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Travis, Dempsey J.(1920–) - Chronology, Education Follows Military Service, Enters Real Estate, Becomes a Writer

chicago mortgage president autobiography


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 Armstrong 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.”

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