Special Section

Remembering a Titan of Actuarial Acumen

Remembering a Titan of Actuarial Acumen

In the overwhelmingly white world of insurance, Asa Spaulding blazed his trail as a Black man

Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, N.C.

By James Lynch

Consider the career of Asa T. Spaulding, the first Black actuary in America, from the perspective of a late highlight.

It’s April 2, 1966, and Spaulding sits at a podium before 4,000 people in Durham, N.C. All will watch the dedication of a new headquarters for North Carolina Mutual, the Black-operated life insurer of which he has been president for eight years.

North Carolina’s governor is on stage with him. And Durham’s mayor. And Sen. Sam Ervin and two other congressmen. As well as a bevy of federal officials—the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the secretary of Commerce, a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Thursday’s Durham Sun had an 18-page section previewing the dedication—page upon page of articles, dozens of congratulatory ads—from department stores and dairy producers; supermarkets and savings and loans; even Elvira’s Blue Dinette.

The building, the tableau—they were vindications of an extraordinary life, one that left Asa Spaulding as a successful business leader and political figure. More than the first Black actuary, he may have been, in his time, the most famous actuary in America—an accolade for which competition is admittedly thin. But still…

Spaulding, born in 1902, was as an arithmetical prodigy in Columbus County, N.C., with a preternatural skill to “figure in his head,” as one account put it. He memorized the times tables up to 20 while his schoolmates were learning to count.

Family connections nurtured his brilliance. A great uncle, Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore, was a founder of North Carolina Mutual. A second cousin was C.C. Spaulding, an early employee who led the company to become the nation’s largest Black business.

Great-Uncle Moore encouraged him to enroll in 1919 at Durham’s National Training School, now the HBCU North Carolina Central University. He worked summers at the insurer.

Asa got his degree in 1923, returned home to teach for a year, then came back to Durham to clerk at the mutual. He left to take business classes at Howard University, and eventually moved to Harlem to get an accounting degree at New York University. He was the first Black student to graduate magna cum laude there.

It was at this time that Asa’s reputation started to grow in the Black community nationally. While living in Harlem, he frequented the offices of the New York Age, a leading Black newspaper. He wrote at least one article, pointing out the disparate treatment of a Black and a white drivers involved two separate accidents.

An NYU professor recommended Asa take actuarial science classes. He enrolled at University of Michigan, one of the few U.S. schools offering an actuarial science curriculum. His enrollment drew coverage in the New York press, as well as at home. From the New York Age, October 4, 1930:

“Upon completion of this course, Mr. Spaulding will be the first member of the race to complete the full course in actuarial science in an accredited school in the country.”

He got that master’s in 1932.

He soon started as North Carolina Mutual’s actuary. The company was suffering through a Depression-inspired crisis. North Carolina sold mainly industrial life—policies with tiny weekly premiums bought mainly by low-income customers. Lapse rates soared as the economy collapsed: we’re talking an 80% lapse rate in 1932. And death claims were climbing.

Spaulding’s actuarial sleuthing determined a surprising number of death claims had cousins as beneficiaries, particularly on policies that had only been in force a few months. He told agents: “Beware of cousins.”

Through these and other efforts, he helped restore the company’s financial health. He became the mutual’s youngest board member in 1938.

Meanwhile, the head of North Carolina Mutual, second cousin C.C. Spaulding, emerged as one of the nation’s pre-eminent Black business leaders. The cousins’ careers intertwined. C.C. and Asa took prominent positions in the National Negro Insurance Association, a trade group whose efforts were closely followed in the Black press—C.C. the leader and role model (he would receive letters addressed simply “Mr. Spaulding, Negro Insurance Company.); Asa, the technical wizard behind the enterprise. (A Vicksburg woman mailed him a marriage proposal.)

Both enjoyed accolades throughout the decades. C.C. was listed in J.A. Rogers’ World’s Great Men of Color. He was featured in an ad for war bonds—the mutual was an enthusiastic buyer.

President Truman recognized Asa’s skills. He dined with President Eisenhower and guests. In 1956, he accompanied a U.S. delegation to a United Nations conference in New Delhi.

C.C. led the company until 1952. In 1958, Asa took over. He held it for a decade, including the windy Durham day the office tower—for 19 years the city’s tallest—got its dedication.

He retired in 1968 and died in 1990. North Carolina Mutual continued into the 21st century. It entered liquidation in 2022.

Although Asa Spaulding studied actuarial science, he did not become a fellow or receive any credential from a U.S. actuarial association.

There are just more than 300 credentialed Black actuaries in America today, according to the International Association of Black Actuaries.

JAMES LYNCH, MAAA, FCAS, is a freelance writer.


Asa T. Spaulding, “Is It True That It Costs To Be Colored,” New York Age, September 10, 1927, p. 3.

“Asa Spaulding to Enter University of Michigan,” New York Age, October 4, 1930, p. 9.

Durham (N.C.) Morning Herald, April 2, 1966, pp 1A, 6A, 7A.

The Durham (N.C.) Sun, March 31, 1966, pp. 35-52.

Dr. Troy L. Kickler, Asa Spaulding (1902-1990)—North Carolina History Project.

Walter B. Weare, Black Business in the New South: A Social History of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Next article Steady as a Rock
Previous article Using AI to Test AI

Related posts