Samuel Plato was a well-known Black architect in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1927, he designed and built a three-story commercial building in Cincinnati for the Supreme Life and Casualty Insurance Company. The building became a center of Black business life. It was torn down around 1961 for freeway construction.
During the early 20th century, white-owned insurance companies typically would not sell life insurance to African Americans, in part because they weren’t required to, and because African Americans had shorter life expectancies. As a result, Black-owned insurance firms began to emerge.
The Supreme Life and Casualty Insurance Company, a Black-owned company, was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1919. In 1927, the company expanded their operations in Cincinnati. A building permit was issued that October for a new office building, listing Samuel Plato of Louisville as both architect and contractor.
Samuel Plato (1882-1957) was an architect and builder with wide experience in the construction of homes, banks, churches, and schools. As a contractor, he worked extensively for the federal government on projects including post offices, federal housing projects, and the National Guard armories in Zanesville and Xenia, Ohio.
The new Supreme Life building was located in Cincinnati’s West End, at 612-14 W. Ninth Street. The façade was of brick and stone. In 1928, attorney William L. Ricks described several new buildings in the West End, including the Supreme Life building:
“It is three stories high and cost about $100,000. It, too, was designed by a colored architect, Benjamin [sic, Samuel] Plato, of Louisville, and built under his supervision by colored labor – negro plumbers, negro electricians, negro carpenters, bricklayers, plasterers, painters, glaziers, etc.”
In 1929, the Supreme Life and Casualty Company of Columbus merged with the Liberty Life Insurance Company of Chicago, forming the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, with wide reach across the Midwest.
One of the key figures in the Cincinnati office was Charles Robert Davis. Around 1917, Davis founded the Fireside Insurance Company, which his obituary describes as “the first Negro insurance company in Ohio.” Davis then became “instrumental in establishing and promoting” the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company.
The company’s officers and agents were socially prominent. One of the most successful agents, Lila D. Rickman, was widely known for her work with the Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.
The Supreme Life building on West Ninth Street also rented out office space to other Black professionals. For example, a number of attorneys had offices there at different times, including Elsie Austin, William N. Lovelace, and Arthur C. Elliott. Physician Jay B. Lockley had an office there, as did dentist Thomas J. Banks. In 1945, the executive committee of the Cincinnati branch, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), rented office space in the Supreme Life building.
In 1960, the City of Cincinnati appropriated the Supreme Life building as part of the right-of-way for the Mill Creek Expressway, today known as Interstate-75. The city solicitor valued the building at only $42,161. Attorney Theodore M. Berry argued that the building should be valued at $80,000. In the end, a jury placed the value at $51,000. The owners were paid, and the building was demolished.
At this time, the Supreme Life Insurance Company of America one of the largest Black-owned life insurance companies in the nation, holding $300 million in assets. The center of their operations was their headquarters in Chicago.
Chicago’s Supreme Life Insurance building, built in 1921 in the Bronzeville- Black Metropolis National Heritage area, is today a Chicago landmark and listed on a National Register of Historic places . In contrast, Cincinnati’s Supreme Life Insurance building is gone.