Robert A. Cole and the Metropolitan Funeral System Association: A Profile of a Civic-Minded African-American Businessman

Article excerpt

Robert Alexander Cole, also affectionately referred to as "King Cole," was one of America's most successful black businessmen during the early-to-mid-twentieth century. As President of the black-owned Metropolitan Funeral System Association (later the Chicago Metropolitan Mutual Assurance Company) from 1927 to 1956, he presided over a company that gained both local and national recognition for its ongoing demonstration of community service. While individual success stories (both black and white) are prevalent in American business history, Robert A. Cole's rise to prominence merits special consideration.

Cole, born on October 8, 1882, in Mt. Carmel, Tennessee, was the seventh of Robert and Narcissa Cole's eight children. At the time of Robert's birth, his parents, both of whom were ex-slaves, eked out a tenuous existence as tenant cotton farmers.(1)

Cole's boyhood appears to have been a happy, rigorous, experience. Cotton cultivation was no less labor intensive in the late nineteenth century than it had been during slavery; therefore, Cole spent more time working on the family farm than in school. He did manage to complete four years of formal education. Cole, despite his limited educational background, would later in life refer to the following advice his mother gave him: "If you never learn nothing else, learn how to figure figures."(2)

At the age of seventeen, Cole decided his future lay outside the drudgery of tenant farming. Armed with a fourth-grade education and a desire to be "somebody," he left home to seek his fortune. The first stop on his journey toward future importance was Paducah, Kentucky, where he found employment in a machine shop. Within a year, he became foreman. Still, despite his rise in occupational status, it became apparent that under the South's racial code he remained a "nigger." Cole subsequently left Paducah and spent the next few years as a roustabout. It appears likely that he developed his legendary fondness for gambling during this period.(3)

In 1905, Cole came to Chicago seeking the wider opportunities the city reportedly offered blacks. After working briefly as a busboy, he secured employment as a Pullman porter. He would later assert that the education which he received during his twenty years as a Pullman porter compensated for his lack of formal education. While performing his duties, he made a point of talking to business executives and observing their actions. His diligence ultimately resulted in his being promoted to porter-in-charge, the highest position a black could then reach in the railroad industry.(4)

While Cole worked his way up within the Pullman Company, he established important social ties as well. His friendship with Daniel McKee Jackson, black Chicago's most prestigious undertaker and the acknowledged czar of South Side gambling activities, appeared especially significant.

Dan Jackson, one of Chicago's most powerful blacks during the early twentieth century, gained this distinction partially through his close association with three-time Republican Mayor William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson.(5) Thompson - who once campaigned in the black community by stating, "I'll give your people jobs, and any of you want to shoot craps go ahead and do it"(6) - protected Dan Jackson's various South Side gambling clubs. Jackson, in return, actively campaigned for Thompson among Chicago blacks. Because Jackson regularly donated a portion of his gambling profits in the form of money, food, and other provisions to Bronzeville's less fortunate,(7) his endorsement of Thompson carried considerable weight.

This mutually beneficial relationship between Jackson and Thompson ended (temporarily) in 1923 when Democrat William Dever, running on a reform platform, upset Thompson in that year's mayoral election. Significantly, the new Dever administration made closing down black Chicago gambling operations a top priority.(8) Thus, Dan Jackson witnessed a dramatic drop in his personal income. …