Stop me if this sounds familiar: an oversize poster featuring spectacular portraits of Black African leaders, set against an impressionistic backdrop of military exploits, technological advancement, or civilization-building. Often accompanied by a vignette providing further information about figures such as Afonso I, a 16th century king of the Kongo described as “the first ruler to modernize Black Africa on a grand scale,” or Askia Muhammad, who reigned over the Songhai Empire from 1493 to 1528 and “established a governmental machine that is still revered today for its detail and efficiency.” All introduced with eye-catching calligraphy, and branded as part of the “Great Kings of Africa”—or, in later years, the “Great Kings and Queens of Africa”—series.
If you are an American of a certain generation, and particularly if you are Black, you have likely come across such illustrations. You might have seen them on the walls of your classroom, or in the window of your local convenience store, or on the pages of your favorite magazines. In addition to posters, you might have consumed these images through calendars, metal signs, bar mirrors, and other forms of material culture. It might have been the first time you saw Africa and its leaders depicted in this way—not as a “dark continent,” but as a land rich in history and accomplishment. What you might not have known is that these posters were part of one of the largest and most ambitious Black history–themed corporate advertising projects of the 20th century.
Starting in 1975, Anheuser-Busch’s “Great Kings of Africa” campaign introduced historical African leaders such as Afonso and Askia to tens of millions of people. It commissioned dozens of Black artists to produce original paintings and illustrations, which were exhibited at world’s fairs, the Summer Olympics, the U.S. Capitol, and other venues. These images achieved wider circulation through print media and assorted educational and commercial ephemera. An extraordinary example of savvy marketing under the guise of corporate social responsibility, the campaign remains a model for how many corporations engage with Black history today—for good and for ill. The popularity and continued impact of the “Great Kings and Queens” series raises the question: How and why did white-owned corporations turn toward Black history as a marketing strategy? And what role do (and should) corporations have in shaping popular understandings of the African and African American past?
To understand how “Great Kings” came about, we need to understand the confluence of three key trends in American life following World War II. First, a surge of civil rights activism. Second, a groundswell of support for educational reform and a Black history revival. And third, the growing economic power of Black consumers. Anxious to avoid being targeted by civil rights activists, and eager to tap into the so-called Negro market, white-owned corporations saw appeals to Black history as a way of addressing both issues simultaneously. An early pioneer was the Lorillard Tobacco Company, which collaborated with Black newspapers and the Negro History Bulletin to produce an editorial series championing the long-standing (and largely coerced) relationship between Black people and tobacco manufacturing. Another was Pepsi-Cola, which created a series of audio documentaries—released on LP and titled Adventures in Negro History—with help from Black consultants such as John Hope Franklin, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, and Broadus Butler, an assistant dean at Wayne State University. By 1966, the Chicago Defender, a leading Black newspaper, had noted approvingly that “the nation’s leading firms have jumped on the Negro history bandwagon, and the result has been not only a better understanding of the Negro’s past, but also better identification with the Negro market.” This sentiment appeared to be shared by many within the Black community, with Pepsi-Cola and other businesses struggling to keep up with demand for their new Black history–themed marketing materials.
Alcoholic beverage companies were particularly eager to transform their relationship with Black consumers. Consumer surveys suggested that Black Americans drank more than the average American, were more brand-conscious, and, thanks to the impact of the Great Migration, were disproportionately urban. Regardless of whether such claims were accurate, liquor brands warmed to the idea of a receptive, geographically concentrated market that they could exploit. Black history–themed corporate initiatives and other public outreach campaigns also helped alcoholic beverage distributors smooth over a history of racist advertising—one in which, for most of the 20th century, Black people were either absent from advertisements or used in ways that reinforced their perceived social inferiority. Old Taylor, Schenley, and the Seagram Company were just some of the distillers and alcoholic beverage providers that got into the Black history game, producing informational booklets, historical calendars, and busts of prominent Black history figures. In need of advertising dollars, Black periodicals such as the Pittsburgh Courier championed initiatives such as Old Taylor’s “Ingenious Americans” series, describing it as “one of the country’s most widely acclaimed public relations programs.”
The man behind Anheuser-Busch’s arrival on the Black history “bandwagon” was Henry H. Brown, a Black Houstonian who joined the company after graduating from Texas Southern University in the late 1950s. Working his way up the corporate ladder over the next 15 years, Brown was eventually recruited to the company’s St. Louis headquarters in 1975 as a director of sales, where he was tasked with helping to improve Anheuser-Busch’s reputation among Black Americans. The Black history angle was attractive, and Brown and his sales team worked with illustrators at the D’Arcy advertising agency and focus groups at Black colleges on a project exploring the impact of historic African rulers. However, Brown knew that for the project to succeed, it would need to pass the “authenticity” test.
Scarred by a long history of neglect and misrepresentation by white-owned businesses, many Black Americans remained skeptical of newfound corporate enthusiasm for their hard-earned dollars. Such skepticism was compounded by the clumsiness of corporate advertisers, whose desire to tap into the Black consumer market was undermined by insensitive, ill-suited, or just plain ignorant advertising campaigns. However, done right, Black history campaigns could be a home run. As companies such as Pepsi-Cola and Schenley had shown, the most successful Black history initiatives were collaborative ventures between white-owned corporations and Black experts—not just Black historians, but also Black executives and cultural producers.
From a community relations perspective, Anheuser-Busch did a lot right with the rollout of the “Great Kings” series. The company sought advice from figures such as Herbert Coverdale, a Black psychologist and Chicago-based entrepreneur who had previously consulted for Marlboro cigarettes, and John Henrik Clarke, a well-known Black popular historian and Africana studies pioneer who was brought on as a historical consultant. Anheuser-Busch commissioned a quartet of Black artists—Paul Collins, Higgins Bond, Leo Dillon, and Carl Owens—to create an initial set of four paintings. It also established close connections with Johnson Publishing, the publisher of Ebony and other leading Black magazines. The first four paintings in the “Great Kings” series were publicly unveiled in February 1976, at a lavish cocktail party sponsored by Anheuser-Busch and held at the Johnson Publishing headquarters in Chicago.
And yet the initial response to the project was decidedly mixed, with focus groups at Black colleges suggesting that they were interested in more contemporary subjects. Accordingly, Brown came under increasing pressure from Anheuser-Busch executives to shelve the campaign—less, it seems, for ideological reasons than with an eye to the project’s costs. This pressure is a reminder that while such campaigns were presented as forms of corporate benevolence, they were also expected to have significant corporate benefits. Despite the rhetoric of company executives such as August Busch III—who celebrated the campaign as evidence of Anheuser-Busch’s unconditional role in promoting Black cultural heritage and interest in the African past—it was clear that the continuation of the “Great Kings” series was contingent on its ability to elevate Anheuser-Busch’s standing within the Black community, something that, where possible, could be linked to improved sales.
What ultimately saved the project was a phenomenon beyond Anheuser-Busch’s control: Alex Haley’s Roots saga, published in 1976, and its miniseries adaptation, aired on ABC in early 1977. An epic retelling of the life of Kunta Kinte, an enslaved African, and his descendants, Roots captivated the nation and triggered a massive resurgence of interest in African history. Brown recalls that Roots gave new life to the “Great Kings” campaign, and Anheuser-Busch was quickly inundated with requests for reprints of the series’s artwork. Eager to capitalize on this fervor, Anheuser-Busch created a television commercial that ran during the airing of Roots and used the “Great Kings” series as a backdrop.
By presenting “Great Kings” as primarily an educational project, Anheuser-Busch was able to familiarize children and young adults with its branding.
By 1977, the first four “Great Kings” paintings had begun touring major Black conventions around the country, and reproductions were made available to Black schools, banks, and other institutions. Anheuser-Busch also looked to commission more artists to produce new paintings, beginning with Charles Lilly, who created an image of Hannibal, ruler of Carthage, and John Biggers, who painted Taharqa, king of Nubia. By the early 1980s, an estimated 11 million people had viewed the paintings at museums, college campuses, conventions, and cultural festivals. Anheuser-Busch reported that an additional 40 million had been exposed to the “Great Kings” series through print advertisements, and the company had received more than 5 million requests for reprints, a demand it met through the mass production of oversize posters that became a staple in classrooms across the country. In 1983, the company expanded the series to incorporate “Great Queens.” By the time Anheuser-Busch donated the series to the United Negro College Fund in 2012, it included 30 paintings created by some two dozen Black artists, and the company’s estimates of its audience had quadrupled.
Beyond its enormous popularity, Anheuser-Busch’s “Great Kings and Queens” series provided an advertising model that other corporations looked to exploit. First, Anheuser-Busch presented the series as a yearlong celebration of Black heritage that went beyond the Black History Month window subscribed to by many businesses. This approach has been adopted, albeit not always as successfully, by companies such as McDonald’s. Second, the campaign provided a way to extend Anheuser-Busch’s reach beyond Black consumers of its products to the broader Black community, and in particular to Black children. By presenting “Great Kings” as primarily an educational project rather than an advertising initiative, Anheuser-Busch, an alcoholic beverage company, was able to familiarize children and young adults with its branding. In similar ways, other alcohol distributors and tobacco manufacturers, alongside fast-food companies and soft drink distributors, have been able to further develop their already disproportionate marketing presence within Black urban communities through Black history–themed corporate initiatives.
Most significantly, Anheuser-Busch demonstrated how corporations could play an active role in curating Black history for a popular audience. When August Busch III noted that the “Great Kings” project aimed to “fill the void in the history of Afro-Americans and highlight the richness of African history,” he acknowledged that these histories and their representation remained sorely lacking within American society. However, he also pointed to Anheuser-Busch and, by extension, other corporations as increasingly influential agents that could help fill this void. This influence can be traced through the ever-growing sums that corporations such as Walmart, Target, and Boeing continue to pour into Black history–themed marketing campaigns and public programming, as well as their well-publicized support for institutions such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is also a product of a broader push since the 1970s to view American public education as a commodity and to champion the role of the market as a means of solving educational problems.
These trends bring us back to the underlying question: What role do (and should) corporations play in shaping popular engagement with Black history? Henry Brown had few regrets about his own role in the “Great Kings and Queens” phenomenon, seeing it as a way to simultaneously help Anheuser-Busch market its products and promote greater engagement with African history. Yet the relationship among Black history, Black consumers, and corporate profits is rarely simple. For Anheuser-Busch and other companies whose products carry significant social and health implications for Black communities, this relationship might not be ethical. What is clear is that, for better and for worse, campaigns such as “Great Kings and Queens” have helped to solidify this relationship.