As we celebrate Black historical leaders this Black History Month and throughout the year, RH Strategic wants to honor the Black trailblazers who made incredible strides in communications and public relations.
We believe it is our role as public relations professionals to both shine a light on these transformative communicators and continue to work to make our industry more diverse and inclusive. In that spirit, we have compiled this list of Black communications and PR trailblazers past and present. We hope you will find their lives and work as inspiring as we do.
Maggie Lena Walker (1864 – 1934)
Born in Richmond, VA to enslaved parents, Maggie Lena Walker was a pioneer for Black female entrepreneurship. At 14 years old, Walker joined the Independent Order of St. Luke’s, a Black organization that supported the sick and poor. Walker climbed the ranks at St. Luke and eventually became the managing editor for St. Luke’s first newspaper, The St. Luke’s Herald, where she led the team in publishing articles that called attention to injustice in the community while providing a platform for Black entrepreneurs to establish institutions through the paper. An entrepreneur at heart, Walker went on to become the first woman to charter a bank in the United States. Today, Walker is celebrated for expanding women’s role in business.
Joseph Varney Baker (1908–1993)
As the first Black American to earn accreditation from PRSA and owner of the first Black-owned public relations firm in the country, Joseph Varney Baker was a PR trailblazer. Baker’s firm specialized in communications strategies to reach African American communities, working with brands including Gillette Corporation, Pennsylvania Railroad and U.S. Steel, among several others. Baker was also passionate about serving his community. He supported the Philadelphia NAACP and the Philadelphia PRSA, amongst several other organizations.
Patricia Tobin (1943 – 2008)
After starting her career as a broadcaster in Los Angeles, Patricia Tobin decided to start her own public relations company, Tobin and Associates, in 1983. Understanding the significant buying power of Black Americans, Tobin worked with big name brands, including Toyota, Wells Fargo, and Nestle USA, to better position brands to reach minority communities. In 1987, Tobin went on to found the National Black Public Relations Society, a testament to her passion for advocating for Black public relations professionals and journalists. In her obituary, The Los Angeles Times wrote, “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.”
Dr. Jesse J. Lewis Sr. (1925 – Present)
A World War II veteran, author and entrepreneur, Dr. Jesse J. Lewis Sr. has no shortage of impressive accomplishments and acts of service to his community. In 1954, Dr. Lewis Sr. founded Jesse J. Lewis and Associates, one of the first Black-owned public relations firms. Through his business, Dr. Lewis worked to challenge media and communications professionals to focus on highlighting Black families and parents in a more positive light. In 1963, Dr. Lewis Sr. founded The Birmingham Times, a Black-oriented newspaper, which is still running today.
To learn more about these leaders and other Black public relations trailblazers, visit The Museum of Public Relations.
RH Strategic is a Seattle and D.C.-based communications firm with a nationwide presence and additional global reach via membership in the Worldcom Public Relations Group. We provide strategic public relations for innovators in the technology, government and healthcare markets.