless small- to mid-sized businesses, government agencies and not-for-profits.
Procope’s business acumen also made her one of the most sought-after board members of her generation. She served on the boards of Avon Products, Columbia Gas System, and the Chubb Corporation as well as Cornell University, the Bronx Zoo and New York Urban League not-for-profit boards.
In recognition of Procope’s accomplishments, Howard University, Adelphi University, Morgan State University, and Marymount Manhattan College each awarded her honorary doctorates. She also received a multitude of business awards throughout her lifetime, including the Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal Entrepreneurial Excellence Award, Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year,” and the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Businessperson of the Year. Procope was featured on the cover of numerous national magazines and was the subject of articles in countless others, including Fortune, Black Enterprise and Business Insurance.
Ernesta was the widow of John L. Procope, the former publisher of the New York Amsterdam News, and the only daughter of the late Clarence and Elvira Forster and sister to the departed Clarence, Cecil and Charles Forster. She is survived by a host of nieces, nephews and great-nieces and nephews and extended family members.