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Co-founder of largest black-owned bank dies

AlvBoutte Sr. was among group African-American businessmen who transformed community.

Alvin Boutte Sr. was among a group of African-American businessmen who transformed the community.

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Updated: May 4, 2012 8:14AM

Alvin Boutte Sr. led the nation’s largest black-owned bank and helped bankroll the civil rights efforts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

He died Sunday at age 82 at his Hazel Crest home.

He was born in Lake Charles, La., and earned a pharmacist’s degree at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Mr. Boutte learned perseverance from his father, who was routinely turned away when he tried to vote in the South, according to the book, African-American Business Leaders: a Biographical Dictionary.

“You know, my father lived his entire life in America, and he never once voted,” Mr. Boutte recalled in the book. “I can remember how he’d dress me up and we’d walk down to the voting place and they’d tell him, ‘You know you can’t vote.’ He’d just walk back and try again the next time.”

Mr. Boutte became part of the Great Migration that brought African Americans to Chicago and other northern cities to seek opportunity denied them in the South.

But unlike many of the transplanted arrivals, “Boutte had a number of advantages,” according to African-American Business Leaders . “He was educated, he had served as an officer in the U.S. Army, he was alert to business opportunity and success, and he was tremendously ambitious.”

Mr. Boutte got his start owning and operating a Chicago drugstore. The drugstore expanded to a chain and Mr. Boutte became acquainted with black business leaders, including George Johnson, who became a powerhouse with his Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen hair-care products.

They helped found Independence Bank at 79th and Cottage Grove, which grew to be the nation’s largest minority-owned bank. Eventually, Independence Bank acquired Drexel National Bank. It was a watershed moment ­— the first time that a “black” bank had acquired a healthy “white” bank.

Mr. Boutte was part of a wave of innovators who transformed Chicago’s African-American community.

“George Johnson created the largest African-American hair-care company, and John Johnson created the largest African-American publishing company with Ebony and Jet, and Al Boutte created the largest African-American bank in the country,” said Ariel Investments chief John Rogers. “When people talk about Chicago being the mecca for black business, it was because of that generation of African-American leaders who showed the way.”

Independence Bank issued loans to King that helped keep the civil rights movement alive, Rogers said.

When King was in need of funds to bankroll the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Mr. Boutte convened a meeting of Chicago’s African-American business leaders and raised $55,000, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.

“The infrastructure for Harold Washington’s campaign; for my work on Operation Breadbasket; he invited Dr. King to Chicago . . . he was fundamental to those movements for justice,” Jackson said.

In a 2011 article in the Chicago Defender, Mr. Boutte talked about raised eyebrows among some of his neighbors when he asked King to his home.

“They didn’t like the idea that we’d invited him to our neighborhood. I guess they thought he was a troublemaker,” he said. King wanted change, “but a lot of our people was afraid of change,” he told the Defender.

Despite all his achievements, Mr. Boutte and his friends, former Olympic sprinters Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe Sr. — who went on to become an alderman and congressman — were turned away from a Chicago area golf course in the 1960s, said Mr. Boutte’s friend, Glenn Reedus. Owens and Metcalfe had dominated the 1936 Berlin Olympics, repudiating Adolf Hitler’s Aryan master-race theories.

“You’ve got one of the most successful businessmen in the city and two Olympic medalists,” Reedus said. At 6-foot-5-inches, Mr. Boutte — also known as “Big Al” — refused to take no for an answer and negotiated.

Management capitulated and said they could continue to golf at the club but wanted them off the greens before anyone else could see them, Reedus said. “They had to be the first ones to tee off and they had to tee off in the dark”— but they were there.

Mr. Boutte is survived by his wife, Barbara; his daughters, Janice Boutte and Jeanette Simpson; his sons, Al Jr. and Gregory, and four grandchildren.

Services are scheduled April 14 at St. Clotilde Church at 84th and Calumet. Visitation will be 10 a.m. to noon, with a funeral mass to follow.

Mr. Boutte will be cremated, and the avid golfer asked for a “21 Club Salute” with his friends lifting their clubs to say goodbye.

His ashes will be spread at a favorite golf course, Reedus said.

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