Founded in 1898 in Augusta, Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance Company became the first insurance provider for African Americans in Georgia. A Black-owned and-operated company, Pilgrim was one of the largest employers of African Americans in Augusta and issued tens of thousands of policies in the first decades of the twentieth century.
The company had an improbable beginning. Solomon W. Walker, a Black grocery delivery boy in his late teens, had the idea of starting an insurance company after repeatedly crossing paths with white insurance salesmen while making his deliveries. Walker envisioned creating a benevolent society, a group organized to collect small sums of money from its members with the understanding that upon the death of a member there would be funds for his burial. The cost for a benevolent society charter was $25, but Walker had only $2.50. To raise the remaining funds, Walker enlisted the help of three other young Black men: Thomas Walker, his teenage brother; Walter Hornsby, a sixteen-year-old cousin; and James C. Collier, a former classmate. The young men received help and guidance from Hornsby’s father, the Reverend Thomas Jefferson Hornsby, who offered his home as the office for the new organization, and in 1898 the Pilgrim Benevolent Aid Association was born.
In its first years of operation, Pilgrim experienced steady and substantial growth. A financial crisis arose in 1905, when the state of Georgia passed a law requiring all benevolent associations to place on deposit a sum of $5,000 for the protection of policy or certificate holders. Neither Pilgrim Benevolent Aid Association nor the few other local benevolent societies were able to secure the required fee. In order to comply with the new law, these companies merged their resources and converted to the Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance Company.
Pilgrim continued to prosper after the merger. By 1916 the company had 58,000 policyholders in Georgia. In 1917 Pilgrim created an Industrial Straight Life department. Designed for working-class employees in manufacturing and industry, these policies were issued in small amounts, usually for less than $1,000, with premiums collected by an agent on a weekly basis from the policyowner’s home. In 1923 Pilgrim began issuing policies in Alabama as well, and seven years later, in South Carolina.
In 1930 Pilgrim increased its capital stock to $100,000 and expanded its portfolio to write ordinary insurance up to $5,000. Ordinary insurance policies had a higher face value and were sold to people in higher income brackets. In 1931 Pilgrim acquired Georgia Mutual Life Insurance Company of Augusta and in 1938 insured the finances of the Mutual Relief and Benevolent Association of Columbia, South Carolina, saving that company from financial ruin. In 1951 the company received a license to operate in Florida.
By Pilgrim’s fiftieth anniversary in 1948, the company had paid more than $14 million dollars in benefits to its policyholders and beneficiaries, while providing jobs for more than 700 Black Augustans. After years of success, however, Pilgrim underwent a financial decline starting in the 1950s. An unexpected consequence of the civil rights movement was increased competition from white-owned insurance companies for Black policyholders, Black employees, and Black businesses. Pilgrim had limited success against this new competition and struggled financially for years until, in the 1990s, it ceased to exist as an independent insurance company.
As changing times at the beginning of the twentieth century created conditions that gave birth to Pilgrim, so changing times at the end of the twentieth century contributed to its demise. Atlanta Life Insurance Company purchased Pilgrim in 1990. In 1991 Pilgrim merged with Atlanta Life and moved its offices to Atlanta, leaving Augusta after ninety years of business in the city.