Recognizing Black PR Pioneers Can Ease Difficult Conversations

As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s time for the PR industry to self-reflect. As a profession that prides itself on its ability to build relationships, we have failed at connecting with, recruiting and promoting professionals of color.

Blacks, who are 12.4 percent of all people living in the U.S., hold just 3.5 percent of PR management jobs, according to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

The situation in PR employment is mixed. Across 100+ U.S.-based PR and communication organizations slightly more than 21 percent of employees are racially/ethnically diverse, says last year's “Race and Ethnicity in Public Relations and Communications Benchmark Report” from the Diversity Action Alliance.

On the other hand, of 22 percent of employees promoted in 2019, fewer than one-fifth were racially/ethnically diverse, the Report says.

We can, and must, do better.

Building Bridges with History

To have the hard conversations that build bridges between organizations and those they serve, our ranks must include diverse professionals.

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said it well: “A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussion, decisions, and outcomes for everyone.”

Highlighting the rich history of PR's diverse pioneers is one way to prepare staff to begin difficult diversity discussions. In addition, elevating these pioneers may inspire the next generation of diverse leaders and highlight for all the importance of diverse voices.

Let's bring more of these hidden figures into the light.


John Brown Russwurm (1799-1851)

Russwurm was an abolitionist and Liberian government official. He was born in Jamaica to a slave mother and white American merchant father. His graduation from Bowdoin College, in 1826, made him the first Black college graduate in the U.S.

Russworm continued making history when he and Samuel Cornish founded Freedom’s Journal, the first Black owned and operated newspaper. Early on, Russwurm grasped the power of media to create and perpetuate disparaging stereotypes of minorities. He and Cornish set out to correct this.

In the Freedom’s Journal first issue, they wrote, “We wish to plead our own case.” Through the paper, they fought for the abolition of slavery and built pride among Black communities. Following his death, Russwurm would become known as the father of Black journalism.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)

Wells-Barnett is known as a journalist, publisher, activist, teacher, suffragist, state senate candidate [Illinois] and grassroots publicist. She spent the beginning of her career writing about race and politics in the South under the moniker “Iola.” Wells-Barnett eventually owned the publications Memphis Free Speech, Headlight and later the Free Speech.

Her life’s focus shifted after a mob murdered her friend and his business partners because their grocery was taking business from a white-owned store. Wells-Barnett’s anger led to an anti-lynching campaign in 1892. Her activism and reporting soon incited a riot in Memphis, where she lived at the time. Luckily, she was away, but it became painfully evident that it was too dangerous for her to return; she moved permanently to the North.

Wells-Barnett spoke about lynching throughout the U.S. and Europe. Eventually she settled in Chicago and co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the first Black kindergarten and Black suffrage organization. In addition, she was one of two Black women who signed “the call” to form the NAACP.


Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Rustin was best known for his work as an adviser to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In fewer than two months, this master strategist, tactician and activist helped organize the March on Washington, where King gave his now-famous “I have a dream” speech. The August 28, 1963, event was the largest demonstration the country had seen up to that time.

Hours before the March, Rustin predicted a crowd of 100,000 would attend. More than 200,000 did.  He likely did not consider himself a PR practitioner. Still, Rustin's work on the March set a standard for event planning–a significant part of PR work.

Rustin helped found the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), in 1942. Openly homosexual, some Black leaders worried this would undermine the civil rights movement. As such, he was forced to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Rustin helped found. In November 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.

For an in-depth look at PR's diverse pioneers, please visit the Museum of Public Relations' website at: