by James Avery
African-American pioneers in the corporate sector 60, 50 and even 40 years ago blazed real trails in sales promotion, public relations and marketing fields. They worked in a socioeconomic environment with vastly different conditions than those experienced by African-American business representatives today. With segregation and discrimination throughout the marketplace, the Black representatives, few as they were, were severely limited to dealing with and marketing directly to the Black communities. In the early ’30s, at the time of the very first Black market representative, the Negro consumer market was an unknown quantity, practically nonexistent in the “marketing eyes” of American business. Few companies gave credence to or even believed that it was a clearly defined entity. The companies that were involved referred to what was then called the Negro Market as a special market and to the Black representatives they hired or employed as “market specialists.” White management had no idea who the Black community leaders were, or the organizations that existed therein, or what Blacks were doing other than the sensational things they read in the major media. Some companies saw this market as being so “special” they did not employ a Black to do the job, they made arrangements with a self-employed Black businessman to do the job for them. Working in only five consumer product areas (tobacco, petroleum, food, soft drinks and beer, and liquors and wines), these outside reps were like satellite units that represented the company at conventions and meetings. They also provided marketplace intelligence to white management.
There was no organized recruitment program that included Blacks. The representatives selected were essentially handpicked. Making a choice of someone for this “special market” in this hand picked way was apparently a “safe way” for the companies to make the best start. Once hired these “special market” representatives had no formal company training, no course in sales promotion, merchandising methods or product development beyond that which was self-taught. Equipped only with a “do-it-yourself” kit, the Black marketer went forth like the veritable pied piper to create product awareness and Black customers for the goods and services that were made available by the companies. They had expansive territories to cover, but no specific timetable or quotas to reach, no market plan to follow, no formal report to make. It was not unusual for anyone beyond the immediate boss or his secretary not to know at any time where the special representative was on any specific day. The special representative, being Black, knew the market well, its class structure, its mores, its organizations and its consuming behavior. This was the principle reason for the success of these early marketplace pioneers.
Despite the training deficiencies, and the sheer token aspect of the entire approach, the special representative went about his job with dignity and dispatch while harboring all the feelings of frustration and disgust. He had a larger purpose which was to prove that he could do the job and achieve positive results as good as or better than his white counterpart and under far more difficult circumstances than they ever faced. Then, too, he was the company in the eyes of the Black consumer and he enjoyed this distinction. And, despite the tokenism, such jobs represented a breakthrough, a start and a degree of awareness that the market was there.
In 1956, I was working for Esso Standard Oil as a national public relations representative and I knew and had marketplace association with a number of these pioneers. One was James A. “Billboard” Jackson, who was with Esso Standard, (now known as Exxon). Esso was considered the oil industry’s leader in the early development of the Negro market. “Billboard” Jackson, a legend in the field, started there in 1934 as one of the first “special marketers” assigned to make friends and customers for Esso in the Negro community. “Billboard” had worked previously as a circus barker and actually got his nickname “Billboard” because he had worked for Billboard Variety Magazine before joining Esso.
Joe Makel, another early pioneer, entered the selling field in 1933 as a salesman for the General Electric Company. Joe, always affable and always nattily dressed, joined Calvert Distillers Company as a national representative in 1941 and later, beginning in 1958, served the same role for Christian Brothers, a division of Fromm & Sichel Company. William “Bill” Graham started out with Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer in 1936. A salesman of great ability, Bill was fondly remembered by his associates as the first sales rep to sell a carload of beer to a national organization, I.B.P.O. of ELKS. Pepsi Cola had two well known pioneers that covered segments of the country in the late ’30s: Hennan Smith, who started in the New York area, and Edward Boyd who worked out of Atlanta. William G. Porter, who rose to be assistant to the vice president of marketing for Anheuser Busch and Charles “Chuck” Williams who in the early ’60s became a vice president of marketing for The House of Seagrams were two other great sales leaders that led the way for many others to follow.
The practice of engaging Black sales and marketing representatives did not become more prevalent until after World War II. Strong gains in employment, expanded urban areas and improved educational levels had a positive impact on purchasing behavior in Black communities across the nation. This newly developed economic importance prompted a number of firms to establish specialized programs in an effort to obtain a portion of this patronage. Organizations such as the National Urban League and the NAACP encouraged companies to establish such programs and to hire capable Blacks to do these jobs.
Robert Crane Chenault joined the sales force at Pabst Beer in the ’40s. Wendell P. Alston was promoted up to the Public Relations Department at Esso in 1948 to join “Billboard” Jackson in the Negro Relations section. Norman Powell started with Seagram Distillers in 1948. Herbert Douglas, Jr., a great Olympian in 1948 went with Pabst Beer in 1950 and 13 years later became a vice president with Scheifflin Distillers. Harvey Russell joined Pepsi Cola in 1950 as a field rep and in the ’60s became a company vice president. Moss Kendrick, a Morehouse graduate and a leader in the development of organized efforts in Negro marketing, started his own sales and marketing company in the late ’40s and was Coca Cola’s main contact in the Negro market for many years.
There were a number of us who were hired by our companies in the 1950s who were among the pioneer group of national company representatives. To name a few, Herbert Wright of Philip Morris, Franlde Dee with Schenley, Delores Pierce and Louise Prothro with Pet Milk, Samuel Whiteman with R. Mars Furniture Company, Allan McKellar with Falstaff Beer, Clarence Holte with BBD&O Advertising, Joe Black with Greyhound, James O. Plinton with Eastern Airlines and Dan Kean with Gulf Oil. Louise Prothro was one of the very first Black women to have a national level position with a major company. Whiteman now has his own furniture supply company and still sells R. Mars furniture. These outstanding marketers were solid performers who fought through tremendous odds to earn the respect and plaudits of their peers and their companies’ management.
While the formidable task of proving oneself capable of doing a job as well as anyone else was a demanding one, traveling as a Black representative in sales promotion, public relations and marketing in the ’40s and ’50s and, in fact, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was a real challenge. Airplanes and railroads were not a problem. It was when we got to our destination that the impact of the restrictive social patterns brought about by prejudice and discrimination became real. Blacks could not stay in the white owned major hotels or eat in the white downtown locations, and Black owned motels and hotels were few and far between. There were cities where Black establishments were available, such as Slaughter’s Hotel in Richmond, Virginia; Brown’s Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee; A. G. Gaston’s Motel in Birmingham, Alabama and Ellis Marsalis’ Motel in Jefferson Parish on the outskirts of New Orleans. Wherever we went we tried to find the best possible public stopping place where Blacks could find accommodations. In some places we had to stay at the local Black YMCA or with friends. There were isolated occasions where we had to stay in roach infested, dimly lit places where one could hear down the hall the hourly “time’s up” call. Since we were never sure where we were going to end up, we found it extremely wise to carry with us things like light bulbs, toilet paper, soap, and extension cords.
A good deal of early marketing was done essentially through Black organizational life. The morticians, the doctors, the lawyers, the insurance companies, the news media, fraternal groups, beauticians, teacher associations and others all had state or national meetings. We would take exhibit booths at their conventions, display company information and give out souvenirs. Some companies sponsored breakfasts or lunches and gave out awards to organizational leaders. Coke and Pepsi and the tobacco companies did product sampling at the booths and in hospitality suites. At these conventions, we at Esso also distributed a booklet that was in great demand among Negroes at the time. It was called the Green Book and listed the establishments mainly in the South where Blacks could find lodgings and food without going to the back door. It also listed the Esso stations where one could use the restroom facilities. Anyone traveling the southern routes in those days knew of the value of having a copy of the Green Book with them. That booklet prevented some very serious racial incidents.
The conventions of Black organizations were places where the national marketers would meet and informally discuss common problems and needs. It was in 1952 that a group of these national representatives formed a special committee for the sole purpose of devising a means by which a sales and marketing organization could be developed. The next year the National Association of Market Developers, Inc. (NAMD) was created. The first organizational meeting was held in 1954 at Tennessee State A&I University in Nashville. The main purpose was to improve the specialized marketing and public relations programs which important U.S. firms were directing to the Negro consumer market. The NAMD sought to promote an exchange of information and experiences among the various individuals and firms who had major professional interest in this field. It also promoted local, state, regional and national activities to the professional benefit of the members. The organization, still in existence today, sought to encourage members not only to do their best to promote good images of their companies but to avail themselves of the opportunity to tell top management what the Negro wanted and expected in terms of greater participation in all phases of business life. The NAMD was of critical importance to all of us. At that time it was the only organized means by which updated marketing theories and techniques were brought to the attention of those working in the Negro market.
The expansion in the recruitment and hiring of Blacks for white collar positions other than the Negro market specialist jobs that began around 1960 was not due to an enlightened corporate view of what was right to do, it stemmed from the emergence of some important economic considerations.
Dr. Martin Luther King was drawing increasing attention to the important fight for human rights. The sit-in movements that began in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1959 pointed strongly to the vulnerability of white establishments to organized protest. Of great importance were the selective patronage campaigns organized by various local ministerial associations. These ministerial groups pressured companies by using their pulpits to announce economic boycotts they called “selective patronage campaigns.” The idea was to purchase the products and services of only those companies that recruited, employed and upgraded Blacks. The boycotts were aimed essentially at those companies that had products with a high consumption level in Black communities such as gasoline and soft drinks. This put considerable pressure on companies that found their sales plummeting in Black areas in cities where the campaigns took place.
Another important factor was the Plans for Progress Program initiated by the Johnson Administration in 1961. It was a plan to commit companies with government contracts to aggressively promote and implement equal employment opportunity without regard to race, religion, color or creed. It was a plan that sought to end discrimination in hiring and provide job opportunities for all based upon merit. Because of the fear of losing lucrative government contracts, companies by the droves signed up with the Plans for Progress Program.
By 1963, the Negro Market in the United States was approximately 21 million strong and had a purchasing power estimated by the U. S. Department of Commerce of $21.1 billion. No longer could large-scale businesses treat the Negro market with indifference, although there was no evidence that the element of race was being eliminated as an economic and social factor. Special market programs began to be replaced by more thoughtful market programming. More and more companies began to bring their full marketing strategies to bear upon gaining acceptance and marketplace advantage with this growing market. More companies, sensitive to Black consumer behavior, began to place advertisements in Black media. Others, more budget conscious, turned to integrated advertising that could be effectively directed toward the whole market, black and white.
What we see today, particularly in sales promotion, public relations and marketing, with African Americans holding and mastering all kinds of executive level positions would eventually have happened at some time. But the work of those in the early years set a standard and laid the important groundwork. In so many ways, Blacks in corporate America today are standing on the backs of Black men and women who were part of some very important economic history.
James S. Avery 201 Hidden Hollow Court Edison, NJ 08820-1054
James Avery retired from Exxon Company U.S.A. in 1986 after 30 years of service. He began in 1956 as a public relations representative and traveled nationally developing and implementing programs that impacted particularly upon minority group organizations throughout the United States. In 1968 he was appointed Public Relations Manager and in 1971, he was promoted to Public Affairs Manager.
From 1983 until his retirement in 1986, Avery served as Senior Public Affairs Consultant for Exxon Company, U.S.A.
Over a four-year period, he served as vice-chairman and chairman of the Vice President’s Task Force on Youth Motivation during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. This program was designed to encourage and motivate the nation’s minority youth to prepare for expanding opportunities in business and industry. He was a national co-chairman of four annual campaigns of the United Negro College Fund during the Sixties. Avery served three terms (1964-65-66) as president and one (1967) as board chairman of the National Association of Market Developers, Inc. He served on the Board of Trustees and National Council of the Museum of African Art Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Art and History. He served three years (1970-1973) as Grand Basiteus of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. During that period he was listed by EBONY Magazine as one of the 100 most influential Blacks in America. Avery is listed in Who’s Who in America; and Who’s Who Among Black Americans.
He was chairman of the Executive Committee of the New York State Petroleum Council, vice chairman for four years of the American Petroleum Institute’s, Committee on Exploration Affairs, Offshore Sub-Committee, and a past vice chairman of the Energy Policy Committee of Associated Industries of New York State.
He held the office of chairman of the Union County, NJ Coordinating Agency for Higher Education from its inception in 1968 until 1980.
He is a member of the Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) Board of Trustees, and the New Jersey State Educational Opportunity Fund Board of Trustees. He is currently chairman of that board. He was commissioned in 1993 by the governor to membership on the New Jersey Student Assistance Board.
Avery attended Cranford High School, Cranford, New Jersey. He got his B.A. and M.A. Degrees from Columbia University, New York, N.Y. and received his executive management training at the University of Southern California.
He lives in Edison, NJ with his wife Joan.