Profiles by Lisa L. Heinrich, PhD, Saint Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota


Patricia Tobin (1943–2008)

Patricia Tobin (1943–2008)

Patricia Tobin

“For 25 years in Los Angeles she was viewed by many as a queen of public relations, master of the fine art of networking, and guru of event planning, particularly among the city’s African Americans,” said the Los Angeles Time in Pat Tobin’s obituary. Her own firm acclaimed, “... Tobin’s unique brand of public relations focused on building long-lasting relationships in the community, corporate America and Hollywood.”

Tobin began her career as a broadcaster. Born February 28, 1943, in White Plains, New York, she later moved with her family to Philadelphia, where she attended Overbrook High School and earned an associate’s degree from the Charles Morris Price School of Journalism. She moved in 1977 to Los Angeles, where she worked at KCBS-TV Channel 2 (formerly KNXT).

Sometime in the early 1980s Tobin organized an event for a sportscaster, which was the beginning of weekly “media nights” or “journalist jams” she would host, where people who came would socialize and network.

Pat Tobin’s Los Angeles base allowed her access to numerous big names, whom she represented through her PR agency. She built the agency into a nationally known business, and meanwhile managed to stay active and visible in professional organizations and to serve and benefit her community.

Because there were few opportunities for people of color in her field, Tobin decided to start her own company. She left her broadcasting job and began Tobin and Associates in 1983. Not many major corporate advertisers appreciated the power of the African American consumer at the time, according to the Minority Business Hall of Fame and Museum, yet Tobin understood the challenge was to persuade clients of the value of a specialty firm to reach ethnic consumers. “Her entrepreneurial spirit propelled her from a one-woman shop run from a kitchen table into a multifaceted enterprise,” says the Hall of Fame article, and calls her “a media and community relations icon” who made Tobin and Associates one of the most prominent firms in the United States owned by an African American female.

In 1987 her firm began a long relationship with Toyota Motor Corporation. The prime minister of Japan had made disparaging comments about African Americans that led to a backlash among the black community. Tobin approached Japanese businesses to deal with the situation, Toyota hired her firm to help improve its brand and community relations and to generate publicity to reach ethnic groups. One Toyota official described the relationship thus: “She opened doors for us.”

Over the years Tobin’s client list included Spike Lee, Wells Fargo, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Louis Gossett Jr., Nestle USA, Reebok International, Ltd., 100 Black Men of Los Angeles, Walt Disney Feature Animation, Sony Music Entertainment Inc., the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, and Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA).

Tobin’s contributions outside her job were just as impressive as her professional achievements. Early in her career she joined the Black Journalists Association of Southern California. As a longtime member she raised significant scholarhip money and procured speakers for conferences. She became a strong advocate for public relations professionals in the National Association of Black Journalists, was “a fixture” at NABJ conferences, and for years co-chaired the NABJ Public Relations Task Force. In 1987 she was a founder of the National Black Public Relations Society, and she served as its president for a time.

Tobin also worked for minorities, women and youth, raising funds for various causes and initiatives. State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas said about Tobin, “Pat had an unwavering concern for justice and when wrongs were being perpetrated, she summoned people she knew would join her in a campaign or crusade to right those wrongs.”

Ridley-Thomas also described her thus: “[She] blazed a trail in entertainment marketing and publicity… [She had a] selflessness that led her to continually open doors in her profession so that others could follow her path to professional careers in the field she dearly loved…. You could count on her beaming Pat Tobin smile, firm handshake and warm hug.”

Tobin died of colon cancer in 2008.

Tobin’s daughter Lauren Tobin followed in her mother’s footsteps. She led the boutique entertainment public relations firm Panther PR, and after her mother’s death added the Tobin firm to her responsibilities.

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Patricia Tobin | Joseph Varney Baker | Maggie Lena Walker


Joseph Varney Baker (1908–1993)

Joseph Varney Baker (1908–1993)

Joseph Varney Baker

Born in Abbeville, South Carolina, Joseph Varney Baker went to teachers training school there, then moved to Philadelphia as a teenager and graduated from Central High School. He studied journalism at Temple University and then was hired at the Philadelphia Tribune, a newspaper for African Americans that is still published today. He eventually became city editor there.

Baker was a slight man, and because one of his legs was shorter than the other, he used a crutch. His obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer relates, “When he was a boy, he ran on that crutch and played baseball on it and he never used it as an excuse.” He was the youngest of nine children.

For a time during the Great Depression Baker worked in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as director of the Division of Negro Research and Planning for the state Department of Labor and Industry, then as director of Negro Work for the Republican State Committee.

Several firsts in public relations bear the name of Joseph Varney Baker. He was once described as “ the dean of Negro public relations men.”

He left his job as city editor for the Philadelphia Tribune to provide public relations counsel for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

In 1934 Baker formed his own public relations firm, Joseph V. Baker Associates. This was just one of Baker’s “firsts.”

  • Baker was the first black journalist to write for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
  • His firm was the first black-owned public relations firm in the country.
  • He was the first African American in public relations to become known for acquiring significant accounts from large corporations in the U.S.
  • When he became the first African American president of the Philadelphia Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) chapter in 1958, he was elected unanimously.
  • He was the first African American to gain accreditation from PRSA.

Baker headed his firm, located in New York City, for 40 years. The firm did public relations, marketing and advertising aimed at African American audiences. Varney and his associates helped develop and place ads, identified prominent black organizations and their leaders, helped and encouraged corporations to hire blacks, and developed marketing surveys to study black consumers’ habits and preferences. The firm had numerous “blue chip” clients, including Pennsylvania Railroad, American Tobacco Company, Carrier Corporation, Hamilton Watch Company, the Gillette Corporation, Scott Paper Company, RCA, Procter & Gamble, Chrysler, DuPont, U.S. Steel, Western Union, NBC, the Association of American Railroads, and major black entertainers.

According to Marilyn Kern-Foxworth in Encyclopedia of Public Relations, “A much-revered entrepreneur within both the black community and corporate America, Baker was seen as a formidable force in bridging the two constituencies.” With Baker’s help, many black professionals were hired by advertising, marketing and public relations industries, where he saw great opportunity.

Former employee Kendall Wilson said, “More than anyone else, he opened the eyes of the corporate community to the black consumer market.” Friend Mark Hymansaid, “He was a salesman, a top salesman. That’s how he got in doors that had never been opened before” (both quotations are from the Inquirer obituary).

In addition to his work for the Tribune, Baker wrote for other black Philadelphia newspapers, and wrote extensively about the black community from the mid-1940s through the early 1950s.  In the late 1940s he wrote columns about topics relevant for African Americans and articles on political issues, race relations, and unions for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His obituary in the Inquirer quotes Kendall Wilson: “He was a tremendous writer.”

Baker was involved in his community as a member of PRSA, the Boy Scouts, the Prince Hall Masons, and other groups. He was long active in Republican politics, and in 1960 served as an assistant on Richard Nixon’s campaign staff when Nixon, then Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, ran for president against John F. Kennedy.

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Maggie Lena Walker (1864 or 1867-1934) Photo by JonathanMickles.co

Maggie Lena Walker (1864 or 1867-1934)
Photo by JonathanMickles.co

Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Walker is best known for being the first African American woman—and probably the first woman—in the United States to charter and become president of a local bank. She was a powerful, wealthy and massively energetic woman who “touched the life of her community at virtually every level,” according to James Manheim in www.encyclopedia.com (1998).

Walker was born and lived her life in Richmond, Virginia. Her birth father was Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish abolitionist journalist. Her mother was Elizabeth Draper, a cook in the household of Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist who spied for the Union during the Civil War. Some time after Maggie’s birth, Draper married William Mitchell, the butler for the household. Eventually Mitchell got a job as head waiter for the St. Charles Hotel and the family moved into town.

In 1876, Mitchell was found dead in the James River. Though the police ruled his death a suicide, his wife Elizabeth claimed he had been murdered, possibly as a robbery victim. The family, which now included a younger brother of Maggie’s, was left in poverty, and Elizabeth ran a laundry to support herself and her two children. The young girl Maggie helped out by delivering her mother’s laundry. She is often quoted as saying, “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth but with a laundry basket practically on my head.”

Walker was said to have a genius for public relations, and used her skills and drive to help her community, rally support for her causes, and establish long-lasting, successful institutions.

Maggie Mitchell did still attend school, and completed her studies. She became involved in a protest by her graduation class of 10 at the Normal (Teachers) School, when the students demanded to participate in graduation ceremonies at the school auditorium along with the white students. They eventually got what they wanted, though they were seated separately, and the incident was covered nationally by the black press.

After graduation Mitchell taught for three years (1883–1886) at Lancaster School, which she had earlier attended. She left that job, however, when she married Armstead Walker, Jr., a building contractor and mail carrier. In those days, schoolteachers could not be married. The couple had three sons, one who died as an infant, and an adopted daughter.

Early on, at age 14, Maggie Mitchell joined a group named the Grand United Order of St. Luke, which later became the Independent Order of St. Luke. This group, headquartered in Richmond, was a fraternal and cooperative insurance society for African Americans. The Order assured proper health care and burial arrangements for its members, helped the sick and elderly, and supported humanitarian causes. Such groups were not uncommon in that era; they were “of crucial importance in southern urban black communities after the Civil War” (Manheim).

Maggie Walker established a youth branch of the St. Luke’s organization in 1895 and worked her way up in the ranks until she was named Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899. She remained in that role and was a “linchpin” of the organization until her death.

When Walker took the reins of St. Luke’s in 1899, the organization was floundering financially. She promised to change things, and did.

In 1902 Walker started a newsletter, the St. Luke Herald, to keep members and others informed about the Society and about general issues that affected the community.

In 1903 Walker opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and became its president. Walker taught herself banking by observing at another bank and taking accounting and business classes. The St. Luke bank, among other services, facilitated loans to members of the community, who often had difficulty securing financing. For example, by 1920 the bank had helped buy around 600 homes. The bank averted failure during the Great Depression by merging with two other banks, becoming the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, with Walker as chair of the board of trustees.

The bank remained a successful undertaking until it closed in 2009, when it was the oldest continuously African American-operated bank in the country.

In 1905 Walker and other society members opened the St. Luke Emporium, a department store for the African American community that employed many members of that community. Sadly, it was not a success and closed a few years later.

By 1924, the Independent Order of St. Luke had 50,000 members, 1500 local chapters, about 50 staff and assets around $400,000. Walker had done what she’d promised. “Through sound fiscal policies, a genius for public relations and enormous energy, she took a dying organization, gave it life and helped it thrive” (www.nps.gov/mawa/historyculture/index.htm).

Maggie Lena Walker was active in many other organizations and causes. In her efforts to strengthen St. Luke, she lectured in numerous locations and became a well-known speaker. She campaigned for equality of the sexes and the economic enfranchisement of women. In 1912, she co-founded the Richmond Council of Colored Women and served as its president, raising money for worthy causes. She also co-founded the Richmond National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as its vice president. She was on the national NAACP board and the national Urban League board. She also served on the board of trustees for women’s groups, including the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and Virginia Industrial School for Girls.

In 1925 Virginia Union University awarded her an honorary masters degree.

Walker endured personal tragedy in her later years when her son, mistaking his father for an intruder at the family house, shot and killed him. He was acquitted of murder charges, but never fully got over the incident and died eight years later in 1923.

In 1907 Walker fell on some steps and hurt her knees, sustaining injuries which troubled her for the rest of her life. She was also diabetic, and was in a wheelchair from 1928 until she died. Her nickname at the time was “the Lame Lioness.”

When she died in 1934, Walker was one of the nation’s wealthiest African American women, and still the leader of St. Luke and the chairman of the bank.

Walker’s house, where she lived from 1904 until her death, and which expanded from nine to 28 rooms over the years to accommodate her extended family, is now a national historic site.

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Barbara C. Harris (1930–2016?)

Barbara C. Harris (1930–2016?)

Barbara Harris

Barbara Harris must have encountered many barriers in her life, but judging by her accomplishments, she never let an impediment stop her progress. Even while pursuing a career in public relations, she maintained her active association with her church, and eventually made a momentous career change to join the Episcopal clergy. And, her social activism continued throughout her life.                         

Harris was born June 12, 1930, in Philadelphia. During her youth, she attended St. Barnabas Episcopal Church and played the piano there. She graduated in 1948 from the Philadelphia High School for Girls. After that she enrolled in college but never graduated. She did, however, attend Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism, where she apparently earned a certificate in 1950.* Sometime before, during or just after her stint at the Charles Morris School, she began working in public relations. 

Harris joined the public relations firm Joseph V. Baker Associates. Baker, a man of many firsts, created the first black-owned public relations firm in the United States in 1934 and ran the firm for 40 years. By all accounts, he was an important mentor to Harris, who became the first woman of color to handle public relations for major corporate accounts. Among other responsibilities, she did media relations work for Roxie Roker of “The Jeffersons” television show, RCA, Harry Belafonte and Marian Anderson. 

Barbara Harris was best known for becoming the first female Anglican bishop, but before she became a priest she enjoyed a long and successful career in public relations.

During her tenure at Baker’s firm, Harris set up and developed a Division of Women’s Information and edited a monthly publication for homemakers. Eventually she rose in rank at the firm, and became its president in 1958. Following her mentor Baker, in 1973 she was elected president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. 

In September 1968, Harris left Baker’s firm to work for Sun Oil Company, where she held high-level positions until 1977. One of her job titles was director of community relations. 

Harris’ interests were not confined to her career by any stretch of the imagination. She married briefly from 1960 to 1963. Sometime in the 1960s she joined the Church of the Advocate in north Philadelphia, a church known for its activism. She was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, registering black voters in Mississippi and marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965. According to Biography.yourdictionary.com, “As a young African-American woman, she felt it her duty to be part of the civil rights struggle.”

Harris also supported women’s rights and campaigned for involving women in the Anglican clergy, participating—by some accounts, leading the procession or serving as an acolyte—in the controversial ordination of 11 women priests in 1974. 

In 1977 she began theological studies at the Metropolitan Collegiate Center at Villanova University, which offered training for potential Anglican clergy, then she continued her studies at the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield, England, and graduated from the Pennsylvania Foundation for Pastoral Counseling. She was ordained a deacon in 1979 and a priest in 1980. For the next four years she served at St. Augustine of Hippo Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania, as well as being chaplain at Philadelphia County Prison. 

Even in this new role, though, Harris’ public relations background and experience came in handy. From 1984-1988 she was executive director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company and was editor, publisher and columnist for The Witness, a socially progressive Episcopal journal founded in 1918. An article about Harris in “Woman in the News” describes The Witness as both “venerable” and “a medium for radical views.” The same article reports in the mid-1980s Harris started her column “A Luta Continua,” which means “the struggle continues” in Portuguese and was a slogan of the anti-Portuguese Angolan guerilla movement. The column gained national and international recognition for Harris. 

She was elected September 24, 1988, as the first female bishop in the Worldwide Anglican Communion, “an international family of 28 autonomous churches tied to the Church of England” (“Woman in the News”). On February 11, 1989, she was consecrated suffragan or assistant bishop for the diocese of Massachusetts. That ordination was highly publicized and very controversial; according to one source, Harris received death threats and was asked but refused to wear a bulletproof vest at the ceremony. She was not only the first female in the Anglican Communion, but “the first woman to become a bishop in any of the churches (Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican) that believe their bishops’ authority passed through generations beginning with Jesus’ apostles.” Eight thousand people attended the ordination ceremony, and Harris was surrounded by 55 bishops during the rite. 

In 1989 and 1990, Harris received the American Black Achievement Award in the religion category. 

Harris took her mandatory retirement in 2002, and from summer 2003 through 2007 served as assistant bishop in the diocese of Washington, D.C. Though she was hospitalized in June 2010 after a stroke, she recovered enough to preach again in September of that year. 

The Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, is named in her honor. 

*Sources conflict or are vague on the details of Harris’ career between her high school graduation and her ascent to the presidency of Baker Associates in 1958. 

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Moss Hyles Kendrix (1917-1989) Photo by Collections at the Alexandria Black History Resource Center

Moss Hyles Kendrix (1917-1989)
Photo by Collections at the Alexandria Black History Resource Center

Moss Hyles Kendrix

Born March 8, 1917, Moss Kendrix spent his early years in Atlanta, Georgia. He counted entertainer Lena Horne among his childhood friends.

By all evidence, Kendrix was a great success while studying at Atlanta’s Morehouse College. He edited the school’s newspaper, the Maroon Tiger. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the first African American fraternity, and was a co-founder of the Phi Delta Delta journalism society, the first such society for African American journalism students. Just after his graduation in 1939, Kendrix created National Negro Newspaper Week.

That same year he married Dorothy Marie Johnson. The couple had two sons.

Kendrix was accepted to study law at Howard University but decided to go to work instead. Soon, though, the United States went to war, and Kendrix was drafted. Fortunately, he was assigned to the War Finance Office, where he promoted war bonds, traveling around the country with various African American celebrities (such as Duke Ellington) and presenting on CBS Radio.

Not only did Moss Kendrix revolutionize how advertising in the U.S. portrayed African Americans, he also pushed his clients to employ black practitioners and established a professional group to support and encourage African American communication professionals.

Just after the war, in 1944, Kendrix was hired to direct public relations efforts for the Republic of Liberia’s centennial celebration. The celebration was a success, and along with Kendrix’s previous experience in journalism, radio, promotion and marketing, made his next step quite logical: he set up his own public relations firm. The firm, named The Moss Kendrix Organization, was located in Washington, D.C. Over the years its clients included Coca-Cola, Carnation, the National Dental Association, the National Educational Association, and Ford Motor Company.

Kendrix is best known for his work with the Coca-Cola company, which has its headquarters in his home town of Atlanta. According to historian Brenna Greer, Kendrix “hounded” the company’s executives for three years to hire him as a bridge to black consumers. The Coca-Cola beverage at that time was not popular among African Americans, who preferred Nehi grape and orange drinks. Nehi targeted them as consumers, while Coca-Cola did not. Kendrix went to great lengths to persuade Coca-Cola, and later other corporate executives, of the vast buying power of African American consumers.

Coca-Cola hired Kendrix, putting him on retainer, and he worked with the company about 20 years, until the mid-1970s. This employment made him the first African American to acquire a major national account. In his work with the Coca-Cola company, he developed numerous advertising and marketing campaigns. For his early efforts, he used his connections from his previous work to get entertainers, musicians and sports figures to appear in ads for Coke. Then, he designed a series of ads showing African Americans as everyday people in ordinary situations, just as the company’s ads aimed at a white audience showed white people involved in such daily activities.

This was no small feat. As Greer notes, Kendrix “visually redefined African Americans as ‘true Americans’ by depicting them as sought-after, enthusiastic consumers” of an iconic American product.

Furthermore, “[Existing] advertising practices denied African-Americans a cultural identity as consumers, which was of no small consequence in the early Cold War context. At the time, U.S. media institutions, politicians and business leaders all claimed mass consumption was essential to the nation’s recovery, strength and security, which, as historian Lizabeth Cohen argues, helped establish consumerism as central to notions of what it meant to be American after World War II.”

In addition to his work in public relations, Kendrix hosted a radio program, “Profiles of Our Times,” for many years on WWDC.

In 1953 Kendrix and others founded the National Association of Market Developers (NAMD) at Tennessee State University. This organization, which still exists, was intended to provide support for people of color in public relations and other communications fields, and to encourage young people of color to enter the field. In 1978 at its silver anniversary meeting, NAMD named Kendrix its President Emeritus. The NAMD also gives an annual “Moss Kendrix Marketer of the Year” award.

At some point, Kendrix also was a leader of a group called the National Public Relations Roundtable. He gets credit for his work in community relations as well.

In addition to all Kendrix did for African Americans, his pioneering efforts likely made many U.S. corporations consider including other multiethnic markets in their marketing efforts.

According to Marilyn Kern-Foxworth in her biography of Kendrix in the Encyclopedia of Public Relations, Kendrix was often referred to as “the crown prince of public relations.”

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Frederick Douglass (ca. 1818–1895)

Frederick Douglass (ca. 1818–1895)

Frederick Douglass

Called “the most important black leader of the 19th century,” Frederick Douglass was born a slave and became an internationally famous writer and speaker.

His birth name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but he later took the name Douglass from a poem by Sir Walter Scott in order to avoid recapture as an escaped slave. Born around 1818 in Maryland, he saw his mother only rarely, and when he was about eight years old was sent to Baltimore to work for Hugh and Sophia Auld as a houseboy. Though it was forbidden by law, Sophia taught the alphabet to the young boy until her husband made her stop; after that, Frederick sought out ways to increase his reading skills, persuading white children and others in the neighborhood to help.

From 1829 to 1830 he worked in a shipyard as a general assistant and practiced reading and writing in secret. He first learned of the abolitionist movement from a newspaper article in 1831.

Douglass was sent to work as field hand when he was around 15 years of age. He was “supervised” by a notorious slave-breaker, Edward Covey. Covey beat his slaves often and fed them little—Douglass said he was “broken in body, soul, and spirit”—until one day Douglass stood up to him and they fought physically. After that, Covey no longer whipped Douglass, and Douglass recovered his sense of self.

When he was hired out to William Freeland in 1835, he taught other slaves to read the Bible at weekly church meetings, until other slave-owners in the area “dispersed the congregation permanently with clubs and stones” (biography.com).

Frederick Douglass used rhetoric to its fullest extent to fight for the rights of African Americans. 

Later, after he was sent back to the Aulds in Baltimore, he escaped on his second try with the aid of a free black woman, Anna Murray, whom he married soon after the escape. Murray provided him with some cash and procured a sailor’s uniform for him, and later joined him with enough household goods for them to set up a home. Douglass was 20 years old. At first the couple went by the name Johnson, then they chose Douglass and lived under that name permanently. They settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where there was a thriving community of free blacks, and started a family. Eventually they had five children.

In New Bedford, Douglass attended abolitionist meetings and, because of his eloquence and personal tales of life as a slave, was recruited as a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

Douglass wrote three autobiographies, the first two despite concern over being discovered as an escaped slave:

  • Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845)
  • My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)
  • The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)

According to David W. Blight, who used the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture as his source, Douglass’ works are “universally regarded as the finest examples of the slave narrative tradition and as classics of American autobiography.”

Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison became a mentor to Douglass in his early years of freedom. Douglass subscribed to Garrison’s journal “The Liberator”; in 1845 he heard Garrison speak. He later said: “… no face and form every impressed me with such sentiments … as did those of William Lloyd Garrison.” The respect was mutual at first, though the two men later had a “bitter dispute” over whether the Constitution was pro-slavery as Garrison maintained, and other issues.

When he wrote his first autobiography, in part because Garrison urged him to do so, Douglass was fearful of losing his freedom after it was published and he became known to the general public. So he went on a tour of England, Ireland and Scotland.

Douglass returned three years after the autobiography was published, in 1848, as a free man. His British supporters had raised the money to buy his freedom, money that also likely allowed him to start up his newspaper, “The North Star,” a four-page weekly. He and his family moved to Rochester, New York.

That same year he was the only black male to participate in the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. His speech there helped pass the convention’s resolution for women’s suffrage.

Douglass lived for much of his career in Rochester, where he edited a newspaper for 16 years. The newspaper changed names but not purpose three times: “The North Star” was published from 1847–51, then became “Frederick Douglass’ Paper” from 1851–58, and then was “Douglass’ Monthly” from 1859–63.

His 1852 speech “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” was a landmark oration against slavery.

Douglass worked for abolition of slavery up until the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. During the Civil War he encouraged blacks to serve in the Union army as a means of eliminating slavery; well-known by then, he advised both President Abraham Lincoln and President Andrew Johnson on issues affecting African Americans. After the war, he fought Jim Crow segregation. Douglass lectured on Reconstruction and women’s rights for the last 30 years of his life, 1865-1895.

In 1872 Douglass was nominated—without his knowledge or consent—as Victoria Woodhull’s vice-presidential running mate for the Equal Rights Party. He was the first African American ever nominated to that position.

Also in 1872 the Douglass family moved to Washington, D.C., after their house in New York burned down, which Douglass blamed on arson. There he edited another newspaper, “The New National Era.” He also served as president of Freedmen’s Bank, which went bankrupt shortly after he took over the position. Due to economic bad times, his newspaper failed as well.

President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him to serve the District of Columbia as U.S. Marshal from 1877–81, and President Garfield appointed him recorder of deeds for the District from 1881–86. For a short time he was charge d’affaires for Santo Domingo and minister resident and consul general to the Republic of Haiti, but he resigned because he disagreed with U.S. policy.

Douglass died of heart failure in 1895.

Two memorable quotes from Douglass are:

  • “What is possible for me is possible for you.”
  • “Three keys for success: Believe in yourself. Take advantage of every opportunity. Use the power of spoken and written language to effect positive change for yourself and society.”

Douglass lived in many roles but always supported and bravely fought for equality and human rights. He came to be known around the world as an orator, and, as Blight describes it, attacked slavery and racism in thousands of speeches and editorials. Blight says, “Brilliant, heroic and complex, Douglass became a symbol of his age and a unique American voice for humanism and social justice.”

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John Harold Johnson (1918–2005) Photo by Wikipedia  

John Harold Johnson (1918–2005)
Photo by Wikipedia

 

John Harold Johnson

Born in Arkansas City, Arkansas, Johnny Johnson lost his father Leroy in a mill accident when he was six years old. His mother Gertrude Jenkins Johnson, who worked as a cook in a Mississippi River levee camp, then married another mill worker, James Williams, who helped her raise her son. The school Johnson attended in Arkansas was segregated and crowded, and there was no high school in the area for blacks. Johnson repeated the eighth grade rather than drop out of school.

Johnson’s mother took him to Chicago in 1933 to visit the World’s Fair, and she decided to stay to take advantage of the opportunities she believed were available for African Americans in the North. Johnson’s stepfather later joined them there. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression jobs were scarce; though all three members of the family searched exhaustively for work, they lived on welfare for two years until Williams was hired by a New Deal public works program and Johnny Johnson got a job with another New Deal enterprise, the National Youth Administration.

Johnson attended DuSable High School, an all-black high school in Chicago. Though his classmates teased him for his country ways and ragged clothes, he did not let the taunts deter him from excelling academically and in student activities. He was on the debate team, he was class president for his junior and senior years, he was business manager of the yearbook, he was an honor student, and he was managing editor of the school newspaper. At the end of his high school career, a teacher suggested he change his name to something more dignified, and he became John Harold Johnson.

Because he was such a model student, Johnson was invited to speak at an Urban League dinner upon his 1936 graduation. Also attending the dinner was Harry Pace, president of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, which catered to blacks and was the largest black-owned business in the U.S. Pace was so impressed with Johnson that he offered him a job at Supreme Liberty.

John Johnson’s is the classic American success story. A grandson of slaves who lived his youth in poverty, he created a publishing empire based on magazines for African American consumers, most prominently Ebony and Jet. In the process he became one of the wealthiest men in the country. 

Johnson had some scholarship money for college, and matriculated while working part time for Pace’s company. He did not finish college, but within two years had worked his way up to being Pace’s personal assistant. Part of that job was to read current publications and select items of interest to African Americans, then relate those to Pace. Essentially, Johnson was creating a weekly news digest.

It occurred to Johnson that others might be interested in such information. He decided to start his own magazine, but could not get any financial backing. So, he borrowed $500 against his mother’s furniture, then used that to mail Supreme Life’s policyholders asking for $2 for a discount advance subscription to a magazine that hadn’t been published yet. Of the 20,000 policyholders, 3,000 responded positively, giving Johnson enough capital to produce the publication. Modeled on Reader’s Digest, Negro Digest first came out in 1942.

To spur sales of the magazine, Johnson got his friends to ask for it at newsstands. When the newsstands stocked it, Johnson got his friends to buy a copy, then reimbursed them and re-sold the copy. Circulation went to 50,000 in six months. Later, circulation doubled when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt contributed to a recurring column, “If I Were A Negro.” Magazine distributor Joseph Levy was impressed with Johnson’s efforts and worked with him to duplicate the Digest’s success in other large cities.

Johnson employed unorthodox sales and distribution techniques. “Reference for Business” (http://biography.jrank.org) says, “Johnson established an informal, unique, and—in the South—underground system of magazine distribution, whereby he created dealers and salesmen where none existed previously. In the same way Johnson established a generation of photographers, advertisers, marketers, and circulation specialists for the Negro Digest, where none existed previously. His formal and informal staff utilized guerilla tactics, particularly in the South, selling issues on buses, streetcars, and in the cotton fields.”

Following his success with Negro Digest, Johnson started Ebony magazine in 1945. It was modeled after the then-popular Life and Look magazines, but aimed at an African-American audience. It lasted long after its models, tallying circulation of 1.6 million in 2004.

Ebony was a success from the start, when the first 25,000 copies sold out immediately. The magazine broke new ground in advertising by showcasing products for the general public as well as those for black consumers. Johnson convinced major advertisers of the importance of the huge black consumer market. He and his staff, using extensive research, proved to advertisers that ads featuring black models got a greater response from readers than those featuring white models. Since Johnson pushed advertisers to use black models to appeal to that market, he was in part responsible for a generation of such models, including Diahann Carroll, Pam Grier, and Lola Falana.

“Johnson opened the eyes of mainstream American businesses to the multibillion dollar influence of the African American consumer market by breaking down advertising barriers,” according to “Reference for Business.” “He also played a key role in launching and promoting the careers of a large number of African American professionals in publishing and advertising.”

Ebony’s success worked against the Negro Digest, however, and Johnson discontinued the Digest in 1951.

In 1951, Johnson started Jet, a pocket-size weekly news digest featuring sports, business, entertainment, politics and social events. Later he started other magazines, EM (Ebony Man) and Ebony Jr., but none matched the success of Ebony and Jet.

More than lifestyle magazines, Johnson’s publications covered current issues, most notably the Civil Rights Movement. Johnson himself said he was proudest of his reporting and encouraging of Martin Luther King’s crusade. Photos in Ebony’s coverage of King’s assassination won a Pulitzer Prize for the photographer, Moneta Sleet. According to a profile in www.entrepreneur.com, “Few will argue that John H. Johnson played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s…. And many agree that the Civil Rights Movement itself would not have been as broadly understood by the masses in this country if it weren’t for Ebony and Jet. Writers for the magazines attended Civil Rights Movement meetings in churches across the South and gave readers an insider’s view of the struggle.”

Jet gained national fame in 1955 with its coverage of Emmett Till’s brutal murder. Till's mother decided on an open casket at his funeral, and Jet magazine printed photos of the mutilated body. The story made international news, directed attention to the abuse of blacks in the South, and was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.

According to the Johnson Publishing Company website, the company’s publications and websites currently reach nearly 72 percent of the nation’s African Americans and have a following of more than 20.4 million people.

Johnson’s publishing empire spawned an offshoot, a cosmetics company that is still prominent today, Fashion Fair Cosmetics. It began when models for the Ebony Fashion Fair were unable to find cosmetics to match their skin, and Johnson tried to persuade both Estee Lauder and Revlon to develop a cosmetics line for women of color. Both refused, and in 1973 Johnson created Fashion Fair, which specializes in cosmetics for darker skin tones.

Comments on the Johnson publishing empire demonstrate its scope. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History:

Ebony is the number-one African-American magazine in the world, with two and a half million monthly readers. It emphasizes positive aspects of black life in America and provides inspiration to all African Americans. Jet is the number-one newsweekly magazine with more than nine million subscribers.

According to “Reference for Business”:

One of Johnson’s major achievements was breaking through the resistance that white advertisers felt toward promoting their products in publications aimed at minority consumers. Their initial reluctance to do so inadvertently helped to build the Johnson Publishing Company empire. To compensate for slow advertising sales in Ebony’s early days, Johnson created a mail-order company called Beauty Star, which sold wigs, clothing, vitamins, and more, and he then used his magazines to publicize those products. Beauty Star eventually evolved into Fashion Fair Cosmetics Company, a subsidiary of Johnson Publishing. Today, Johnson Publishing Company also owns Mahogany Travel, WJPC-AM radio in Chicago, considerable real estate, and a 20 percent stake in Essence, a popular black women’s magazine. The company also produces the Ebony/Jet Showcase, a syndicated television program of entertainment news, and has published many books on notable black citizens.

Along with his publishing and other successes, Johnson was involved in politics. He served as a special ambassador for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, to Ivory Coast and to Kenya, and traveled with Vice President Richard Nixon to Africa, Russia and Poland in 1957 and 1959.

Still at the helm of Johnson Publishing, Johnson later returned to where he started, becoming chairman and CEO of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company in 1974.

He wrote an autobiography with Lerone Bennett Jr. in 1989, Succeeding Against the Odds.

Family and Personal Life

Johnson met Eunice Walker in 1940, when she was studying for her master’s degree at Loyola University Chicago, and they married the following year when she completed her studies. She was a pioneer like her husband. She was an executive in Johnson Publishing Company, but was most known as a fashion leader for American blacks. She was fashion editor for Ebony, and began the Ebony Fashion Fair, which toured 180 cities in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. The Fair raised more than $55 million for various charities, particularly in scholarships, and on average 300,000 patrons supported it each year. Eunice Johnson fought for black models to be represented in fashion shows in Europe and America, and helped African-American designers get noticed.

Eunice Johnson thought of the name for Ebony magazine.

The Johnsons adopted two children. Their son, John Harold Johnson Jr., suffered from sickle cell anemia and died at the age of 25 in 1981. Their daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, was her father John’s successor. He made her CEO and president of the company in 2002, while he remained as chairman and publisher. After his death she succeeded him in running the company.

The Ebony Fashion Fair ended after 2009, largely because Eunice died in 2010.

Honors and Awards

John H. Johnson received numerous awards and honors from various groups. Most noteworthy was in 1996, when on the 50th anniversary of Ebony magazine, he received the Presidential Medal of Honor, America’s highest civilian award, from President Bill Clinton. Another signal moment was his inclusion in 1982 on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. With a fortune estimated at $600 million, he was one of the richest men in the United States.

He also was the recipient of more than 30 honorary doctoral degrees, including ones from Harvard University and Howard University. In 2003 Howard University named its school of communications for him. His hometown of Arkansas City named the John H. Johnson Delta Cultural and Entrepreneurial Learning Center to honor him. His boyhood home has been restored and is a part of that Center, which in turn is part of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Johnson served on the board of directors for several corporations and organizations: Dillard’s Inc., Dial Corporation, Zenith Radio Corporation, Chrysler Corporation, Twentieth Century Fox, Greyhound, Bell and Howell, Continental Bank, First Commercial Bank, the Urban League, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Junior Achievement. He was a trustee for the United Negro College Fund and Tuskegee Institute.

In 2012 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp bearing Johnson’s image as part of its Black Heritage Series. That same year his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, instituted its John H. Johnson Journalism Award.

Johnson’s many other awards include:

  • One of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1951, by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, 1951
  • The NAACP’s Springarn Medal, 1966
  • Publisher of the Year, 1972, by the Magazine Publishers Association
  • Chicago Business Hall of Fame, 1983
  • Chicagoan of the Year, 1984
  • Jackie Robinson Award, 1985
  • “One of the toughest bosses in the U.S.,” Forbes magazine, 1985 (presumably intended as an honor)
  • National Press Foundation Award, 1986
  • #1 Black Business Award, by Black Enterprise magazine, 1986 and 1987
  • Black Journalists Lifetime Achievement Award, 1987
  • Entrepreneur of the Decade, by Black Enterprise magazine, 1987
  • Publishing Hall of Fame, 1987
  • Black Press Hall of Fame, 1987
  • Illinois Business Hall of Fame, 1989
  • Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, 1990
  • Distinguished Service Award, by Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration 1991
  • Dow Jones Entrepreneurial Excellence Award, by the Wall Street Journal, 1993
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, by American Advertising Federation, 1996
  • Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, 2001
  • Horatio Alger Award, 2001

Some Memorable Quotations

  • “[The key to success is} to convince people it is in their best interest to help you.”
  • “When I see a barrier, I cry and I curse, and then I get a ladder and I climb over it.”
  • “I learned how to work before I learned how to play.”
  • On how he would like to be remembered: “I want them to say he had an idea and that he believed in it and that he refused to accept failure in pursuit of it.”
  • Johnson said he was “in the business of inspiring people.
  • On the purpose of Ebony: “to show not only the Negroes but also white people that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life.”
  • In an interview with Black Enterprise, advice to young people: “… dream small things, because small things can be achieved, and once you achieve a small dream and make a small success, it gives you confidence to go on to the next step.”
  • “John H. Johnson was without question the most important force in African-American publishing in the twentieth century and has been credited with almost single-handedly opening the commercial magazine marketplace to people of color” (biography.jrank.org).

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Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Bayard Rustin

President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bayard Rustin posthumously in November 2013. The citation said: “Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all.”

Rustin is best known for organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, where more than 200,000 people gathered and where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now world-famous “I have a dream” speech.  

“The March … will be forever known as the day that ensured the success of the civil rights movement and launched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the highest pantheon of American champions,” Steve Hendrix wrote in a Washington Post article. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “It was an event that changed the nation.”

Walter Naegle, his partner for the last 10 years of his life, said Rustin “figured out every logistic from the speaking order to the sound system to the number of bathrooms” for the March. Bus captains had copies of Rustin’s 12-page pamphlet with instructions on where to park, where the bathrooms were, and many other details, and Rustin drilled hundreds of off-duty police officers and firefighters who had volunteered to be marshals, Hendrix said, and coached them in the techniques of non-violent crowd control. Rustin also read the March’s 10 demands to the crowd before Rev. King and NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins hand-delivered them to President John F. Kennedy.

Bayard Rustin likely would never have called himself a public relations practitioner, but his organizing for the March on Washington set the standard for event planning, which today is a very important part of public relations work.

Rustin became a mentor to King starting with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955–56. He persuaded King and other leaders to adopt non-violence, teaching them methods he had learned in India from disciples of Gandhi. He worked as an aide to King from 1955–60.

In “Brother Outsider,” a 2003 documentary film about Rustin’s life, his nephew says, “The man had no fear.” He was arrested more than 20 times and the FBI had a 10,000-page file on him.

He was an unyielding activist, indeed, for all his life. Raised by a pacifist Quaker grandmother, he stood up for his rights even as a young man. Hendrix relates that he was arrested during his teen years for refusing to leave whites-only areas in restaurants and the movie theater in his hometown of Westchester, Pennsylvania. Rustin himself recounted how he was refused service at a restaurant while traveling with his high school football team: “I sat there quite a long time, and was eventually thrown out bodily. From that point on, I had the conviction that I would not accept segregation.”

Rustin attended three colleges though he never earned a degree—at the first, Wilberforce University, he organized a strike for better food and was asked to leave, he says in “Brother Outsider.” While there he also traveled the country as music major singing in a quartet.

He moved to Harlem in 1937 and took courses at City University. He worked to free the infamous Scottsboro boys, nine black men accused of raping two white women.

In 1941 Bayard Rustin went to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a group seeking to solve world problems without violence; he was in that job 12 years in all, and again traveled around the country. A.J. Muste, leader of the FOL group, was one of his mentors, along with A. Philip Randolph. Those two men influenced Rustin to leave the Communist Party—he had joined the Young Communist League in 1936—and join the Socialists.

In 1942 Rustin helped his compatriots found the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).

During World War II Rustin was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the U.S. military.

A 1947 desegregation effort landed him on a chain gang in North Carolina, which he later wrote about “22 Days on a Chain Gang.” Prisoners were worked 10 hours a day and endured brutal treatment. His article helped to change the law, and chain gangs were stopped in North Carolina.

A turning point in Rustin’s life was his arrest in 1953 in Pasadena, California, in a parked car with two men. He was charged with “sex perversion,” and this was the first time his homosexuality was publicly aired. He had never denied it, but public attitudes at the time likely kept him out of the limelight. After the arrest, he was dismissed from the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Twice in his life Rustin’s sexual orientation was a serious issue. Some African American leaders worried that Rustin’s history as a communist and his open homosexuality would undermine the civil rights movement. U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell forced him to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—which he had helped found—in 1960 by threatening to make some of that information public. Then, trying to derail the March on Washington, Strom Thurmond denounced Rustin in the Senate as homosexual, draft evader, communist with a lengthy arrest record, and felon. Thurmond’s efforts failed to get Rustin removed from his organizing role, and the March proceeded under his leadership.

Rustin had refused to give up his seat on a bus, and was beaten by police for it, in 1942, well before Rosa Parks did so in 1955. After her arrest, he went to Montgomery, Alabama, to help with the bus boycott organized by Dr. King, who according to “Brother Outsider” said, “Well, if Bayard Rustin is here then I guess we’ve arrived.” Following the boycott King and Rustin formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization committed to nonviolent work to attain civil rights.

A. Philip Randolph, a labor leader, was a longtime mentor to Rustin. Randolph was the head of the March on Washington, and he and Rustin shared the cover of Time magazine the week after the March. Rustin later headed the AFL-CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute for 12 years beginning in 1965. “Many of my beliefs first were from him,” Rustin says in “Brother Outsider.”

Later in life Rustin shifted his approach, was less radical, argued with Black Power and wanted political solutions to current issues. He worked intensely with unions, and even supported the Vietnam War. In this era he wrote “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” stating the importance of cooperation to achieve common goals and explaining the shift in his approach.

Rustin worked on many causes: supported Soviet Jewry, went to refugee camps in Thailand, and protested a French atomic bomb test in Algerian Sahara. In his later years he also worked for gay rights, giving a speech titled, “The New Niggers Are Gays.”

Rustin wrote about his life: “The principal factors which influenced my life are 1) nonviolent tactics; 2) constitutional means; 3) democratic procedures; 4) respect for human personality; 5) a belief that all people are one.”

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