Wellesley Historian Examines Role of African American Marketers in Changing American Media

Brenna Greer smiling at the camera
July 29, 2019

As part of bankruptcy proceedings, Chicago-based Johnson Publishing, former parent company of Ebony and Jet magazines, has sold off a photo archive considered to be the most extensive photographic record of black life in the second half of the 20th century to four foundations (the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation) for $30 million on July 25.

Brenna Greer, Wellesley College associate professor of history, discusses the significance of the archive in her new book, Represented: The Black Imagemakers Who Reimagined African American Citizenship. Greer, who used several images from the archives in her book, writes that the photos used in advertisements and news stories helped redefine blackness in America and played a role in the fight for civil rights.

Until the mid-1940s, advertisers and corporate marketers largely ignored black people, according to Greer, and the rare images of African Americans that did appear in the media implied that they were inferior, second-class citizens. In her book, Greer points to the cover of an August 1936 issue of Life magazine that shows a shirtless black man sitting on the back of a wagon piled with watermelons. It was the first time an African American man had ever been on the front of the magazine. Inside, the issue has a photo of a black woman identified as a “colored mammy,” eating a slice of watermelon as she nurses a black infant.

Quoting Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, Greer writes that, before World War II, mainstream media images typically portrayed African Americans as “scared of ghosts, addicted to tap dancing, banjo plucking and the purloining of Massa’s gin.”

That began to change, writes Greer, thanks to the work of public relations executive Moss Kendrix, one of whose clients was the Coca-Cola Company, along with photographer Gordon Parks and John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. They leveraged their skills as media and marketing professionals and their corporate connections, as well as relationships with celebrities like Joe Louis and Duke Ellington, to begin to change the perceptions of African Americans in the media.

Recently, several media outlets asked Greer to comment on the significance of the archive. She was quoted in an article in Perspectives on History, a newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, that was later picked up by Chicago’s NPR station WBEZ.

On NBC News.com, Greer said, “What Ebony and Jet did was not just tell these stories not told. Ebony, in particular, through the images it pushed out all over America each month, popularized ideas of African Americans that undergirded belonging, the idea that African Americans were Americans, normal and full human beings who existed and had a claim to a complete citizenship.”

Greer pointed to Kendrix’s relationship with Coca-Cola as key element in launching this approach. “Coca-Cola had a large advertising budget, and Moss Kendrix, who was very well connected to black celebrities and athletes, was instrumental in guiding them to target African Americans,” said Greer in an interview. The advertising images circulated in Ebony, Jet, and the numerous black newspapers being published at the time.

On the cover Greer’s book is a smiling, fashionably dressed African American couple relaxing on a sofa holding bottles of Coke while watching television in their living room. The woman, model Mary Alexander, was the first African American woman to appear in a Coca-Cola ad.