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Recognizing Black PR Pioneers During Black History Month

In celebrating Black History during the month of February, it is key to recognize the Black PR Pioneers who founded this industry. Many times, we tend to look over people of color and their accomplishments compared to their white counterparts, but we have to acknowledge the founders of the public relations industry.

Each week, we will take time out of our meeting to recognize three PR pioneers who were fundamental in the growth of public relations and communications. Below you can find a short summary of each person’s accomplishments in their lives. If you are interested in reading more, feel free to visit The Museum of Public Relations website.

Dr. Jesse. J. Lewis, Sr.

In 1952 as a student at Miles College, he began a small marketing firm. In his time working for this firm, he was able to spread his business to numerous campuses across the country.

In 1975, Dr. Lewis was appointed as the first Black man to serve as a cabinet member for the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. He also served as the president of Lawson State Community College from 1978-1987.

In 1995, Dr. Lewis established the Lewis Group, a public policy consulting firm.

Patricia Tobin

In her career, she found there were minimal opportunities for people of color in her field, so she began her own company. In 1983, she began Tobin and Associates.

Over the years, her client list included Spike Lee, Wells Fargo, Nestle USA, Rebook International, Ltd., Walt Disney Feature Animation, Sony, the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP and Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA).

“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 Times 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.”

Joseph Varney Baker

Joseph Varney Baker was born in Abbeville, South Carolina and 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.

In 1934, he formed his own public relations firm, Joseph V. Baker Associates. This firm was the first Black-owned public relations firm in the country.

Among many other accomplishments, here are a few of Baker’s firsts:

  • He was the first Black journalist to write for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • He was the first African-American man in public relations to become known for acquiring significant accounts from large corporations throughout the country.

  • He became the first African-American president of the Philadelphia Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), where he was elected unanimously.

  • He was the first African-American man to gain accreditation from PRSA.

Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Walker is best known for being the first African-American woman in the United States to charter and become president of a local bank.

In 1912, she co-founded the Richmond Council of Colored Women and served as the president, raising money for worthy causes. She campaigned for equality of the sexes and the economic enfranchisement of women.

Walker also co-founded the Richmond National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as its vice president. She also served on the national NAACP board and the national Urban League board. In her life, 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.

Barbara Harris

Harris joined the public relations firm, Joseph V. Baker Associates. In her time, she was mentored by Joseph Varney Baker. She became the first woman of color to handle public relations for major corporate accounts.

Following her mentor, she was elected president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Public Relations Society of America in 1973.

Moss Hyles Kendrix

Moss Hyles Kendrix began his own public relations firm, named The Moss Kendrix Organization located in Washington, D.C. Over the years, his firm included Coca-Cola, Carnation, the National Dental Association, the National Educational Association and Ford Motor Company.

He is best known for his work with Coca-Cola, which is headquartered in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. According to historians, Kendrix hounded the company’s executives for three years to hire him as a bridge to Black consumers. This employment made him the first African-American to acquire a major national account.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born a slave and became an internationally famous writer and speaker. He worked for the abolition of slavery up until the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves.

During the Civil War, he encouraged Black people to serve in the Union army as a means of eliminating slavery. He advised both President Abraham Lincoln and President Andrew Johnson on issues impacting African-Americans.

After the war, he fought Jim Crow segregation and also lectured on Reconstruction and women’s rights for the last 30 years of his life.

John Harold Johnson

Along with his publishing career and other successes, Johnson was involved in politics throughout his career. 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.

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.

Bayard Rustin

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

Rustin became a mentor to Dr. King starting with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-1956. He persuaded King and other leaders to adopt non-violence, teaching them methods he learned in India from disciples of Gandhi. He worked as an aide to King from 1955-1960.

This blog post was written by Mackenzi Hockensmith, Temple PRSSA President.

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