In 1957, a young man named Cirilo McSween became New York Life’s first African American agent. As we celebrate Black History Month, we’d like to take the opportunity to share some of this extraordinary man’s accomplishments and life experiences.
McSween’s path to America
Cirilo McSween was born in 1926 in Panama. He came from humble beginnings. He didn’t always have shoes, but he used his first pair of sneakers to become a track star. His ability to turn challenges into opportunities became a character trait that would serve him well his entire life.
He became a champion runner, placing third in the Central American Olympics for his home country. Later, he accepted a track scholarship to the University of Illinois, and left his life and family in Panama to study finance, economics, and political science. McSween knew no English when he came to the U.S.
A trailblazer of his time
After graduating from college with a degree in economics, McSween persistently pursued a career with New York Life at the suggestion of one of his professors. He signed his contract in 1957—a time when segregation was still legal in parts of the country—and hit the ground running. McSween built a clientele of policy owners by going door-to-door on the South Side of Chicago.
He was adamant about helping his clients—black clients—create estates and leave legacies to financially empower the next generation using life insurance as the foundation. His care paid dividends. By the late 1950s, he'd sold more than $1 million in new insurance a year, qualifying him for the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT), the premier association of financial professionals recognized globally as the standard of excellence for life insurance sales performance in the insurance and financial services industry. He achieved that accomplishment every year of his 26-year New York Life career, becoming the first African American awarded a lifetime membership in MDRT.
McSween remained active in the business community even after his time with New York Life. He became the largest shareholder of Independence Bank of Chicago—and sat on its board of directors. He also became one of the most successful McDonald’s franchisees in the country, was the founder of the Black McDonald’s Owners and Operators Association, and eventually owned 11 franchises in Chicago.
Business success wasn’t enough for McSween — he dedicated his life to empowering his community. He was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and the treasurer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was also a close confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., and served as one of King’s pallbearers.