Byron Lewis, the original black media mogul


Despite this pedigree, the magazine did not survive until the third quarter of 1961. From what Mr. Lewis understands, the only copies that exist today are those on his living room table in the TriBeCa building. which he bought in 1990. Some time ago, someone he knew found copies at a garage sale on Martha’s Vineyard and sold them to him.

The header identified him as “director of community relations,” which meant he was in the world trying to solicit publicity, a failed exercise, despite his best efforts. “We had the most prominent and talented writers and creatives and a deserving audience. But we couldn’t generate any support from mainstream advertising agencies, ”he said. “We have never had a single paid advertisement on three numbers. “

Yet his belief in his own ability to influence was unwavering. After leaving the military in the 1950s, Mr. Lewis returned to New York City and got a job as a social worker, which was common for young black men and women with creative aspirations as it was a job. paid day that was available to them. Mr. Lewis’s territory was the Lower East Side, which allowed him to deal with people from diverse backgrounds – black families, but also Jewish families, Italian families and Latin American 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 engines of the consumer economy. And he spent a lot of time learning how to communicate with people who were unlike him.

This would give him an advantage when he finally opened Uniworld in 1969, with the goal of creating ads for big brands – run and owned by a white ruling class – that would speak to a black audience. In 1969, the country was very different from what 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 guilt among the whites and the feeling among the whites that they had to do something – that there had been that moment of hope and now it was gone,” said Mr. Lewis.

If the primary purpose of advertising is to separate people from their money, here and among other newly formed black agencies in New York and Chicago, the ambitions were broader and implicitly political. Throughout the 20th century, advertising had relied on a degraded image of black life to sell things to whites who wielded all the presumed market power. As Jason Chambers, a historian, argued in his book “Madison Avenue and the Color Line,” images of blacks serving wealthy whites visibly confirmed the supposed social organization of everyday life. Stereotypes amplified and justified discrimination, so the challenge for Mr. Lewis and others working alongside him was to provide a compensating set of positive or simply correct portrayals that would designate black Americans “as equal consumers and citizens. equal ”.

In its early years, Uniworld rode the wave of the ’60s revolution and did well, gaining clients like Smirnoff Vodka. Businesses have faced internal pressure to change, and they have sought the voice of black traders. By the early 1970s, some of that enthusiasm had waned. “The bloom is definitely off the rose,” Mr. Lewis told the New York Times in 1974.

What saved the agency, in part, was a deal it made with Quaker Oats to sponsor a radio drama called “Sounds of the City.” The story revolved around a black family who fled the segregated South to seek an opportunity in Chicago, only to encounter trauma after trauma once they settled into their new lives. Shauneille Perry, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and first cousin of Lorraine Hansberry, has been a screenwriter and director.


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