When John Hope Franklin and Pepsi Made a Black History Record
A decade after his death, John Hope Franklin remains among the most prominent historians to ever chronicle the African American past. Franklin’s 1947 masterpiece From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes has been translated into multiple languages and has sold over three million copies—the kind of sales figures that most authors only dream about. Franklin is the only African American historian to have received a Presidential Medal of Honor, from Bill Clinton in 1997. Franklin’s remarkable legacy can also be seen in his many doctoral students who went on to publish their own groundbreaking historical works.
Franklin was also renowned for his engagement of the public beyond academia. From Slavery to Freedom was published not by a university press but by Alfred A. Knopf, a major trade publisher that since the 1920s has enjoyed a reputation for embracing the works of African American authors, most prominently Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes. In the early 1950s, Franklin provided his services to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in preparation of its lawsuit for Brown v. Board of Education. And in February 1965, Franklin joined civil rights protestors in their march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
But perhaps one of Franklin’s more surprising acts of public engagement, and one that is almost entirely forgotten today, is a record he helped produce for Pepsi-Cola in 1966, Adventures in Negro History, Vol. II: The Frederick Douglass Years, 1817-1895. Released in 1966, the record was the second in a trilogy of LPs produced by Pepsi from 1963 to 1969 as part of a marketing campaign to boost the company’s standing with African American consumers.
Franklin appears to have been the first historian hired as a consultant for the series, as the inaugural disc, Adventures in Negro History, names no historian consultant. In 1969, Pepsi produced a third record for the series, The Afro-American’s Quest for Education: A Black Odyssey. This time Professor Elsie M. Lewis, the chair of Howard University’s history department, served as the historical consultant.
A small company in Detroit, Highlight Radio Productions, produced the records for Pepsi. Highlight Radio was the brainchild of Jerry Blocker, a pioneering African American radio DJ who worked at WCHB, just the third Black-owned radio station in America when it began broadcasting in 1956.
Blocker served as the narrator for Adventures in Negro History, lending the series his radio announcer’s elocution to give the records a particularly theatrical feel. The record on which Franklin consulted gave listeners an overview of Frederick Douglass’s life and included reenactments of his speeches, including his famed debut as a public speaker at an abolitionist meeting with William Lloyd Garrison in New Bedford, Massachusetts in August 1841.
Franklin makes no mention of Adventures in Negro History II in his autobiography, Mirror to America. To contemporary ears, the record sounds over-produced and even a bit dated, as is evident in everything from the string arrangement that opens side 1 of the LP, to Blocker’s highly polished radio voice, to ill-phrased claims that Douglass’s “majestic voice and manly bearing impressed all who heard it.” Today, the LPs show up in the inventories of online record dealers selling for as little as 75 cents, and clips of the recordings haven’t even attracted 100 views on YouTube.
And yet, the Adventures in Negro History records should be better known, if only because they represent a remarkably ambitious African American public history project. Keep in mind, of course, that these records were produced nearly a decade before the the observance of Black History Month became widely popular.
That it was Pepsi that funded and sponsored the records is even more surprising. It’s clear that the company wasn’t acting out of philanthropic selflessness in producing the records, but was trying to use the records to expand its reach into the African American marketplace. After all, one of Pepsi’s main strategies for distributing the records was to sell them for 99 cents to any A&P supermarket customer who purchased a Pepsi six-pack.
The fact that Pepsi saw recorded dramatic readings of Black history as a means of reaching more Black customers is remarkable, but it may say less about a soda manufacturer than it does about African Americans’ tremendous appetite for Black history in the 1960s. Either way, Pepsi’s manager overseeing Adventures in Negro History was H. Naylor Fitzhugh, a prominent Black professor of business at Howard University who joined Pepsi in 1965 as a vice president focused on promotional efforts for African American consumers.
Pepsi organized a series of public talks and events across the country to promote the Adventures in Negro History records and an accompanying film. A Black-oriented radio station outside St. Louis scheduled airtime to broadcast the records, while a women’s social club in Alabama and a Boy Scout troop in Connecticut held screenings of the film. In North Carolina, the Pepsi bottling plant in Raleigh hosted civic and educational leaders at a banquet event where they screened the Adventures in Negro History film. Popular African American radio announcer, TV dance show host, and Pepsi marketing representative J. D. Lewis presented copies of the records to local Black librarians at the event.
Not to be outdone by its rival, Coca-Cola came up with its own Black history promotional record and film strip, Black Treasures, in 1969. Designed for educators, the series was produced in conjunction with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.
Taken altogether, the dueling companies claimed to have distributed 160,000 copies of Adventures in Negro History and Black Treasures, not only to individual customers but also to 9,000 schools across the United States.1 Indeed, it’s the volume of records Pepsi and Coca-Cola produced that may be the most impressive aspect of the two series.
It’s impossible to measure the impact of the recordings, but with so many copies in circulation, they almost undoubtedly reached amateur African American history buffs as well as individuals who rarely if ever read or even thought about history. That Pepsi and Coca-Cola created these records with the assistance of John Hope Franklin, Elsie Lewis, and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History suggests that they not only realized the need to acknowledge the expertise of African American historians, but that they also understood they should pay African American historians for their expertise. Whatever their commercial intentions may have been, the two multinational soda manufacturers deserve credit for creating a pair of far-reaching public projects focused on African American history in the 1960s, long before most corporations embraced Black history every February.
- Judy Foster Davis, “Realizing Marketplace Opportunity: How Research on the Black Consumer Market Influenced Mainstream Marketers, 1920-1970,” Journal of Historical Research in Marketing 5.4 (2013), 485. ↩