The Overton Hygienic Building that revolutionized Black businesses in the face of restrictions in 20th century

Stephen Nartey December 01, 2022
Photo by Andrew Jameson , CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Overton Hygienic Building is one of the most iconic centers that became a springboard for African- American businesses that were facing restrictions and fierce exploitation in the 20th century. The building played an instrumental role including acting as an incubator in nurturing entrepreneurs in Chicago’s African-American community, known as the Black Metropolis.

According to the National Park Service, the Overton Hygienic Building was constructed at the dawn of the 20th century in the wake of the racial barriers confronting Black businesses. Entrepreneur Anthony Overton brought the center to realization in 1898 in Kansas City.

He relocated to Chicago in 1911 where he expanded the operations of his business into baking powder, toilet preparations and other extract products. He later ventured into full-line cosmetics and perfumes for ladies with his own High-Brown products label, as reported by Black History Heroes.

Overton was born to Anthony and Martha Deberry Overton. He went to Washburn College and the University of Kansas where he pursued legal education. He practiced law for some time after attending the University of Kansas Law School. He, at some point in his career, served as a judge until he finally decided to venture into business. 

Overton was one of the business magnates of Chicago in the era Black businesses were flourishing, providing a network to budding entrepreneurs. It was around this period he contracted architect Erol Smith to design and construct the Overton Hygienic Building in 1922 to house his many businesses.

Aside from hygienic care products which were his prime focus, Overton also operated the Chicago Bee newspaper franchise, Victory Life Insurance Company, Douglass National Bank, and Northern Realty Company. The realty company was where the Chicago Bee building was situated.

At some point, the Overton Hygienic Building became the Palace Hotel, until its ownership was transferred to the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission. The Commission consolidated Overton’s vision by making the center an incubator for startup businesses within the Black Metropolis-Bronzeville District neighborhood. The role the center has played in the sustenance of Black businesses has made it a historic district in Bronzeville District in the Douglas community area of Chicago, Illinois.

As much as the building was home to numerous enterprises, it offered a synergy for growth for Black businesses to compete effectively. With time, Overton Hygienic Company, which was part of Overton’s business empire, became synonymous with the brand of U.S. largest producers of African-American cosmetics.

His Overton Hygienic Building also groomed the successes of other businesses by offering rental spaces for other Black professionals such as lawyers, architects and doctors. From afar, the Overton Hygienic Building is a four-story building designed with yellow wire-cut brick and glazed white terra cotta trim. Its base is reinforced by a concrete frame. Access was improved by installing an elevator and mechanical shaft at the two storeys above the roof level to allow for structural compromises.

The ground floor was occupied by Overton’s bank and life insurance company, whereas the second floor was utilized for rental spaces and other professional services. The third and fourth floors housed the rest of Overton’s businesses.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 1, 2022


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