Ernesta Procope, the ‘First Lady of Wall Street,’ Passes Away at 98

Ernesta Procope built the nation's largest Black-owned insurance brokerage while making the leap from Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvestant to Wall Street. Image: Bettmann/Getty Images

Ernesta Procope, who was known as the “First Lady of Wall Street,” passed away, the New York Times reports. She was 98.

Procope passed at her home in Queens on November 30 as confirmed by her brother-in-law Frederick O. Terrell. His wife, Jonelle Procope, who was the sister of Procope’s late husband and who was mentored by her, is currently the president and chief executive of the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Born Ernesta Gertrude Forster born on Feb. 9, 1923, in Brooklyn and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant to immigrants from the West Indies, her first love was music. An accomplished pianist, she performed in a recital with other children at Carnegie Hall at the age of 13. She graduated from the High School of Music and Art (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) in Manhattan and enrolled at Brooklyn College. After a year, she left to marry Albin Bowman and oversee the insurance for his real estate business.

Known then as Ernesta Bowman, when her husband died, E.G. Bowman was launched in 1953 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. That same year, Bowman married John L. Procope, an advertising executive and publisher of The Amsterdam News, whom she had met on a blind date.

Procope began brokering policies for local small businesses and homeowners and advocated for Black Americans who couldn’t be insured by other agencies. When major insurers wouldn’t underwrite policies for Black consumers in Brooklyn, Procope’s firm hired limousines to bring 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 at the time.

Not only was she a trailblazer for Black women in the insurance sector, but Procope was a real estate tycoon, rehabilitating and selling around 500 brownstones in Brooklyn from 1955 through 1970. In March 1956, she was featured in JET magazine under the headline: “New York’s Lady Builder— The First Negro Woman to Build Homes in New York State.” 

Eventually, the brokerage became known as the largest “Black-owned and woman-owned insurance broker in the U.S.,” handling accounts for clients like Pepsico, General Motors Co., International Business Machines Corp., Kraft Inc., and the New York City Housing Authority.

As the firm grew from three employees, focusing on home and car insurance, to a 33-person, full-service insurance brokerage, Procope relocated her company to its new headquarters at 97 Wall Street in Manhattan. In celebration of her arrival, Walter Page, chairman of Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., hosted a reception for the new neighbor, the American Banker newspaper reported.

“I honestly felt I couldn’t stay in Bedford-Stuyvesant and operate the kind of business I think I’m going to have in the year 2000,” Procope said in an interview with People magazine. “When I think about integrating into the economic mainstream, I can’t necessarily depend upon the Black consumer market for the product I have to offer.”

Since 2012, E.G. Bowman has been located at 5 Hanover Square, two blocks off Wall Street.

In recent years, Procope held the title of company chairwoman, previously served on the boards of Chubb Group Inc., Cornell University, the New York Urban League, and was a former chairman of the board of Adelphi University.

We extend our prayers and condolences to the family and friends of Ernesta Procope.

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