Barbara Proctor, first African-American woman to own an advertising agency, dies at 86
WASHINGTON — The company was called Proctor and Gardner Advertising. But there was only one founder behind it — Barbara Proctor, maiden name Gardner, the first African American woman to own and operate an advertising agency.
Ms. Proctor, who died Dec. 19 at 86, grew up in a North Carolina shanty, stopped and stayed in Chicago when she ran out of money on her way back from a summer job in Michigan, and made her way into the white- and male-dominated ranks of the advertising industry in the 1960s.
She regarded advertising as the most powerful means of communication with the American public and vowed never to participate in the negative portrayal of women or blacks. One agency fired her when she declined to work on a television commercial that appeared to make light of the civil rights movement; it showed a phalanx of housewives marching in the street, brandishing cans of hair product and demanding that their beauticians foam their hair.
In 1970, Ms. Proctor struck out on her own with the help of a US Small Business Administration loan. By 1984, her billings had topped $12 million. President Ronald Reagan, in his State of the Union address that year, named her as an example of the American ‘‘spirit of enterprise,’’ recalling her rise ‘‘from a ghetto to build a multimillion-dollar advertising agency in Chicago.’’
Her business suffered a decline after the recession of the 1980s and was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1995. At the time, it had $1.8 million in debt that had accumulated, according to an analysis in the publication Crain’s Chicago Business, amid ‘‘poor financial controls’’ and greater competition for advertising work targeted to minority customers.
Years later, Ms. Proctor was often commended for the trail she blazed as a black woman in business and for the social consciousness she brought to her industry.
‘‘I have the opportunity to show the strength, beauty, humor, and family respect that is a very proud tradition in the black experience,’’ she once said, according to the volume ‘‘Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry’’ by Jason Chambers.
Barbara Juanita Gardner was born on Nov. 30, 1932, in Black Mountain, N.C., where she was raised mainly by a grandmother.
‘‘I have been running all my life from the pit of poverty in the bowels of North Carolina,’’ Ms. Proctor told Crain’s Chicago Business. ‘‘That was sheer, no-electricity, no-running-water poverty. If you have ever been poor, once is enough.’’
She graduated in 1954 from the historically black Talladega College in Alabama, where she studied English and psychology, and was planning to be a teacher when she stopped in Chicago after working as a camp counselor in Kalamazoo, Mich.
‘‘I wound up spending all of my money and didn’t have bus fare to get home,’’ she once told the Chicago Tribune.
She found work as a jazz writer with Downbeat magazine and later at Vee-Jay Records, where she was credited with helping bring early recordings of the Beatles to the United States. She moved into advertising, she said, when she understood its sway over American culture.
She entered the field as a copywriter. Fearing that her race and gender would impede her advancement, she decided to start her own business.
Many of her clients sought her service for advertising campaigns directed at African-American consumers. Among Proctor and Gardner’s first accounts was Jewel Food Stores, an Illinois chain that hired her to promote its line of generic groceries.
‘‘I didn’t want it to appear there was cheap stuff being put into black stores,’’ Ms. Proctor told Forbes magazine in 1983. She said she wanted the pitch to be, ‘‘Generic foods are perfectly good foods. If apples aren’t from Michigan, they’re not grade A, but so what? They’re still good apples.’’
Among her clients over the years were the Sears department store, Kraft foods, the hair-product manufacturer Alberto-Culver, E.&J. Gallo Winery, Illinois Bell, and political campaigns including 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot.
The year after Ms. Proctor declared bankruptcy, she launched Proctor Communications Network, offering services in online marketing and website design. The company later dissolved.
She had been married to and divorced from Carl Proctor before she opened Proctor and Gardner Advertising and used her married surname for her business, she said, because it suggested that a man was participating in operations.
Ms. Proctor died at a rehabilitation facility in Chicago of complications from a broken hip and dementia, said her son, Morgan Proctor. In addition to her son, of Chicago, she leaves a sister and two grandchildren.
Reflecting on her life, Ms. Proctor remarked that she owed her successes, and her resilience to her experience as a black woman who had grown up poor.
‘‘I think blacks have a different acceptance of reality than white people,’’ she once told the publication Working Woman. ‘‘We’re more realistic. There is less fear. . . . Once you’ve been poor and black and you survive, there’s nothing left to be afraid of.’’