Nickerson Garden Housing Projects - Watts, CA
The ‘Nickerson Gardens’ are the largest housing projects west of Mississippi, and while many people know them for the notoriety associated with them and the surrounding area; few know the man for which they are named for, William Nickerson, Jr.
William was born January 26, 1879, on a farm in San Jacinto County, Texas. He went on to college to study economics, then started a career as a teacher in the colored public schools of his hometown.
On April 15, 1905, while eating in a dimly lit, unsanitary restaurant , frustrated by the conditions that black people were forced to exist in and expressing this to a fellow patron, William met a man who offered him a job as an insurance sales man. He accepted the position, and after a slow, but steady increase in clients, Nickerson became one of the top agents at the company. When the company was bought out by a larger firm, Nickerson temporarily took a position as a mail carrier before starting a branch of the American Mutual Benefit Association in Houston, TX. with his former colleagues, quickly becoming one of the biggest black businesses in Texas.
Nickerson grew concerned about the racial climate in the Southwest after the Tulsa Riots. After members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of his home, he finally moved to Los Angeles and established another branch of the American Mutual Benefit Association.
The population of 40,000 African Americans in California at the time were regarded as either uninsurable or extremely high risk by insurance companies. As a result, the few policies that were written for blacks were done so at exorbitant rates. This outraged William!
in 1924 he decided to start his own company, however the $15,000 startup fee, and the lawyer fees of $1,500 were more than what he was willing to pay. Instead he invested $27 in legal books, and found a loop hole in the laws requiring the startup fee.
in 1925 Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company was officially founded. Under Nickerson’s leadership, the firm expanded throughout California, Texas and Illinois. By the time of his death in 1945, the company was the seventh largest black insurance firm in the United States and the largest black-owned business west of the Mississippi.
The Nickerson Gardens were designed by legendary black architect Paul Williams in honor of William Nickerson, Jr. The Golden Mutual Life Insurance building is a historically registered landmark in Los Angeles, CA.