The Real Pepsi Challenge
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In America's long march toward racial equality, small acts of courage by men and women whose names we don't recall have contributed mightily to our nation's struggle to achieve its own ideals. This moving book details the story of one such little-noted chapter.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, as Jackie Robinson changed the face of baseball, a group of African-American businessmen -- twelve at its peak -- changed the face of American business by being among the first black Americans to work at professional jobs in Corporate America and to target black consumers as a distinct market.

The corporation was Pepsi-Cola, led by the charismatic and socially progressive Walter Mack, a visionary business leader. Though Mack was a guarded idealist, his consent for a campaign aimed at black consumers was primarily motivated by the pursuit of profits -- and the campaign succeeded, boosting Pepsi's earnings and market share. But America succeeded as well, as longstanding stereotypes were chipped away and African- Americans were recognized as both talented employees and valued customers. It was a significant step in our becoming a more inclusive society.

On one level, The Real Pepsi Challenge, whose author is an editor and writer for The Wall Street Journal, is a straightforward business book about the birth of niche marketing. But, as we quickly learn, it is a truly inspirational story, recalling a time when we as a nation first learned to see the strength of our diversity. It is far more than a history of marketing in America; it is a key chapter in the social history of our nation.

Until these men came along, typical advertisements depicted African-Americans as one-dimensional characters: Aunt Jemimas and Uncle Bens. But thereafter, Pepsi-Cola took a different approach, portraying American blacks for what they were increasingly becoming -- accomplished middle-class citizens. While such portrayals seem commonplace to us today, they were revolutionary in their time, and the men who brought them into existence risked day-to-day professional indignities parallel to those that Jackie Robinson suffered for breaking baseball's color line. As they crossed the country in the course of their jobs, they faced the cruelty of American racial attitudes. Jim Crow laws often limited where they could eat and sleep while on the road, and they faced resistance even within their own company. Yet these men succeeded as businessmen, and all went on to success in other professions as well, including medicine, journalism, education, and international diplomacy.

Happily, six of these pioneers lived to tell their stories to the author. Their voices, full of pride, good humor, and sharp recollection, enrich these pages and give voice to the continuing American saga.
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Published by Free Press

Rockefeller Center

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Copyright © 2007 by Stephanie Capparell

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

FREE PRESS and colophon are trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The Wall Street Journal and The Wall Street Journal Book colophon are trademarks of Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

For information about special discounts for bulk purchases, please contact Simon & Schuster Special Sales: 1-800-456-6798 or

Text design by Paul Dippolito

Manufactured in the United States of America

1  3  5  7  9  10  8  6  4  2

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Capparell, Stephanie.

The real Pepsi challenge: the inspirational story of breaking the color barrier in American business / Stephanie Capparell.

p.  cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

1. PepsiCo, inc.—Employees—Recruiting—History.  2. African American executives—United States—History.  3. Cola drinks—United States—Marketing—History. 4. African American consumers—United States—History.  I. Title.

HD9349.S634  P462  2007

338.7′66362092396073—dc22   2006041267

ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-6571-3

ISBN-10: 0-7432-6571-8

eISBN: 978-1-439-10487-3

For my parents, R. Michael and Geneva Roman Capparell, who taught their children that everyone deserves a chance



1. The High Road to Profit

2. Black, White, and Green

3. How Big Is Your Negro Market?

4. Leaders in Their Fields

5. The Brown Hucksters

6. The Cola Color Wars

7. The View from the Threshold

8. Crossing the Threshold






THE START OF THE RIVALRY BETWEEN THE PEPSI-COLA and Coca-Cola companies in the 1940s is legend in business. Less known is that a bigger, more important battle was being fought on the front lines of the cola wars at the same time: the struggle of African-Americans to gain access to white Corporate America. Underdog Pepsi-Cola—under the direction of an astute businessman with a keen sense of his role as a leader—joined forces with a group of striving African-American professionals. Their union made history, and taught American businesses a lesson in the value of a diverse workforce.

To the ranks of the unsung civil rights pioneers, add Pepsi’s first special-markets sales staff. Instead of schoolrooms or lunch counters, their struggles and victories took place in offices, storefronts, and factory floors. You haven’t heard the names of these men in the myriad books written about the cola wars over the decades. They were workers whose talents were hidden in plain sight because of their race; their stories played out before the civil rights revolution. Businesses were just awakening to the potential of a diverse work place and untapped markets.

The Pepsi-Cola experiment began in 1940 with the hiring of a single black man, Herman T. Smith, and was followed by the addition of two young business interns—Allen L. McKellar and Jeanette Maund. Their mandate was to help Pepsi-Cola—then a struggling upstart—expand its consumption among African-American customers.

Some seven years before Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby integrated baseball’s major leagues, these national sales representatives broke through the corporate color line. In retrospect, the Pepsi salesmen had even more of an uphill battle. Integrating sports meant creating opportunities for a few uniquely talented individuals for the sake of everyone’s entertainment. Integrating business, by contrast, was a far more sweeping—and for some, threatening—proposition in white society: an invitation to the rank and file of an entire race to vie for the same jobs as everyone else in the corporate hierarchy. Yet, the business pioneers were optimistic. Conditions are far from perfect, of course, said Maund in polite understatement during an interview at the time, but if we can do what we have against obstacles, surely we need not be afraid of our future.

World War II interrupted the development of the special-markets department. Once the war was over, however, a renewed effort began with an even greater impetus to succeed. The victory over Hitler had encouraged social reformers in the United States to work toward making the world more just and egalitarian. It also was a time of ferment in the business world—the democratization of commerce itself. Companies were perfecting mass distribution and getting to know their consumers as individuals with particular tastes. Business leaders were beginning to see their employees as valuable contributors to their companies’ success. It was a contribution to social progress, said Edward F. Boyd, who joined the Pepsi-Cola Company in 1947 as assistant sales manager and was put in charge of selling to what was then called the Negro market. I didn’t make that much of a dollar. I wasn’t paid on the basis of other executives. It was at the beginning.

Boyd was an astute judge of character, and gathered and trained a talented marketing force. Sales of the cola surged wherever the team members went; at one point they helped Pepsi outsell all its rivals in some Northern cities. It was an object lesson for other companies that were ignoring the African-American consumer and standing on the sidelines when it came to integrating their professional staffs.

On their way to nudging their country to a better place, the sales team helped define niche marketing some thirty years before it became a widespread business strategy. They gave formal talks to white driver-salesmen about their role in the company, thereby instigating some of the earliest formalized diversity training. They also helped to instill in African-Americans a unique sense of brand loyalty—to products produced by companies with a commitment to social progress as much as to product quality.

Pepsi’s innovation was remarkable for its day. It took a boss with the pluck and foresight of Walter S. Mack, Jr., who led Pepsi-Cola from 1938 to 1950. He gave the team the personnel, budget, and creative freedom to explore the market on a national scale, and fully recognized its clout. One of the truly great pleasures I have is in helping other people, giving a guy a job so that he can build himself up, he once wrote.

It didn’t matter to Walter Mack that in Coke he had a rival that was linked in the American psyche with Santa Claus and the American G.I. He was the feisty, progressive New Yorker pitted against a gentleman of the Old South, Coca-Cola president Robert Woodruff, an executive known for his opposition to racial mixing on the job or in society at large. Mr. Woodruff did give generously to black universities, but that kind of generosity only helped prop up the system of segregation. When Mack made contributions, they were tied to opportunities and focused on individuals. It made all the difference.

This is not to say that Walter Mack was a starry-eyed do-gooder. Above all, he was motivated by the bottom line. When he looked at black, he also saw green. African-American leaders themselves had shrewdly pushed the idea to businesses that the population of fourteen million blacks in the United States represented a gold mine of pent-up consumer demand, and Mack wanted his share. None of this big picture was lost on the salesmen, who were realistic about their roles at the company. I adored the man, but all he cared about in the end was one thing: selling Pepsi, said Boyd of his boss. That was always foremost in his mind.

On the road, the team members became role models at a time when few Americans had ever seen a young black man with a corporate business card. But the corporate office was a lonely place for African-Americans in the 1940s. Back at headquarters, the very presence of the special-market salesmen raised touchy questions: Would black Americans fit into Pepsi-Cola’s corporate culture? Could the company help develop these promising careers and keep them in the corporate family? How could management promote the men above their narrow specialty to leadership roles that guide the company as a whole?

That was the real Pepsi challenge.

The Pepsi team itself had no role models, yet somehow its members were superbly prepared for the task at hand. Working with limited resources, they crisscrossed the country to speak in black churches, women’s clubs, civic centers, fraternities, campuses, and convention halls. Boyd and the Pepsi staff created advertising that was among the first to show African-Americans, and hired some of the first professional black models. Their work made a mockery of the degrading images of blacks prevalent at the time in both mainstream and black media. They dared to create ads celebrating African-Americans of achievement. Their most popular series of ads ended up as a classroom teaching tool in African-American high schools and colleges around the country. More shocking still for its day were their ad campaigns that portrayed blacks as stylish, fun-loving, middle-class citizens living the American Dream.

The Pepsi team’s accomplishments were all the more impressive considering the enormous obstacles they faced in the segregated America of the day. They were traveling salesmen who had to sit in the backs of buses, ride in separate train compartments, and eat behind closed curtains in dining cars. Because many restaurants and hotels across the country didn’t want their business, they often had to rely on a network of families willing to give them food and lodging in their homes while on the road.

With innate gifts of tact, humor, and sheer grit, the salesmen successfully navigated this demoralizing minefield. If their sojourn in Corporate America was often filled with disappointments, the team members rose above them. I knew what the mission was, said Harvey C. Russell, one of Boyd’s more inspired hires. There were no other places you could get that type of job. Pepsi was really the first. They, and a couple of others, were the only ones that had these black salespeople.

In all, Boyd hired at least sixteen men during the four-plus years his team was active. At its peak in size and responsibility, Boyd had eleven men under him. The experience of these dozen men is the focus of this book. Six of them lived to tell their stories here: Edward F. Boyd, a one-time actor and singer in films, who was working for the National Urban League when he was picked to create the special-markets team; Allen L. McKellar, who first joined Pepsi as an intern in 1940 after he won a company essay contest and returned in 1950; Charles E. Wilson, a graduate of Virginia’s Hampton Institute with a dream of becoming a doctor; William Simms, who was ordered by the great American thinker and human-rights advocate W. E. B. DuBois to get an education and get ahead; Jean F. Emmons, one of the few black MBAs in America; and Julian C. Nicholas, who came from a family of businessmen—and especially businesswomen—with a drive to succeed.

Two more—Harvey C. Russell and Richard L. Hurt—were interviewed for my 1997 Wall Street Journal column on the Pepsi team, but have since died. Other team members whose contributions are greatly missed include David F. Watson, H. Floyd Britton, Harold W. Woodruff, Alexander L. Jackson, Frank L. Smith, Winston C. Wright, Paul D. Davis, and William E. Payne.

After the breakup of the team, most of the men went on to remarkable second careers in international business, politics, journalism, medicine, and education. One, Harvey Russell, became a vice president at Pepsi-Cola in 1962, the first African-American to earn that title at a major corporation.

The life stories of the Pepsi salesmen connect us to the depth and complexity of the African-American experience in the twentieth century. Lest their stories seem a musty glimpse of a shameful bygone era, know that after I first told this story in the 1997 article, I received repeated calls from a Ku Klux Klan member who tried unsuccessfully to get an interview for the Grand Wizard. The article had mentioned a long-ago, Klan-led boycott of Pepsi, and the woman wanted to defend the Klan’s side of the story.

My research for this book began with interviews of the team members. They were in their eighties and nineties. I was counting on recollections of each person’s path to success despite adversity. Among the most moving stories told to me were those about the support given by their families and communities to prepare them for life’s struggles. But before long it was clear I was among business royalty, the likes of which I had rarely seen during fifteen years of writing and editing for the Journal.

That they were ahead of their time is evidenced by the fact that it wasn’t until 1952, a year after the team was disbanded, that The Wall Street Journal first addressed in a major article the so-called Negro market. The story valued the black population’s total income at fifteen billion dollars, a 50 percent increase over estimates made elsewhere just five years earlier. Ever since then, newspapers have reported consistently on the increasing importance of the expanding market represented by African-Americans.

My first book, Shackleton’s Way, was about the lessons learned from a hair-raising tale of survival of a crew shipwrecked in the savage nature of Antarctica. This is another tale of survival, in the uncharted waters of social progress, and it seems that manmade disasters can be every bit as harrowing. The lessons learned from the Pepsi men are how to strive for personal excellence even when the rewards seem distant. From their corporate leaders we see how a business can thrive only where diversity thrives; that the roadblocks to social progress are the same as those that hamper economic success.

To help document their experiences, team members saved an impressive sampling of their workaday correspondence, photographs, and newspaper clippings, and generously offered them for research on this book. Extensive research was done to corroborate their recollections where possible. Long-forgotten ad campaigns by various creative talents subsequently were unearthed. Where practical, articles and letters are generously quoted here to capture the language of the times. Negro was the accepted word for African-Americans at mid-twentieth century, and African-Americans had to fight just to ensure it was always capitalized in print and properly pronounced. The term special markets is used interchangeably with Negro market to describe the Pepsi-Cola campaign, even though the sales team was in the process of redefining its meaning.

It is a challenge to recount in brief African-American history of this period. I read through a dozen years of black weekly newspapers on microfilm and, thanks to modern search engines, more than one hundred years of major dailies on specific topics. The description of the events of the day—in turns shocking and joyful—as told by African-American journalists at the weeklies was overwhelming, and I am indebted to my colleagues of yesteryear for their diligent reporting of the background of this story.

The famous dates in history, the landmark court cases, the new laws, the successful marches, the worthy black heroes, the enlightened white leaders—all grabbed the spotlight for a time, but they tell only part of the story. Progress came in almost imperceptible increments, with changes repeatedly written in sand before they became a concrete gain. The Pepsi team members worked at a time when the African-American population encouraged many Rosa Parkses before the Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat on a bus. These foot soldiers tirelessly staged protests and walkouts and won scores of smaller court victories over a brutal system of segregation under the so-called Jim Crow laws.

These leaders were stalwarts of what has been dubbed the Greatest Generation, the ones who translated a wartime victory over white supremacy overseas into a peacetime struggle for equality at home. They were living among aging former slaves and self-made millionaires—and some who were both. Most of their neighbors may have worn workers’ overalls, but they were able to envision themselves in the highest echelons of business and government. That they never doubted their eventual success was a remarkable show of faith in America.

The marketing team’s endeavor was in many ways a resounding success: a study in how determination, focus, and a sense of purpose on the part of employees, combined with enlightened leadership, can enhance the bottom line while offering social benefits beyond the walls of the corporation. Jean Emmons, who joined the team in 1950, one day pulled out a newspaper clipping he kept in his pocket, dated in the late 1990s, that listed major U.S. companies where blacks wield the most clout. It started with Kenneth I. Chenault, CEO of American Express, and ended with Oprah Winfrey, chairman and CEO of Harpo Incorporated. I’m proud I helped make that possible, said Emmons, who left Pepsi to earn a PhD in education. There’s no way in the world that in 1950 anyone outside of God would have said this result today was possible.

The result ultimately included the promotion in August 2006 of Indra K. Nooyi, a fifty-year-old woman born in India, to the post of chief executive officer of PepsiCo Incorporated, just months after another unthinkable had happened: PepsiCo had surpassed the Coca-Cola Company in terms of market capitalization, roughly $105.4 billion to $103 billion.

The project’s failures were more complicated. In short, Pepsi-Cola’s early foray into diversifying its workforce, while a gigantic leap for its day, was seen by some of its managers as a limited task rather than the seeds of a permanent transformation of a modern corporation. In the end, the team was broken up without any meaningful plan for the continued hiring and promoting of minority applicants.

Many issues about race and opportunity that surfaced then have not yet been resolved in the business world. Managers today aren’t so much thinking about how to keep minorities out, as they aren’t thinking about minorities at all. But maintaining diversity is an ongoing task, said Frank Wu, dean of Wayne State University Law School, not an assignment to be completed and checked off a list. Diversity, like democracy, is a process; it never ends, he said. If you’re an optimist, you should never want it to end. No one ever says, ‘I can’t believe I’m here voting again.’ The goal is to participate in something larger than yourself and to keep inviting more people to participate.

When looking at discrimination, our society has come to rely on a useful cliché: We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. It’s critical that we pause sometimes to get an honest measure of the distance traveled, to refocus on the goal of fairness and equality, and to recommit to making that end a reality.

The real coward, W. E. B. DuBois observed, is the one who dares not to know.

Chapter One

The High Road to Profit


Walter S. Mack, the dapper president of the Pepsi-Cola Company whose name was synonymous with Pepsi in the 1940s, liked to use that expression instead of butter up when he was cheerleading for his company. His obsession with sugar started during World War II, when strict sugar rationing nearly killed his soft-drink company in its infancy. It survived only because Mack became an expert in sugaring up in the literal sense, risking government fines to scavenge the precious commodity anywhere in the hemisphere he could find it.

That evening in 1949, he was wining and dining some of the company’s five hundred bottlers and their spouses in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. They were not in a good mood. Even after a heat wave in the summer of 1948 brought a surge in Pepsi’s sales, net income for the full year had plunged to $3.15 million, less than half of what it had been the year before. In 1949, Pepsi-Cola Co. stood as close to the brink of bankruptcy as it could and still function, Business Week reported. Profits were being squeezed by rising production costs.

As the decade was drawing to a close, healthy companies finally were beginning to see a real postwar revival. Americans were in the mood to enjoy themselves again, spending money on luxury items that were just becoming available to the mass market: long-playing records, televisions, kitchen appliances, fashionable clothes. Mack was thinking he had to smarten up the image of Pepsi to fit the changing times. Pepsi was no longer strictly a five-cent bottle, but it still had the bargain-drink image that had made it a hit during the Depression, and was a continuing favorite among laborers, young people, and African-Americans.

Mack walked up to the podium. He cut a fine figure. He was tall and, at fifty-three years of age, still slender, with dark, slicked-back hair. He exuded charm and a practiced elegance, but he was not a polished public speaker, describing himself as more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. He awkwardly welcomed the crowd.

Edward F. Boyd, assistant national sales manager in charge of the so-called Negro-market team, listened from the front row. He had been with Pepsi for about two years and was moving ahead with plans to expand his staff of African-American salesmen to an even dozen, himself included. That would make it the largest national Negro-market sales team in the United States, where a mere forty or so men and women worked in the field, according to a 1948 Ebony magazine article, and not all of them worked full-time or on a national level.

The five men on Boyd’s Pepsi sales team—Richard L. Hurt, Charles E. Wilson, David F. Watson, Harold W. Woodruff, and H. Floyd Britton—were scattered around the room, as Boyd had instructed. He wanted the bottlers, all white men and mostly from the South, to see his salesmen and to feel comfortable around them. He told his men to strike up conversations. Socializing over drinks in a classy Northern hotel was a way to prepare for doing business over the following months in the bottlers’ home territories, never an easy assignment.

One of the salesmen sat next to Boyd: David Watson, his first hire. Watson was a Morehouse College graduate who had just married into a prominent black family. Ed Boyd liked Watty, as his colleagues called him. Everyone did.Watson was a good salesman.He had an easy laugh and a Southerner’s love of a good story. He also knew how to deflect trouble, even though, as the darkest-complexioned man on the team, he was often a lightning rod for the endless problems the men faced when they traveled across the country. It surprised no one that he ended up spending his entire career at Pepsi; it seemed a good fit from the start.

Mack was droning on about the increase in sales of cases of Pepsi and giving his improbably rosy forecast. When he was nearly finished, he told the audience about his long-term plans for the company. We’re going to have to give Pepsi a little more status, a little more class—in other words, we’re going to have to develop a way whereby it will no longer be known as a nigger drink, the salesmen recalled him saying.

Boyd was stunned. Wasn’t the whole purpose of his sales team to win loyalty in the black community? Hadn’t his men helped build the Pepsi franchise on the black consumer’s dollar? How could Boyd and his team demand the respect of the most intransigent white bottlers when the famously liberal head of the company resorted to such a vulgar slur?

Boyd turned to Watson. He could see the anger and disappointment on his face. Keep your seat, he told him. I have to leave. He knew Watson would want to follow him, but he didn’t want him to jeopardize his job, too. Boyd stood up straight, walked to the center aisle between the rows of folding chairs, and made his way to the back of the room and through the door. That was the longest walk of my life, he said later. He remembered feeling like one of the representatives at the newly formed United Nations who would walk out of the general assembly to protest a vote.

He walked into the foyer outside the ballroom and had a seat. The speech was soon over and Boyd immediately was surrounded by his staff. The men were hot over the matter, but he calmed them down. Some bottlers also came by to say hello, without mentioning the walk-out. Before long, Boyd’s wife, Edith, arrived to offer her support, as she always did. She had just left work at Time magazine, where she was a librarian. That night, she had just a few blocks to walk from Rockefeller Center, but no matter where Boyd went in the country for these bottler conventions, she would join him for the main dinner. White men were always thinking that black men were after their women, so I made sure I was never at dinner alone, Boyd explained. That way they couldn’t accuse me of approaching their wives.

The next day, Boyd went to see his boss. He told Mack that he found the word nigger offensive and that it should never have been used, in any context. Mack was taken aback, and quick with an apology. Ed, you know I would never do anything to hurt you, he told Boyd, and thanked him for bringing it to his attention.

Boyd decided not to hold it against Mack, but he never forgot the incident.

The special-marketing staff—even those hired long after the incident—would tell that story again and again over the years. If that’s what they said in front of hundreds of people, what did they say behind closed doors? asked Jean F. Emmons, who joined the team in 1950. It was just the times. It’s a wonder Boyd didn’t go nuts; he was under such pressure.

The anecdote reminded the salesmen of just how difficult their jobs were. Selling various products to the black community was easy compared with selling the black consumer to the corporations that made those products. It never ceased to amaze them how even the most enlightened corporate leader could be so clueless about their most basic concerns. Mack did try to help. But when I say Mack was liberal, I mean he was politically liberal. But that really only went so far, team member Harvey C. Russell said.

The N word, as the men referred to it, was sometimes used in the vernacular of those times to mean the opposite of luxury. But to hear Mack casually use it at a public business meeting was a shock. Mack had long battled just that sort of racist stereotyping in the white corporate world, most visibly by creating Pepsi’s Negro-market department back in 1940. Beyond the language used, was Mack having a change of heart about his special-markets team? Or was he just seeing the writing on the wall? Over the past decade, the black sales team and the company itself had been seared by war, racism, and seismic shifts in American business. The company and the country were headed in a new direction.

The decade had begun with such promise. In 1940, Mack was at the top of his game. In just over a year at the helm of the company, he had solidified his leadership and become a one-man show. The man who was already known as a corporate turnaround wizard had quickly built a whole new reputation as a genius at promotion. Always trying to reinvent conventional business models, he made his boldest move of all in March 1940, when he hired Herman T. Smith, a twenty-eight-year-old African-American newspaper adman, to launch a campaign to pump up sales of Pepsi in black communities. Rare as it was, the hiring of Smith merited a mere thirty-four words in the March 18, 1940, edition of The New York Times. It read: Herman T. Smith, who is active in the Negro newspaper field, has been hired for a special sales promotion position at Pepsi-Cola. Smith will plan and carry out sales promotion in the Negro market.

To the black press, the hiring was big news. Reporters from those papers crowded into Pepsi’s offices at the company’s Long Island City headquarters and plant in Queens to hear the announcement. Smith private industry today," according to The Pittsburgh Courier, where Smith had been working.

The Pepsi-Cola Company has shown a great deal of respect and confidence in the Race by his appointment, added the Chicago Defender, paraphrasing the new director.

During the news conference, Smith unveiled an ambitious plan: to create interesting promotional campaigns in every Negro community in the forty-eight states then in the union. The program would be launched in Birmingham, Alabama, and move first across the South. The drink is headed for an all-time high in the Negro market this year, Smith said. That was not so much a prediction as it was a promise to make it happen.

Smith, a native of Norfolk,Virginia, had begun his career as an assistant circulation manager of the respected Norfolk Journal and Guide, a black weekly newspaper, and went on to become circulation manager of the Washington Tribune, special representative for the Blue Coal Company, field representative for the Pittsburgh Courier, and sales promotion man for Gooderham & Worts Whiskeys. He seemed to have worked at least a couple of those jobs simultaneously. He attended Virginia Union University in Richmond and Temple University in Philadelphia, as well as the New York University School of Commerce.

In the Courier, the coverage of the Smith hiring was sandwiched between two other items that showed both the problems and the promise of the relationship between the black community and corporations. At the top of the page, a banner headline claimed, NEGROES ENLIST BECAUSE OF CIVILIAN JOB SHORTAGE. The story took issue with a War Department statement suggesting that blacks were happy with conditions in the service. Instead, a black veteran complained that given the failure of private industry to absorb colored labor, it is the lesser of two evils to remain in the army. A remarkable 80 percent of blacks reenlisted in the army in 1939, compared with 38 percent of whites, it stated. Yet, there were just 4, 316 black soldiers versus 223, 000 white, and only 4 commissioned black officers compared with 13, 996 white officers in the segregated forces. The article contended that the army should be 10 percent black because 10 percent of the population was black—and paying taxes, too.

At the bottom of the page was an ad for Vaseline, just one of the big companies—including Conoco, Chevrolet, St. Joseph aspirin, Beech-nut gum, Vicks, Ex-Lax, and Pepsi-Cola—that were beginning to tip-toe into the Negro press. Some had ordered up specially designed campaigns for the readership, showing African-American faces above the product.

Herman Smith took credit for convincing Walter Mack that he needed to pursue more black customers, and that he was the man to do it. The black population—like the rest of the country—drank more Coke, but it had a lot more fans of Pepsi among them. Just the week before his appointment made news, the New York Amsterdam News had run a story under the headline Negro Market Study Urged, that quoted the new president of the Hampton Association of New York telling his group, Big business ought to know more about today’s Negro market and its potential development. His other message to American employers was: Equip our largest minority with the means of increasing their purchasing power and we create a better prosperity for the nation as a whole.

The hiring of salesmen such as Smith, then, was a sign of a deeper commitment: a willingness to put corporate salaries into the hands of African-Americans, as well as to take their consumer dollar. What was thrilling to the black press about Pepsi’s venture was that it hired a black man for a national campaign to sell a common product to the general public. African-American salesmen had been relegated mostly to peddling vice products such as alcohol and cigarettes—and even then mostly to local and regional markets. Not long after Smith was hired, the Courier announced the second race man to become a national beverage representative. He was John W. Roy,working for the American Brewing Company, a Houston-based maker of Regal beer. He had already worked on the city and state levels. Now it was announced that he would be going about his business over the nation—and his wife would be joining him.

Just how unfamiliar and insensitive American business, in general, was to the black population is suggested by the following, which passed for humor in The Wall Street Journal’s lighthearted feature Pepper and Salt:


A Negro Baptist was exhorting: Now breddren and sistern, come up to de altar and have yo’ sins washed away.

All came up but one man.

Why, Brudder Jones, don’t yo’ want yo’ sins washed away?

I done had my sins washed away.

Yo’ has? Where yo’ had yo’ sins washed away?

Over at de church across de road.

Ah, Brudder Jones, yo’ ain’t been washed; yo’ jes’ been dry cleaned.

It wasn’t unusual for whites or blacks to use dialect in humor. What infuriated African-Americans was that the mainstream media portrayed them almost exclusively in demeaning stereotypes. Before the war, the white press also gave limited attention to critical problems within the black population.

Business first fully grasped the concept of a Negro market about a decade earlier, when the Depression forced desperate manufacturers, despite their prejudices, to seek new buyers for their products. Management strategist Peter F. Drucker credited the identification of a Negro market with saving the Cadillac. General Motors was on the verge of shutting down the division when Nick Dreystadt, the German-born service manager at Cadillac, persuaded the company to try promoting its cars to Negroes, Drucker wrote in his 1979 book, Adventures of a Bystander. It was company policy not to sell Cadillacs to Negroes, he said, because it wanted the prestige buyer. But affluent white customers were disappearing as the economy sank. Dreystadt knew the car was already doing well among