A Historian’s Fresh Take on Black Capitalists and Civil Rights
Brenna Wynn Greer’94 was a reluctant historian.
The Wisconsin native hated history in high school but frequently drove the backroads of the state with her mother, Mary Hughes-Greer’97, looking for—as the pair affectionately called them—“hysterical (historical) markers,” and though she eventually majored in history at Beloit, Greer never thought of herself as a historian.
Greer credits Anita Andrew, a visiting professor of Asian history who taught at Beloit from 1987 to 1994, with being the first person to point her toward her future career.
“I remember her expressing that this was something she thought I enjoyed and was impressed by my instinct for it,” says Greer. “I was interested in history but had never thought of that as a profession. It was an awakening for me.”
Decades later, and armed with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Greer is an associate professor of history at Wellesley College, specializing in 20th century U.S. history. She pays Andrew’s advice forward to her students, dedicating time in each course to talk about the process of becoming a historian.
“It’s really important to me that students walk away with some sense of what it means to be a historian and how you become a historian, and that all goes back to Anita,” says Greer.
Though she says she was introverted during her time at Beloit, Greer was also a self-described “fire starter,” who wasn’t afraid to write letters to the editor of The Round Table or ask difficult questions in class.
She hasn’t shied away from asking difficult or even controversial questions in her scholarship either.
Her book, Represented: The Black Imagemakers Who Reimagined African American Citizenship, published in 2019 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, explores the role that black capitalists and entrepreneurs John H. Johnson and Moss Kendrix had in advancing civil rights. Johnson created a publishing empire through magazines like Jet and Ebony, while Kendrix was the first black public relations officer for Coca-Cola. Together they used a growing consumer culture reliant on images to make money, and their successful business endeavors pushed the civil rights movement forward.
“The book is pushing against this conventional understanding of the civil rights movement as primarily, if not only, a movement of protest action,” says Greer.
Up to World War II, African-Americans had little access to mainstream media and often saw themselves being portrayed as caricatures—depicted as lazy and primitive and thus reaffirming their second-class citizenship status. But in the late 1940s, Johnson and Kendrix redefined the visual representation of African-Americans in an image-saturated society. In an advertising campaign titled “Family Favorite,” which was created by Kendrix for Coca-Cola and published in Ebony and other black publications, black families were shown doing things like cooking, dancing, and watching television. For the first time in these Coca-Cola ads, black people saw themselves represented outside of the stereotypes that had prevailed in popular culture.
This is not, however, the book Greer set out to write. She wanted to explore black women activists and how they visually represented themselves during the civil rights movement. Her research led her to Johnson and Kendrix, and that attracted pushback from others about her newfound topic.
“I started running into people questioning why I was writing about these black businessmen or how I was writing about them,” says Greer. “We really have a hard time thinking about marginalized people participating in institutions like capitalism that contribute to inequality and racism.”
Beatrice McKenzie, Beloit’s Keefer Professor of Public Humanities, describes Greer’s research as a fresh take on questions that historians are just starting to ask. McKenzie says that only recently, historians have turned to look at the history of capitalism from different perspectives, including slavery as a capitalist venture.
A central question in the book asks whether the experience of “freedom” in the United States requires going through and shoring up institutions of oppression, such as capitalism.
Greer will be the first to tell you that she doesn’t have the answer. But she hopes the book can expand thoughts about what the civil rights movement was.
“The book is meant to shine a light on the specific historical circumstances and systems that made particular people say and produce particular things,” says Greer.
Whitney Helm is the news and social media manager for Beloit College.