The Original Black Media King
In the late 1950s, long before he would be appreciated as one of the country’s most prominent Black media executives, Byron Lewis had a job …
In the late 1950s, long before he would be appreciated as one of the country’s most prominent Black media executives, Byron Lewis had a job working the weekend shift on the classified pages of The New York Times. Mr. Lewis had graduated from Long Island University in 1953, where he studied journalism before joining the Army. The fact that he was a Black man in the middle of the 20th century gave him little hope that he would land a job as a reporter, so he set his sights on something in advertising or publishing with the goal of earning $100 a week.
Proofreading the want ads was not an end in itself but rather a strategy. He figured that if he got a look at the listings before the rest of the world, he would be ahead of the game. There was a type of ad that appealed to him, and it showed up with some regularity, Mr. Lewis, who will turn 90 on Christmas Day, told me over tea recently in the downtown triplex he shares with his wife, Sylvia Wong Lewis. “It would say, ‘Seeking Ivy League type; own correspondence’ — this meant that you didn’t get a secretary — and ‘willing to travel.’” Whenever he saw an ad like this, he followed up quickly, but time and again nothing came of his initiative. The game, of course, was not designed to favor him. But Mr. Lewis, who possessed optimism and the confidence that envelops it, kept going back to the deck to draw another card.
One day though, during an interview at a media firm, an executive closed the door to his office and clarified things. “He said, ‘Ivy League doesn’t mean Italian. It doesn’t mean Jewish. It doesn’t mean Greek. And it certainly doesn’t mean you,’” Mr. Lewis recalled. “Ivy League meant white. The guy was apologetic. He was trying to help me. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘you’re just wasting your time.’”
The awakening was followed by a stroke of luck. Not long after, Mr. Lewis connected with a friend in Harlem, James Patterson, also Black, who was making real money on Wall Street. He was starting a newspaper, the Citizen Call, and Mr. Lewis went to work selling ads for him. The success of the venture depended on the willingness of white businesses to advertise; Black businesses in the city had been directing their marketing dollars to The Amsterdam News for half a century. A year into the effort, when that willingness failed to materialize, the Citizen Call shut down.
That experience set Mr. Lewis on a course to convince American corporations that their ignorance and bigotry were blinding them to the Black community’s buying power. “I spent a decade in the trenches learning how to get Black magazines, newspapers, radio and television stations going. I learned that the industry and the corporate client knew almost nothing about the Black consumer market,” Mr. Lewis told me. “I became a teacher and a salesman.” By the late 1960s, he would found Uniworld, one of the first and most enduring advertising agencies in the country to speak expressly to Black audiences, and eventually to a world of consumers who were not white.
I reached out to Mr. Lewis, wanting to revisit his immeasurable legacy at this moment of social transformation. From one angle, the current world of Madison Avenue would seem unrecognizable to the warriors of the Mad Men era. The most talked-about ad campaign in recent memory is Tiffany’s “About Love,” which gives us Jay-Z and Beyoncé as the ultimate avatars of luxury and adorns Beyoncé with the 128.54 carat Tiffany diamond, the first Black woman to wear it. On the other side are the grim statistical realities: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 80 and 90 percent of all managers in advertising, marketing and public relations are white. Dealing with advertisers early in his career, Mr. Lewis encountered an arrogant indifference, a confrontation with what James Baldwin described as “the most difficult and bewildering thing about the white world,” its insidious habit of acting “as if blacks were not there.”
After the Citizen Call folded, Mr. Lewis and others involved with it decided to create a magazine, The Urbanite, aimed at Black Americans belonging to the middle- and upper middle class, those with annual salaries ranging from $5,200 to $15,000; the lower figure represented the country’s median income in 1960. The magazine would be intellectual in its editorial orientation, chic and crisp in its visual aesthetic. Ebony, based in Chicago, was in its 16th year but it felt like Life magazine. Jet, which arrived in 1951, delivered news and entertainment in an even more populist key. Mr. Lewis and his colleagues envisioned something entirely different, which would serve the related goal of elevating the image of Black life against so much misperception and prejudice.
The Urbanite got its financial backing from the songwriter Irving Burgie, who made “Day-O” a hit single in the mid-1950s and who Mr. Lewis would describe decades later as “the only Black person in Harlem who really had any money.”
The conceit was for a literary magazine that would cover the world of ideas but also fashion, food and travel in a way that appealed to rarefied tastes. The cover of the first issue featured the image of a young woman in a strapless blue silk dress and three strands of pearls. During its very short life, The Urbanite delivered a remarkable body of work — contributions from Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Louis Lomax and LeRoi Jones, among others.
“Long before Essence, you have this attempt to produce a kind of Black Esquire, a highly sophisticated magazine,” Fath Davis Ruffins, curator of African-American history and culture at the Smithsonian, told me. “But they don’t have the money to produce it long enough to convince advertisers that the audience is there.”
In January of 1961, Charlayne Hunter (later, Charlayne Hunter-Gault) gained acceptance to the University of Georgia, one of two African-American students to enroll after a lawsuit claiming discriminatory admissions practices. Ms. Hunter, who had graduated third in her class in her Atlanta high school, wrote about the legal challenge and its aftermath in what would become her first published piece of journalism in the magazine’s final issue.
James Baldwin was the theater columnist. In the inaugural issue, he addressed the lack of authenticity on the American stage and the complications that presented for Black actors. Playwrights were a problem, he wrote, but the modern director was a strange, ineffective savior of the written word. “It would seem that much of his skill involves keeping everything moving at such a clip, and to have so many things happening at once,” Baldwin wrote, “that the audience will remain, in effect, safely protected from the play.”
Every issue was filled with this kind of erudition, and an attendant beauty, which made the magazine’s disappearance all the more spectacular. The Urbanite had capitalized on the electric cultural energy in Harlem following the Harlem Renaissance. This was the era of Chester Himes, Maya Angelou and Roy DeCarava, whose photographs of ordinary life in the neighborhood had captured the attentions of Edward Steichen, the Museum of Modern Art’s photography director from the late 1940s through the early ’60s. DeCarava and the jazz photographer Hugh Bell both shot for The Urbanite, Bell turning out ethereal fashion spreads.
Despite this pedigree, the magazine did not survive into the third quarter of 1961. As far as Mr. Lewis understands, the only copies of it that exist today are those on the table of his living room in the TriBeCa building he bought in 1990. A while back someone he knew found copies at a yard sale on Martha’s Vineyard and sold them to him.
The masthead identified him as “director of community relations,” which meant that he was out in the world trying to solicit advertising, a failed exercise, despite his efforts. “We had the most prominent and talented writers and creatives and a deserving audience. But we could not generate any support from mainstream ad agencies,” he said. “We never got one paid ad in three issues.”
Still, his belief in his own ability to influence was unwavering. After he left the military in the 1950s, Mr. Lewis returned to New York and got a job as a social worker, which was common for young Black men and women with creative aspirations because it was paying daytime work that was available to them. Mr. Lewis’s territory was the Lower East Side, which left him dealing with people from a range of backgrounds — Black families, but also Jewish families, Italian families and Latino families. “There were no men in any of these households,” Mr. Lewis said. “They were absent.” So he spent a lot of time talking to women, who were the drivers of the consumer economy. And he spent a lot of time learning to communicate with people who were unlike him.
This would put him at an advantage when he finally opened Uniworld in 1969, with the goal of creating ads for major brands — managed and owned by a white ruling class — that would speak to a Black audience. By 1969, the country was very different than it was when The Urbanite first appeared on newsstands. Mr. Lewis got his seed money from a group of white Wall Street investors. “The Kennedys had been killed and there was a lot of white guilt and the sense among white people that they had to do something — that there had been this moment of hope and now it was gone,” Mr. Lewis said.
If the overarching goal of advertising is to separate people from their money, here and among other Black agencies newly forming in New York and Chicago, the ambitions were broader and implicitly political. For the entirety of the 20th century, advertising had relied on a debased image of Black life to sell things to white people who held all the presumed market power. As Jason Chambers, a historian, argued in his book “Madison Avenue and the Color Line,’’ images of Black people serving moneyed white peoplevisibly upheld the assumed social organization of everyday life. Stereotypes amplified and justified discrimination, so the challenge for Mr. Lewis and others working alongside him was to deliver a countervailing set of positive or simply accurate depictions that would point to Black Americans “as equal consumers and equal citizens.”
In its first few years, Uniworld rode the wave of the ’60s revolution and did well, gaining clients like Smirnoff vodka. Corporations faced internal pressures to change, and they sought the voices of Black marketers. By the early 1970s, some of that enthusiasm had faded. “The bloom is definitely off the rose,” Mr. Lewis told the The New York Times in 1974.
What saved the agency, in part, was a deal he made with Quaker Oats to sponsor a radio soap opera called “Sounds of the City.” The story revolved around a Black family who fled the segregated South to chase opportunity in Chicago, only to encounter trauma after trauma once they settled into their new lives. Shauneille Perry, a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and the first cousin of Lorraine Hansberry, served as writer and director.
Growing up in the Rockaways, in Queens, Mr. Lewis had aunts who worked as domestics for wealthy Jewish families in the Five Towns, just to the east on Long Island; those relatives obsessively listened to radio soaps, even though they were all about white people. He knew that a Black soap would do well, and he also knew that Black families were loyal to Quaker Oats, an account he had been after for a long time. In a meeting with executives at the company, he put it simply: “I said, ‘Black people are your customers. We know these products — Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima. How do we know? We worked in your kitchens.’”
Mr. Lewis served as chief executive of Uniworld until his retirement in 2012, having sold a stake in the company to the British communications firm WPP 12 years earlier, at which point his agency had annual billings of hundreds of millions of dollars. It had developed advertising for companies like Ford, Avon, AT&T, Burger King and many others. Mr. Lewis started a Black film festival and ran media for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential bid. When he went after the Mars candy account, he sat down with Forrest Mars Jr. and explained that Alexandre Dumas, who wrote “The Three Musketeers,” after which their popular candy bar was named, was, in fact, Black. He took white executives to Black social events to introduce them to a world with which they had no familiarity.
“‘There was no way that we could ‘fake it till you make it’ in the way that happens today,” Mr. Lewis told me. The numbers didn’t allow for it. “I did everything right. I finished high school. I went to college. I served in the military. I worked hard.’’ he said. “But I also got lucky.’’