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PBR community report: African-American Pioneers in the Corporate Sector, by James Avery from Black Economic

African-American Pioneers in the Corporate Sector

February 12, 2011

by James Avery


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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. . .

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.

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