Minority PR: How three black pros broke racial barriers - The power of PR - Think of PR pioneers. Edward Bernays and Arthur Page come to mind. But not all industry visionaries were white. Steve Lilienthal chronicles the professional lives of three men who

In 1964, The New York Times reported that Ruder-Finn had established an on-the-job PR training program for college graduates. One trainee was a ’Negro,’ although the paper noted several advertising agencies had already been recruiting young blacks.

In 1964, The New York Times reported that Ruder-Finn had established an on-the-job PR training program for college graduates. One trainee was a ’Negro,’ although the paper noted several advertising agencies had already been recruiting young blacks.

In 1964, The New York Times reported that Ruder-Finn had

established an on-the-job PR training program for college graduates. One

trainee was a ’Negro,’ although the paper noted several advertising

agencies had already been recruiting young blacks.

But rather than waiting for the doors of major PR firms to swing open,

some African-American entrepreneurs had already been creating their own


Joseph Vardrey Baker, Moss Hyles Kendrix and D. Parke Gibson stressed

the importance of communicating to African-Americans at a time when

white-managed corporations were only waking up to the power wielded by

black consumers. ’What they tried to accomplish at a time when

resistance and racism were so blatant was an amazing feat,’ says Lon

Walls, the president of Washington-based Walls Communications, and chair

of the recently formed African- American Public Relations Alliance.

In a book co-authored with PR pro Robert Farrell, Blacks and Public

Relations: History and Bibliography, Dr. George Hill suggested that

blacks had started performing PR functions by the late 19th century for

black-run businesses and colleges: ’Even if the person did not have the

title, he performed the function.’

One trailblazer

But the PR trailblazer was Baker, whom The New York Times noted was

called ’the dean of Negro public-relations men.’ Headquartered in

Philadelphia, Baker started working in 1934 as a PR consultant to the

Pennsylvania Railroad.

Over time, his firm’s client list included Western Union, Chrysler and

the Association of American Railroads.

Kendall Wilson, now with the Philadelphia Tribune, worked for both

Gibson and Baker. Wilson recalls that Baker had a huge mailing list of

influential people in the black community. In 1965, when the civil

rights movement had created more awareness of the importance of the

black community, Baker told The Wall Street Journal: ’What we do mostly

is create a relationship between our clients and Negro leaders.’ His

advice included counseling clients to avoid saying ’you people’ when

talking to black audiences.

’It’s divisive,’ explained Baker, ’suggesting you, the Negro, are

different from us, the whites.’

Kendrix started working for Coca-Cola in the 1940s, a time when many

blacks preferred other soft drinks such as Nehi, says Audrey Davis,

curator of the Alexandria Black History Resource Center, where Kendrix’s

papers are housed. Kendrix worked to persuade soda bottlers in the South

to have blacks become route salesmen to stores serving the black

community, not just the porters who loaded and unloaded trucks. He

arranged to have Coke booths at black-oriented conventions and to have

black celebrities photographed holding a Coke.

His son, Moss Kendrix, Jr., recalls his father declaring that he came up

with one good idea every day. One of his proposals was that Coke launch

’Jackie Robinson Coke Clubs and Good Citizenship Corps’ to help prevent

juvenile delinquency, predicting that the company ’would profit through

the creation of present and future markets.’ (Coke’s reaction to this

could not be determined from the papers available.)

Kendrix, like other black PR professionals, had to deal with rejection

from large corporations. Conrad Hilton, for instance, responding in 1950

to a letter from Kendrix, agreed that the idea of ’Negro hotels’ could

be a ’paying proposition’ but rejected becoming involved in such a

venture because his company’s policy was to have ’large hotels in large


Baker had once mentored Gibson, but the younger practitioner opened his

office in New York City. ’Because there were so many corporate

headquarters in New York, it made sense,’ recalls management consultant

Randolph Cameron, who had worked at Gibson’s firm. ’If Baker cracked the

market, Gibson took it to another level.’

Cameron says it was difficult even in 1960 for fledgling black

businesses to rent downtown office space. Starting in Harlem, Gibson

worked tirelessly and secured accounts such as Avon, Columbia Pictures

and the National Guard. He eventually moved his offices to Fifth


Both Cameron and Wilson recall that Gibson had close relationships with

leading corporate executives. ’Baker taught Gibson: ’You talk to the

highest man,’’ said Wilson. In doing so, Gibson earned respect from

white executives; when he died in 1979 at the age of 48, the

mostly-white Avon executive team attended his funeral in Harlem.

Gibson wrote in his book, dollars 70 Billion in the Black, that ’at one

time, the non-white could be led via white-oriented leadership,

white-oriented media, and the spill-off of some public relations effort.

It is doubtful if this would work today.’ PR pros, counseled Gibson,

needed to include the black media in their campaigns, and reach out to

important institutions in the black community.

’You have no idea how ignorant these worldly, sophisticated, corporate

giants are on the elementary questions concerning race,’ The New York

Times Sunday magazine quoted Gibson in 1970.

When the World’s Fair was held in Montreal in 1967, Gibson helped the

Expo ’67 leadership overcome charges of discrimination made by the New

York Urban League. The charges were largely without merit, but

organizers had been appealing to ’all Americans’ not realizing that many

blacks would have special concerns as to their travel and housing


Small group, big influence

Baker, Kendrix and Gibson were just three influential members of a small

but important profession within the black community at a time when old

barriers were falling. Each practitioner possessed a strong sense of

confidence, and developed close ties to the black press. Each apparently

viewed their roles as PR professionals in the broadest sense - albeit

almost invariably, and probably not willingly, confined to the black

community - going beyond publicity to advise the client about more

substantive matters, such as staffing, that related to corporate


Alliance vice chair Patricia Tobin insists that pros such as Baker,

Kendrix and Gibson ’were the pioneers, and without them we probably

would not be where we are today.’ Tobin’s knowledge comes first-hand:

Her mentor, Barbara Harris, now the Bishop Suffragan for the Episcopal

Diocese of Massachusetts, had been president of Baker’s company and

later managed PR at Sun Oil. Tobin credits Harris with helping to show

her how to succeed professionally. ’In the African-American world,’

stresses Tobin, ’we are standing on the shoulders of those who came

before us.’

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