Perry, Heman Edward (1873–1929)

By: Peggy Hardman and Sharon Robinson

Type: Biography

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: January 8, 2021

Heman E. Perry, founder of the Standard Life Insurance Company of Atlanta, the first legal reserve company run by and for Blacks in Georgia, was born March 5, 1873, in Houston, the second child in a family of nine children. Perry's father worked as a drayman and grocer in Houston, while the family lived on a small farm just outside of the town. The demands of the family's farm and grocery led Perry to leave school prior to the eighth grade in order to begin work. He soon left, however, to pursue his own career. Working first as a cotton sampler and then a marker, Perry also tried his hand at being a cotton grower on a small farm on the Brazos River. Unsuccessful and dissatisfied with these ventures, Perry went East to seek his fortune. In a streak of poor luck on the stock market Perry, in his own words, "lost everything I had." Thereupon, he determined to move to Georgia and go once more into the cotton business. Before Perry left Houston he had sold insurance as a sideline. Now, seeking to reestablish himself on sound financial footing and finding work in a cotton warehouse not productive towards that goal, he decided to reenter the insurance business. His old Houston insurance company was out of business, so Perry wrote to life insurance companies across the United States seeking employment. His efforts yielded no job, but did reveal that few Black agents were used by those firms, and most Black insurance agents were concerned with only endowment policies. Perry decided then to organize his own business, an "old-line, legal reserve company for colored people."

In order to secure the necessary $100,000 in funds to establish this enterprise, Perry traveled from Texas to Virginia, meeting with prominent Black businessmen and soliciting financial backing through the sale of stock in his company. This initial effort failed, but Perry did succeed in attracting admiration and future support for his enterprise when he returned his investor's $70,000 with interest. Perry's integrity, business aggressiveness, and acumen resulted in his meeting business genius Alonzo Herndon. After negotiating a deal whereby Perry would aid in protecting Herndon's Atlanta Mutual from being taken over by White companies, and Herndon, in return, would purchase a substantial block of Perry's stock, Perry, in June 1913, was able to begin operating the Standard Life Insurance Company of Atlanta-the "first Black insurance company organized for the expressed purpose of conducting solely an ordinary life insurance business [and] the third Black life insurance company to achieve legal reserve status." Two years after its founding Standard Life had $2 million in insurance in force and $245,170 in assets; seven years later those figures swelled to $22 million and $2 million, respectively. Too, the company employed 2,500 people-all Black-and did "33 1/3 percent of the total volume of business done in the United States annually" by Black enterprises. Perry, with Standard Life on sound and profitable footing, turned to providing other business and economic services to the Black community.

Establishing a complex of enterprises, Perry's empire by 1922 included a realty company, a printing company, pharmacies, laundries, an engineering and construction firm, a farm bureau, and a philanthropic unit, all under the title of the Service Company. Financed largely by Standard Life, the myriad of new enterprises soon depleted the insurance company's reserves. By the end of 1924 Standard Life was in serious financial jeopardy. Perry could not save his company, and in January 1925 the Standard Life Insurance Company of Atlanta passed from Black ownership to White, merging with the Tennessee-based Southern Life Company to become the Southern-Standard Life Insurance Company. The assets of Perry's Service Company were also transferred to the new enterprise. Perry set out to rebuild his career. After visiting business and personal friends in St. Louis, Missouri, he headed east. On January 5, 1929, however, Perry's efforts were cut short when he died of heart disease while visiting a friend in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

John William Gibson, Progress of a Race, rev. and enlarged by James L. Nichols and William H. Crogman (New York: Arno Press, 1969). Alexa Benson Henderson, Atlanta Life Insurance Company: Guardian of Black Economic Dignity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990). Eric C. Walrund, "The Largest Negro Commercial Enterprise in the World," Forbes, February 2, 1924.

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Business
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Peggy Hardman and Sharon Robinson, “Perry, Heman Edward,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995
January 8, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: