Travis, Dempsey J.

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Dempsey J. Travis

Real estate executive, writer

As a young man, Dempsey J. Travis focused his dreams on a career in music. But he also recognized his talent for organization and promotion. Eventually, he decided to go into real estate, establishing Travis Realty, Sivart Mortgage Corporation, Freeway Mortgage and Investment, and Dempsey J. Travis Securities. Black Enterprise listed Travis Realty among the Largest 100 Black Businesses in the United States. For seven years, Ebony included this self-made millionaire among the 100 Most Influential Black Americans. Interested in preserving history, Travis wrote a number of books about music, his Chicago hometown, and people he came to know.

Born February 15, 1920, Dempsey Jerome Travis credits his parents, Louis Travis and Mittie Strickland Travis, for their positive influence in shaping his life. His father worked at the Chicago stockyards and set an example of hard work. Neither parent liked debt, so they taught their son strong money values. But Travis notes in his autobiography, I Refuse to Learn to Fail, that they taught him something more important: "Both my mother and father taught me that internalizing negative and grossly inaccurate self-images about our Blackness ensures failure." His parents also provided a role model for marriage. Travis chose Moselynne Hardwick of Cleveland, Tennessee, as his life's mate. They married On September 17, 1949.

During Travis's preschool years, the family became the first blacks to live in an otherwise all-white twenty-four-flat building. The white boys often taunted Travis. After one unpleasant encounter, his mother showed him a jacket made of the "best and most expensive" fabric, black velvet. She reassured her son, "You are my black velvet." Travis later told John Seder and Berkeley Burrell, "My mother really deserves the credit for a great deal of what I have accomplished. She is the warmest, most outgoing kind of person—she just loves people."

Travis attended private kindergarten and then Doolit-tle Elementary School. When the family moved in 1931, he attended Francis C. Willard Elementary. Disliking school, he began skipping classes. Soon his mother found out and enrolled him in a different teacher's classroom. Although not interested in education, young Travis entertained a couple of dreams for his future. He wanted to become a professional musician and he wanted to earn money. One morning, he announced, "I dreamed last night that I was going to be rich and Daddy wouldn't have to get up before daylight to go to work anymore."

Travis began earning money at age five. He asked Charles Murray, seller of Murray's Pomade, if he needed a barber for his business. In the conversation that followed, Travis agreed to give out business cards for a wage of fifty cents. Excited about his mission, Travis ran across the street colliding with a Model T. Although he woke in a hospital with a broken left leg, he found the venture profitable. Mr. Murray brought him a fruit basket and gave him an extra dollar for his trouble. Later business ventures included selling for the Chicago Defender and the white-owned Chicago American newspapers.

For Christmas 1925, Louis Travis surprised the family with a player piano. Although Mr. Travis could not read music, his boogie-woogie blues inspired his four-year-old son to ask for lessons. Elmer Simpson charged fifty cents for a half-hour lesson, plus there was the fourteen-cents for streetcar fare. Before Travis's sixth birthday, he performed "Violets Blue" in a recital at West Point Bap-tist Church. After that, his father always mentioned his son's name alongside those of Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and other great musicians. Travis's mother often took him to hear the black orchestras that came to town.

He and classmate Herbert Moore, who played clarinet, often practiced together. During Travis's eleventh year, they performed a duet at school. Guitarist Jesse Miller soon joined them, and the group enjoyed playing such songs as "Lazy Bones" and "Sophisticated Lady." Travis enjoyed performing and found that he also liked organizing music events. He finished elementary school in 1935, convinced he would become a professional musician.

Travis attended Wendell Phillips High School, the first school built for blacks within the Chicago black community. Bandleader Walter Dyett thought him too cocky to join his popular Booster Band. So at age fifteen, Travis formed his own band. Sometimes each performer earned as much as $2 a night. By the next year, he had become the youngest orchestra leader in the local musicians' union.

When Travis needed discipline, his father punished him by not letting him work—a strategy that proved effective since Travis loved to work. In his autobiography, he said of his father, "The positive approach to work he instilled has guided me successfully through several changes in vocations." Travis graduated from what had become known as Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable High School in May 1936 in a suit handed down from his uncle to his father to him. His classmates included future publisher John Johnson, singer Nat King Cole, and actor Redd Foxx.

Job prospects looked bleak. Travis's father gave him streetcar fare and sent him job hunting. He also provided fifty cents for lunch money—with the instruction to spend it only if he found a job. Travis passed by the stockyard where his father worked, and he paid the Factory Employment Agency $10 to become a porter for Apex Box Company. During off-work hours, he formed a seven-member band and played at the West Side Dance Hall. Band members received $6 a night; as band leader, Travis received $10.

On September 9, 1942, the United States Army drafted Travis and sent him to Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. His sergeant asked him to put together an orchestra to play for U.S.O. dances on Friday and Saturday nights. But Travis soon found himself transferred to Camp Shenago in Pennsylvania, where life became tough. Black soldiers faced isolation, deprivation, and discrimination.

One evening outside the makeshift black theater—the base did not admit blacks to the main theater—he and his friend Kansas encountered a crowd of angry men. Whites had beaten a black man who tried to purchase beer at the white Post Exchange. Suddenly, white soldiers opened fire on the black soldiers. Kansas died, and Travis was shot. Doctors thought he might never walk again. After a series of surgeries, he walked with a limp, and eventually he walked normally again. Travis took a thirty-day leave to Chicago. When he returned to Camp Shenago, he noticed a new service center for blacks and learned that blacks could now attend the main theater.

Officers soon put Travis in charge of a troop going to Camp Lee, Virginia. They enrolled him in Quartermaster School for Noncommissioned Officers. Then new orders sent him to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Major Sloan needed a clerk. He handed Travis a typewriter instruction manual, assigned him a desk, and within a month, Travis typed fifty-five words a minute. Assigned to the black Post Exchange as clerk, Travis soon became assistant manager and then manager. Before long, he became the first black to manage an integrated PX in Maryland. When Travis won top prize for the best-operated Post Exchange, Major Sloan arranged to have a picture taken for the newspaper. But the picture never appeared, for fear of causing increased racial tension. Sloan wanted Travis to attend Officers Training School, but Travis wanted out.


Dorn in Chicago, Illinois on February 15
Graduates from DuSable High School
Drafted into United States Army
Marries Moselynne Hardwick; graduates from Roosevelt University, Founds Travis Realty Company
Establishes Sivart Mortgage Company
Serves as president of Chicago chapter of NAACP
Organizes United Mortgage Bankers of America; founds Freeway Mortgage and Investment and Dempsey J. Travis Security and Investment Companies
Graduates from Northwestern University's School of Mortgage Banking
Publishes autobiography for children, Don't Stop Me Now
Publishes The Autobiography of Black Chicago
Publishes autobiography, I Refuse to Learn to Fail
Publishes Views from the Back of the Bus during World War II and Beyond
Publishes Real Estate Is the Gold in Your Future
Publishes The Life and Times of Redd Foxx
Publishes J. Edgar Hoover's FBI Wired the Nation

Education Follows Military Service

Following an honorable discharge from the Army on February 2, 1946, Travis returned to Chicago and attempted to start a new band and to enroll in college on the G.I. Bill. The band never materialized, and the path to college proved longer than expected. After failing the entrance exams for Roosevelt, DePaul, and Northwestern Universities, Travis took a job with Armour and Company at the stockyards where his father had worked. The foreman, seeing his capabilities, notified Travis he would fire him within a couple of weeks and suggested he consider preparing income taxes. So for a while, although Travis had never filled out a tax form, he figured income taxes for other people.

Travis then took a job with the Veterans Administration. When he learned that Englewood Evening Junior College required no entrance exam, he signed up for accounting and sociology. Eventually, he passed the entrance exam for Wilson Junior College, with the requirement that he take remedial reading and English. He quit his job and studied long hours, attempting to understand what he laboriously read. Finally, one day in his late twenties, he discovered that he could make sense of what he was reading. In his autobiography, he recalls, "The words rolled together into sentences, and the sentences rolled into paragraphs and the paragraphs uncoiled into pages of thoughts and ideas."

Travis had also enrolled in an American literature course. He wrote his first essay on Silas Marner. Years later, he still remembered the teacher's angry response. Dr. Earnest Ernst made him write and rewrite paper after paper, but he also took the time to help him improve his writing. Finally, he could both read and write—an accomplishment he considers a turning point in his life. With renewed confidence, he reapplied to Roosevelt. On the strength of his credits from Wilson, he completed the remainder of his B.A. within a year, graduating in August 1949.

Enters Real Estate

Travis enrolled in Chicago's Kent College of Law but soon decided not to become an attorney. A course on real estate principles, however, caught his attention. The prospect of a $5,000 commission refueled his dream of becoming rich. His mother gave him part of the $50 fee for a real estate license. He founded Travis Realty Company in 1949 and made his first sale in May 1950. In borrowed office space, he conducted business with an orange crate for a desk and a bucket for a chair. His wife quit her job to answer the phone, type letters, and help match people and homes. He enlisted as a census taker to make ends meet.

In his autobiography, Travis comments: "In the 1950s when many Blacks sought solutions to racism through integration, I believed a mobile housing market for minorities would pave the way for a color blind society." But black men found it nearly impossible to acquire a home mortgage in Chicago. In 1953, Travis founded Sivart Mortgage Company, a reverse spelling of his name. He needed to learn more about real estate than he could glean from trade publications and newspapers. But Northwestern University opened its courses only to Mortgage Bankers Association members, which excluded blacks. He attempted to learn from successful white mortgage bankers, but they excluded him, too.

Meanwhile, he continued to take on other roles. From 1957 through 1959, Travis presided over the Deerborn Real Estate Board. He served as president again during 1970 and 1971. Fulfilling three terms, Travis became the only person other than the first president to have held the position for more than two years. During 1959–60, he served as the first vice president of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, a black organization advocating democracy in housing.

In 1959, friends encouraged Travis to run for president of the Chicago chapter of the NAACP. Elected that December, he became an able spokesperson for the group, talking often with mayor Richard Daley and speaking out in state Senate hearings. He coordinated the first march of Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago on July 24, 1960. Travis chose not to run for reelection because he needed to refocus his attention on his businesses.

In 1961, Travis started Freeway Mortgage and Investment Company and Dempsey J. Travis Security and Investment Company. That same year, he also organized the United Mortgage Bankers of America, a mortgage banking association for blacks. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke out against racial discrimination in home mortgaging and appointed Robert C. Weaver, an African American, to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Travis served as president of the mortgage banking association until 1974. But he still wanted to join the white Mortgage Bankers Association so he could take courses. He wrote to President Lyndon Johnson seeking help.

In the summer of 1966, Northwestern University's School of Mortgage Banking finally admitted Travis. His graduation in 1969 represented a first for the school. Travis continued to expand his education throughout his career. He told Carlyle C. Douglas, "In addition to monthly trade journals, I read 11 newspapers a day, five newsmagazines a week and a half-dozen books a month."

Becomes a Writer

Through the years, Travis took a personal interest in preserving Chicago's history. After reading some books on publishing, he self-financed, distributed, and publicized his work An Autobiography of Black Chicago. The book appeared in stores at Thanksgiving 1981. By Christmas Eve, Travis became the first black author to see his book on the Chicago Tribune's non-fiction bestseller list. He published many of his books through the Urban Research Institute, later called Urban Research Press, which he founded in 1969.

Travis wrote An Autobiography of Black Jazz (1983), Racism, American Style, A Corporate Gift (1991), J. Edgar Hoover's FBI Wired the Nation (2000), and more than a dozen other books. He wrote biographies of his childhood classmate Redd Foxx, his friend and Chicago mayor Harold Washington, and musicians Louis Arm-strong and Duke Ellington. Travis reviewed books for the Chicago Sun-Times, served as financial editor for Dollars and Sense magazine, and as a contributing writer for Ebony and Black Scholar. He was the president of the Society of Midland Authors from 1988 to 1990.

Travis achieved his dream of becoming rich one business venture at a time. In his autobiography, he observed: "Academic training, combined with experience, taught me to look at an almost devastated piece of real estate and see a gold mine instead of a disaster." He then turned those disasters into valuable properties and followed through with good management and maintenance. A 1976 Ebony article reported: "To this day, most of the property Travis owns—and he still owns every building he ever bought—is mortgage-free. 'I'm just more comfortable out of debt than in,' he confesses. 'Because of that I probably will never be a multi-multi-millionaire.'"

Although noting in his autobiography, "The price I paid for vigorous involvement with civil rights came within a hairline of destroying my career," he remained active politically. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson asked him to participate in a White House conference, To Fulfill These Rights. On a Housing Task Force appointed by President Richard Nixon, he helped draft the 1970 Housing Bill. President Gerald Ford appointed him to presidential task forces on urban renewal and on inflation. President Jimmy Carter invited him to the White House in 1979 for a briefing and luncheon.

Travis served as trustee for the Chicago Historical Society, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and the Chicago World's Fair Committee, and on the boards of Roosevelt University, Columbia College, and Garrett Evangelical Seminary in Evanston. He chaired the Chicago mayor's real estate review committee and his Commission for the Preservation of Chicago's Historic Buildings. He held membership on the Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Governors of the Chicago Assembly. He held directorships with Unibanc Trust, Seaway National Bank, Sears Bank and Trust, and the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

In 1982, Travis received the Society of Midland Authors Award and, in 1985, the Chicago Art Deco Society award. The Chicago Sun-Times Sesquicentennial Celebration issue named him among People Who Have Made a Difference. In 1990, Travis received the Mary Herrick Award, named for one of DuSable High School's respected teachers. Other honors include: The Living African American Heritage Award in 1992, the Myers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in North America in 1995, the First America Award in 1996, and Kennedy-King College's Humanitarian Award in 1997. In 2000, Chicago State University inducted Travis into its Literary Hall of Fame.

A number of business awards recognized Travis's pioneering efforts. On December 3, 1970, he received the first Black Businessman of the Year Award. On February 21, 1975, he traveled to the White House where then vice-president Nelson Rockefeller presented him the first Black Enterprise Magazine Finance Achievement Award. In 1995, Ameritech presented Travis Realty its Small Business Community Service Award and Junior Achievement inducted Travis into the Chicago Business Community Hall of Fame.

Travis often rode his bicycle early in the morning, before work, along Chicago's lakeshore. He told John Seder and Berkeley Burrell: "While I'm looking at the grass and the lake, my thinking clears up. I can get a lot of work done while my competitors are still asleep. When I get back to the house, I can fill out a whole notebook of things to be done." The city has now made him a part of itself by imbedding his name in the sidewalk of the Bronzeville Walk of Fame.

In fulfilling his own dreams, Dempsey J. Travis made other people's dreams come true. Blacks who otherwise could not have owned real estate established homes of their own. Blacks who wanted to enter the fields of real estate and mortgage banking have found the path smoother because Travis led the way. He ably fulfilled one of the ideas he espoused in his autobiography, that when a person honestly does his best, his "personal success will become important to thousands of people."



"Dempsey J. Travis: Astute Chicagoan Negotiates Millions in Mortgages for Blacks." Famous Blacks Give Secrets of Success. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1973.

Haskins, James. "Dempsey J. Travis." In his African American Entrepreneurs. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998.

Seder, John, and Berkeley G. Burrell. "Dempsey J. Travis: Mortgage Banker." Getting It Together. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.


"Chicago Businessman Pens, Publishes Historic Work." Jet 61 (8 March 1982): 22.

"Dempsey Travis." Atlantic Monthly 253 (July 1984): 58-63.

Douglas, Carlyle C. "Never Buy Other People's Paint (How to Become a Millionaire)." Ebony, 31 (February 1976): 132-34.


Dempsey Travis website. (Accessed 19 December 2005).

                                    Marie Garrett