Away from Nazi Germany
In January, 1939, after going through a tremendous, rushed series of straightening out my final affairs, packing, government clearances from police and other authorities, tickets, closing out my Berlin apartment etc., I boarded a plane for London and I remember my great exhilaration when I spotted Dutch windmills from the air and I knew I was out of Germany. I had to stay three more months in London, awaiting my American Immigration Quota number to come up, and I was able to stay with a cousin of my mother; the parents also arrived and stayed with other relatives as well. In April they and I boarded the HAPAG liner Europa for New York- first class since we had been able to pay the passage with our remaining cash- after the Nazis declared a “flight tax”. How much was the Tax? “How much money have you got?” That was the Tax. So we were able to pay for our trip but all that we could take was 10 Marks, $ 4.20 at the time. We also had to give up Jewelry, Silverware, Weapons and anything of value so we ordered new wardrobes tailor-made and were allowed to ship our furniture books and other belongings, packed in what was called “lift-vans” and shipped by freighter to arrive much after we had entered the USA.
The first class voyage would have been perfect if it was not hampered by the knowledge that we were on a German ship that might be ordered to return at any given moment and there were Gestapo agents all around the liner and suspicious looking Germans that made our trip less peaceful. Fortunately, our fears were unfounded and we arrived safely in New York where my brother Fred picked us up at the pier. My sister Lee had been in the States earlier but had returned to Europe to help to settle refugees; she came back to the US shortly thereafter. This was April, 1939 – the war in Europe started September 1939 – we would have never gotten out after that date.
I first moved to Gary, IN to live with my closest friend, Otto S. Young whom I had met in Augsburg and who subsequently became my brother-in-law. I found a job that paid $ 12.00 per week- minus taxes-, sorting Coke bottles from beer bottles when they were returned empty. Through the recommendation of a restaurant owner in whose establishment I consumed breakfast, lunch and dinner I was referred to his brother who had a hardware store in Chicago and as a “specialist” in sporting goods and toys I was asked to start a specialty department in his store on a concession basis. I was able to borrow some money and started “Hank’s Sporting Goods and Toys” at Berman’s Hardware, 7918-20 S. Ashland Ave. in Chicago. My real name, at birth, had been Hans Ruprecht Wilhelm Schwab. I come from a very patriotic family. My grandfather Schwab named my dad Alfred Wilhelm Schwab, to honor Kaiser Wilhelm I. My father named me Ruprecht after the Crown Prince of Bavaria, in whose army he had served and Wilhelm, this one was the Crown Prince of Prussia, the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s son, my dad also served in the Prussian army. As long as we are talking about this, I named my son Steven Franklin Schwab because Roosevelt was the President under whom I arrived in the USA and Steven named his son – believe it or not – Michael Fitzgerald Schwab for you know who. So you see, we are one crazy family. But I am telling you this because in 1939,with the war very close at hand, a name like Hans became very unpopular and my business associate recommended that I change one letter and call myself Hank, a short form of Henry, particularly since at that time a number of Baseball players were named Hank, the most famous being Hank Greenberg.
My business turned out not to be a smashing success, partly because my limited funds did not make it possible to compete with the big Department Stores and also because my knowledge of Sporting Goods was limited to Soccer, Tennis, Fencing and Track and Field and I practically knew nothing about Football, Baseball, Basketball or Hockey. So I sold quite a few toys on Christmas and for birthdays and some Fishing tackle or ammunition on Saturday nights and I slowly found that I lived on my inventory so I had to look for a job. This didn’t turn out to be so simple. You see, I was a German immigrant with a heavy accent and with a war going on in Europe I was considered an “Enemy Alien”. So I turned to an insurance agent who had sold me some insurance and told him: “You meet a lot of people, perhaps you can find someone who needs someone like me to go to work for him.” But the answer was the same as what I just stated: “This is almost impossible with the depression still in full fling.” But he added: “I am engaged in selling a brand new type of insurance, unknown until now, called Hospitalization. I am very busy since no one has ever heard of this and there is little competition. I could use your help but there is no salary, commissions only: You would earn $ 1.50 for every policy you sell”. I said “No thanks, Insurance is the last thing I’ll ever do”
I turned out to be a prophet. So, 60 years ago I took the job, having no alternative. In December, 1940 I sold my first policy and I still have the receipt for it. Incidentally, to make you feel bad, a hospital policy paying for 3 weeks in the hospital-all bills paid- for an individual cost $ 3.65 for three months. In addition, there was an application Fee of $ 1.50- That was my commission. For a family of three or more, the quarterly cost was $7.65. Times have changed, haven’t they?
1940 was also the year in which I married my old friend Trudy from Augsburg and in 1941 our son Steven was born. Soon I became an insurance broker in my own right. I was accepted by Associated Hospital Service, a Not For Profit Hospital Insurance Company- the same people for which my first boss was working as an agent and he graciously permitted me to seek direct employment with them and I became one of their agents. I also became affiliated with an Insurance Agency called Don R.Jensen & Co.- they are still in business today. One day, while getting a haircut, my barber told me that he had just joined a fraternal lodge and since it was necessary for me to meet as many people as possible in order to succeed in my new business, I told him “Let me join this lodge” without having the slightest idea what this was all about. It turned out to be the Excelsior Lodge of the Free Sons of Israel, an old Jewish Lodge which operated with all the trimmings of fraternal associations: password, secret greeting, rituals such as an “outside tyler” who had to stand outside the lodge hall to make sure that anyone who wanted to attend knew the password-and if he didn’t it was whispered to him- and because of my desire to meet folk I attended as many meetings as I could. Soon, I “moved through the chairs” as it is called, meaning I became nominated first for very inferior offices and then moving up each year until finally I became the President of the Lodge and later even advanced to District Deputy. This was the first of many Presidencies to which I was elected over the years and I am convinced now that anyone who so desires can become President of any organization for which by bylaws he is eligible as long as he becomes a regular at all meetings and joins committees: The nominating committee members will fall all over themselves in nominating you.
Some remarks about the history of the Insurance business might be of interest: I turned out to be a pioneer in Health Insurance since as I stated earlier, Hospitalization was a brand new type of protection and the policies I sold were just about the only ones available in our area that permitted individuals to join- most other policies were for Groups, sold to Manufacturers, Department Stores and Utility Firms. I found out after a short time in this business that practically all Insurance Companies instructed their agents to sell only to Whites – my Company I am happy to say had no such restrictions, although we did not come across many Nom-Whites, but in my possession I have a copy of a Health Insurance policy from a now respectable Company which states, in print: “If the insured hereunder is of a race other than Caucasian, all benefits under this policy will be one half of what otherwise be payable, anything to the contrary notwithstanding.” Every once in a while I came across a Black prospect who asked for Life Insurance. Since the Companies I dealt with would not accept my applications, I was recommended to an Agent who would, for a consideration. He gave me a rate book that had blue and pink pages. He explained that the blue pages were for Whites and the pink pages, about 50% higher, for Blacks.
Incidentally, to once more compare the “good old days” with what’s happening today: A minimum Auto Liability Policy, which in those days covered $ 5,000 for each person, $ 10,000 for each accident and $ 5,000 property damage, cost $ 64.20 per year!
It was about at that time that I attended a rally at Soldier Field at which President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the speaker. He was the first President I saw and heard speak in person and I have seen and heard every President from then on: Truman, Eisenhower – with whom I shook hands – Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan , Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush. My congressman Bobby Rush also introduced me to Vice President Gore. As I explained above, my business remained lily-white from a racial point of view – Blacks having had a terrible time obtaining insurance, which by the way led to the phenomenal growth of Black Life Insurance Companies. I had no personal contact with Blacks at all. Sometimes things happen that turn your life around and these occurrences strengthen your belief in a Higher Being. My life began anew because of an incident which at first seemed of no particular importance.
I must first come back once more to my years as a youth in Frankfurt. Shortly before the Nazi era, the racial division of the population in Frankfurt was 599,999 Whites and 1 Black. This is where I came from and when that one Black person appeared on one of the streets, all traffic stopped and everyone gawked at him since they had never seen a Black person before except in the Zoo where from time to time supposedly African Tribes appeared in the cages and performed “Rain Dances” and other rituals. Now that I know better, I think these “Africans” were from Brooklyn. Anyway, the one Black Frankfurt citizen was probably a leftover of the French Army of occupation after World War I who had married a German lady and stayed on.
Anyway, this is where I came from. Now back to the event that changed my life: One of my best customers in a South Suburb who had bought Life, Health, Auto and Fire Insurance from me, called and told me he had a problem that I might be able to solve fro him. He had just been elected Treasurer of the McCormick Works Credit Union, McCormick Works being part of the large International Harvester Company,and he told me that they had assets of about 1/3 of a Million Dollars. He said” You are the closest thing to a Financial Advisor that I know and perhaps you have some ideas how we could invest this money. I was very flattered and told him:” I have some great ideas, but they are all illegal, but, joking aside, did you ever make Automobile Loans?” In those days, and perhaps still today, credit unions could make loans only to members that had been with them for at least 5 years, so they were pretty good risks. He said he would bring this up before his Board of Directors and a few days later he told me that they had accepted “his” idea and he would start making Auto Loans. I told him that in order to protect the Credit Union, the borrowers must carry Fire and Theft and preferably Liability Insurance but that the premiums could be added to the amount of the loan and collect with the loan payments. The next week I received an envelope from them which contained 5 applications for Automobile Insurance. You must understand that in those days I might sell one or two Auto Policies in a week so five in one day (and another five the next day) was sensational. I sent the orders to my regular Insurance Companies and two days later they came back with the note: “Sorry but we do not sell to ‘colored’”. To start with I had no idea whether the applicants were Black or White- later I found out that they all worked in the smelter oven department and all were Black – You can see what a tremendous disappointment this was for me: Just when I had a chance to really open up my business and become a larger agency- and it occurred to me for the first time what an injustice this was to the Black workers who needed protection and I decided that I had to do something about this. There happened to be one Insurance Company I dealt with which specialized in Health Insurance but had a license to also sell Automobile Insurance It was called Universal Mutual Casualty Co. and its President, whom I had met, was a man named Roger McCormick.
By coincidence- and again with the help of Divine Assistance, Mr. McCormick was the Grandson of Cyrus McCormick, the founder of the International Harvester Company, after whom the McCormick Works were named. I made an appointment to see him and pleaded with him not to let HIS people down. He made me a tough proposition: If I would sell one Health policy for every Auto policy I sold and if I promised to sell only to those Negroes that I knew personally, he would go along with the program. I said “No problem”. Little did he know that I knew NO Negroes at that time, none whatsoever. So I called every single applicant who had asked for Insurance and told him: “You don’t know me but I am your Auto Insurance Man and I would like to make an appointment to come and see you and explain the policy to you. Don’t worry about money, the Credit Union paid for it already.” I added $ 1 per month for a Health Insurance Policy to fulfill my other promise to Mr. McCormick – in those days “Tie-in” sales were legal.
Now I had sold one health policy for every auto policy and had met every Negro whom I sold insurance to. And for the first time in my life but surely not the last, I met with Black people in their homes. Obviously all of them were blue collar workers but I was impressed to find that they had the same problems as Whites- it was still the end of the War years and they had the blue and gold star flags in their windows for their soldiers and sailors and since they had been unable to obtain Auto Insurance before, they recommended me to their friends, family members and before long I became acquainted with Millionaires and paupers alike, professionals and laborers, Taxi tycoons and I insured just about every Cadillac belonging to the leading Black clergymen of the city. I was the pioneer who made it possible for Blacks to obtain Automobile Insurance in Chicago without discrimination, without hassle and with the same rates that Whites paid.
In 1946 our son Richard David was born, but a very few years later Trudy and I divorced. Because of the tremendous influx of new business I decided to take on a partner, Victor Raab, and we called our Agency Raab-Schwab Insurance Agency. It was not long before we acquired or started a number of Insurance Companies of our own in order to become independent from the whims and restrictions of the Companies we had to deal with. Our Flagship Company was called Home and Automobile Insurance Company and I became the President. It was a stock company and we sold shares to Insurance Brokers, White or Black who wanted do do business with us.
It was at that time that I met Jesse Owens, the Olympic star, who happened to be the guest speaker at one of our lodge meetings. I asked him what he was doing these days and he said: “I have just been appointed sales representative for an Automobile Club”. When I asked him: “Which Club?” he mentioned one that I was very familiar with and that had a very poor reputation and was run on a racketeering basis. I told him what I knew about them and suggested that this would not do his reputation any good but that I had a better proposition. I offered him a partnership in “Silver Wheel Plan” which was a subsidiary of our business and entailed a motor club. He accepted and we became very close friends, both in business and in private life and since I had married for a second time my wife Merle and his wife Ruth spent many occasions together. He helped us to enlarge our business manyfold – not so much by actually selling insurance but by taking me in person to meet every New Car Dealer in Chicago and Suburbs so that Raab-Schwab Agency became extremely well known in the Automobile business and we prospered from these connections.
Unfortunately my second marriage also ended in divorce and I moved, in 1957, to a new community, Lake Meadows, at 33rd and Lake Michigan. At one time the worst slums in the City had been at that location, but they had been dismantled and New York Life Insurance Company started to build an apartment complex in a beautiful environment, dubbed ” Live in a Park by the Lake” and it was supposed to be completely integrated racially. However, to this day, this never rally happened and Lake Meadows is still mostly rented to Blacks. The people who can afford to live there are middle class folks and I have become close friends with many of my past and present neighbors. I guess I like it here since this is my 44th year. I became quite active in independent politics, particularly when Adlai Stevenson ran for President. I joined the Independent Voters of Illinois and eventually became Vice Chairman for the State. I also became very active in the Dan Walker for Governor and Harold Washington for Mayor campaigns.
In Lake Meadows, I met Edwin C. (Bill) Berry, the Executive Director of the Chicago Urban League. He explained to me the purpose , program and services of the League which was originally started in 1910 when an ever increasing number of African Americans migrated from the South into Northern Cities and the need for assistance to acquaint these newcomers with their new surroundings became very stringent. I joined the league and after a relatively short time I was appointed a member of their Board and served for ll years. Other members on this very illustrious Board were sugh prominent Chicagoans as Charles Swibel, head of the Chicago Housing Authority, Robert Pritzker of the Hyatt Hotel family, James O’Conner, CEO of the Commonwealth Edison Co, George Johnson of Johnson Products, the late Professor Philip Hauser of the University of Chicago, the late State Representative William Robinson and many other prominent Chicago leaders. Bill Berry invited me to join him at the National Urban League Conference in Dayton, Ohio in 1958. I was so impressed with the way this conference was run and the important participants I was able to listen to and meet that I have been to 43 more conferences since. Because of my attendance at these conventions, I met over the years every African-American leader and public official from all over the country and I became personally acquainted and even friends with many of them. However, I also met many White personalities such as Mayors, Governors, CEO of Fortune 500 companies, Congressmen and Senators. I was privileged to be in the “smoke-filled” room when the powers of the Urban League chose Whitney Young to succeed Lester Granger as Executive Director of the National Urban League. This was a great event in my life since Whitney became a very good friend. The current CEO, now called President, Hugh Price, is the fifth President under whom I have attended conferences; the others besides the ones mentioned were Vernon Jordan and John Jacob.
The Chicago Urban League appointed me Chairman of the Benefit Committee and in that capacity I met and became very friendly with Sammy Davis Jr. and I was given two “Sammy” awards by the league for my efforts. Among other affairs I chaired was a concert at McCormick Place in which Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck and his Quartet, Oscar Brown Jr., Joe Williams and others appeared. I was also put in charge of the World Premiere of Oscar Brown Jr.’s Musical “Kicks & Company”, also at the Arie Crown Theatre of McCormick Place. Soon thereafter I founded the Lake Meadows Art & Jazz Society which held weekly meetings, first in my apartment and after the crowd became too big, in the Meadows Club at Lake Meadows. The meetings featured Jazz Artists and Painters and Sculptors, changing from one genre to the other every week.
I was particularly proud of having initiated an Art Gallery at the Meadows Club where the Artists who were my guests guided us through their exhibit and then the gallery remained there for two weeks. For the Jazz meetings, I invited some of the greatest Jazz stars who appeared in Chicago. I played a tape, culled from my record collection, of their old and newest recordings and they commented or answered questions from the audience. At one of our meetings a young up and coming, but unknown comedian was introduced to us, anxious to show his stuff- his name was Dick Gregory and he became a very good friend over all these years. Sometime later, after he was already a big star, he asked me to help him promote a charity affair at McCormick Place, starring Sammy Davis Jr. and entitled “Turkeys for Mississippi”. For my efforts, he awarded me during the concert with a plaque on the stage of the Arie Crown Theatre. The benefit was repeated in Detroit and Dick asked me to come along and repeat my work there. I was to pick up Sammy and his wife, Mae Britt, at the Airport , after which we all had dinner together. Among the Jazz musicians who came to my apartment and the Meadows Club meetings of the Society were, to mention just a few who also became close friends: Dizzy Gillespie, Julian “Cannonball”Adderley, his brother Nat, Abbie Lincoln, Max Roach, Herbie Mann, Horace Silver, Ramsey Lewis, Jimmy Smith and Stan Getz as well as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, J.J.Johnson, Ahmad Jamal, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef, Roland Kirk and many others.
I also became involved in those days in an organization by the name of National Association of Market Developers( NAMD)which was the African American’s answer to the American Marketing Association which they were not permitted to join. I attended some of their meetings by invitation and , asked to join, became very deeply involved. I went annually to their conventions in various cities and although I was the only White member, I was elected President of the Chicago chapter after only a few years and as such I became a member of the National Board of Directors. Once again I had the chance to meet leaders and celebrities in the different cities where the meetings were held . In those days, Black marketing people were mainly in a few lines of business: Liquor, Beer, Cosmetics and Cigarettes and a Black Marketer was probably a truck driver going through the main streets in the “hood” stopping at stores and asking” How many cases today?” I was a witness when many of these same folks became Vice Presidents (“of special markets”) of Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola, Philip Morris, Anheuser Busch, Ford and Chrysler Motors and many other Companies and these were the people who made history- they were the “Firsts” and I knew them all.
During one of these conventions, the Guest Speaker at the final Banquet was Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. On the next morning, while waiting for the Airport limousine in front of my hotel, a long black car stopped in front of me and a man rolled down the window and asked whether I wanted a lift to the Airport. It turned out to be Minister Farrakhan and for three quarters of an hour I had a one-on-one conversation with him, long before he became quite controversial. But even then he said that there was a lot he liked about Hitler. I told him about my Buchenwald Concentration Camp experience and said: “If you would have been in Germany in those days you would have welcomed me in Buchenwald because you would have been taken long before me”.
In the meantime, Dr. Martin Luther King came to ever-increasing prominence. I met him first when one of my Urban League friends gave a party at her home for an “up and coming young minister” and it turned out to be M.L. King Jr. But once again it was Bill Berry through whom I became very well acquainted with Dr. King and even was given the honor to introduce him at a fundraising affair as the guest speaker. Together with Bill Berry I took part in the historic “March on Washington” on August 28, 1963 where I was able to sit in the third row to listen to the “I have a Dream” speech. After the march, the Washington Urban league gave a reception where among others I was introduced to Josephine Baker. I became also involved, inspired by Dr. King, in Anti Vietnam War protests and marched in Washington, Cleveland and New York City. I studied for the CPCU (Certified Property and Casualty Underwriter) degree and after 10 2 hour written examination, some of which I had to take more than once, I received my degree in 1977. I also studied for the equivalent Life degree (CLU) but passed only 8 of 10 exams and did never finish. In the early sixties, I sold my interest in Home and Automobile Insurance Co. and started an Insurance Agency, called Skyway Insurance Agency. I also began a Public Relations business under the name of H.R.Schwab/Associates, in Hyde Park, Chicago to make use of the talents I had developed while with the Insurance Company. Soon I expanded to work with Jazz Clubs and even started to manage a number of musicians: all this was great fun, a wonderful experience, but no money earned to speak of!
Much to my surprise, while I handled publicity for the famous Earl “Fatha” Hines who appeared at one of the clubs asked me to become his manager. I told him I had no experience but he said “Don’t worry, I’ll teach you!” and I traveled with him to New York and some other places. And although I have never received credit for this, I am convinced that it was my work for “Fatha” Hines that he emerged from almost complete obscurity and was able to resume a creditable career until his death. My next major client was also a pianist, the redoubtable Dorothy Donegan with whom I traveled extensively and who introduced me, whenever I attended one of her performances, as “my manager”.
These successes, not money wise as stated, led to my involvement with a Hollywood management business called “Management of Stars” with offices on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and on the Hyde Park Bank Building in Chicago. My partners were Truman K.Gibson Jr., a very prominent attorney who was greatly involved with integration of the African American soldiers and sailors into the Armed Forces and was a close associate of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, and Albert Dale, a typical Hollywood agent with tremendous self- confidence, a slight tendency of exaggeration but a great knowledge of the entertainment industry and good connections. The original idea was to manage a group of formerly very prominent show biz personalities who had faded from their erstwhile pinnacles and use them for Supermarket openings or Mall appearances and special events as well as TV commercials etc. Some of his clients , for a while, were Morey Amsterdam, Errol Flynn’s widow Patrice Wymore, Broderick Crawford, the Academy Awards winner- he came to stay at my Lake Meadows apartment for weeks at a time and I handled all his checking accounts and finances. With Broderick and Truman, we flew to New York to negotiate a movie biography of Jack Dempsey at his Broadway Restaurant. Unfortunately, the scriptwriter we hired never followed through properly and after paying him a hefty advance he declared bankruptcy.
So, after a couple of fun years, traveling between Chicago and LA, to Europe and back, we had spent more money than we took in and decided enough is enough and we disbanded this business and I took full control again of my insurance agency. I joined the Chicago Association of Life Underwriters and after a few years was elected President of the South Side Branch and later a director of the Illinois Association. In 1971, a Senate Subcommittee, under the chairmanship of the later Senator Hart of Michigan, came to Chicago to investigate complaints of “Redlining” in Automobile Insurance based on racial discrimination. I was on the organizing committee for these hearings together with prominent African American Insurance Brokers and one of them was my friend Milton E. Moses and we also testified before the committee. As a result of these hearings, the Liability rates for Automobile in Chicago were changed so that they are now the same anywhere in the city which was not the case previously. I had taken in my son Richard as a partner in Skyway Insurance Agency and when in 1979 he was given a chance to become a State Farm Agent, I accepted an offer from Milt Moses to sell my agency to his, Community Insurance Center Inc. and I joined him in his offices on 87th Street and have been there ever since.