Joseph E. Walker, noted physician, banker, businessman, civic and religious leader in Memphis, was born in the cotton fields near Tillman, Mississippi, in 1880 and rose to become one of the most successful African Americans of his time. Walker overcame a background of poverty and worked his way through college and medical school. From 1906 to 1919 he practiced medicine in Indianola, Mississippi.
In 1912 Walker was elected president of Delta Penny Savings Bank and in 1917 president of Mississippi Life Insurance Company, which moved to Memphis in 1920. In 1923 Walker, A. W. Willis, and Dr. J. T. Wilson established Universal Life Insurance Company in Memphis. Under Walker’s leadership, Universal Life grew to become one of the largest African-American-owned insurance companies in the country. In 1946, along with his son, A. Maceo Walker, Dr. Walker founded Tri-State Bank of Memphis and was named the bank’s first president.
Active in politics, Walker was a leader in the Democratic Party. He was also a noted philanthropist and civic leader and helped finance the South Memphis Walker Homes Subdivision which bears his name. He organized the Memphis Negro Chamber of Commerce in 1926, which published directories of black businesses, now a valuable resource to scholars studying early Memphis black commercial development.
In 1926 Walker was elected president of the National Negro Insurance Association. In 1939 he was elected president of the National Negro Business League. During the 1930s, Jet magazine listed him as one of the “10 most Influential Negroes in America.”
Walker groomed his son, A. Maceo Walker (1909-1994), to succeed him in the organizations he established. Maceo Walker was elected president and chairman of Universal Life in 1952 and served in this capacity for decades. He also had a long tenure as president and chair of Tri-State Bank. When he stepped down as president of Universal Life in 1983, his daughter, Patricia Walker Shaw (1939-1985), became president of Universal Life and served in this capacity until her death in 1985. Shaw was the first woman to become president of the National Insurance Association in July 1983. Shaw’s only child, Harold Shaw Jr., currently works at Universal Life, making him the fourth generation of his family to serve this company.