Barbara Proctor was born in North Carolina in 1932, where, she would say years later, she suffered through “sheer, no-electricity, no-running-water poverty.” Yet she would go on to climb the ranks of the white- and male-dominated advertising industry in the 1960s, eventually becoming the first African American woman to own and operate an advertising agency.

As the sole founder of Proctor and Gardner Advertising, Proctor regarded advertising as the most powerful means of communication with the American public and vowed never to participate in the negative portrayal of women or black people. She had been married to and divorced from Carl Proctor before she opened Proctor and Gardner Advertising and used her married surname for her business, she said, because it suggested that a man was participating in operations.

Mrs. Proctor, who died Dec. 19 at 86, was once fired by an agency when she declined to work on a television commercial that appeared to make light of the civil rights movement; it showed a phalanx of housewives marching in the street, brandishing cans of hair product and demanding that their beauticians foam their hair.

Early life

Barbara Juanita Gardner was born on Nov. 30, 1932, in Black Mountain, N.C., where she was raised mainly by a grandmother.

“I have been running all my life from the pit of poverty in the bowels of North Carolina,” Mrs. Proctor told Crain’s Chicago Business.

“If you have ever been poor, once is enough.”

She graduated in 1954 from the historically black Talladega College in Alabama, where she studied English and psychology, and was planning to be a teacher when she stopped in Chicago after working as a camp counselor in Kalamazoo, Mich.

“I wound up spending all of my money and didn’t have bus fare to get home,” she once told the Chicago Tribune.

Mrs. Proctor, shown here in 1974, was the founder of Proctor and Gardner Advertising. (Chicago Sun-Times)
Mrs. Proctor, shown here in 1974, was the founder of Proctor and Gardner Advertising. (Chicago Sun-Times)

She found work as a jazz writer with Downbeat magazine and later at Vee-Jay Records, where she was credited with helping bring early recordings of the Beatles to the United States. She moved into advertising, she said, when she understood its sway over American culture.

She entered the field as a copywriter. Fearing that her race and gender would impede her advancement, she decided to start her own business.

A business of her own

In 1970, Mrs. Proctor struck out on her own with the help of a U.S. Small Business Administration loan. By 1984, her billings had topped $12 million. President Ronald Reagan, in his State of the Union address that year, named her as an example of the American “spirit of enterprise,” recalling her rise “from a ghetto to build a multimillion-dollar advertising agency in Chicago.”

Her business suffered a decline after the recession of the 1980s and was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1995. At the time, it had $1.8 million in debt that had accumulated, according to an analysis in the publication Crain’s Chicago Business, amid “poor financial controls” and greater competition for advertising work targeted to minority customers.

How experience informs success

Many of her clients sought her service for advertising campaigns directed at African American consumers. Among Proctor and Gardner’s first accounts was Jewel Food Stores, an Illinois chain that hired her to promote its line of generic groceries.

“I didn’t want it to appear there was cheap stuff being put into black stores,” Mrs. Proctor told Forbes magazine in 1983. She said she wanted the pitch to be, “Generic foods are perfectly good foods. If apples aren’t from Michigan, they’re not grade A, but so what? They’re still good apples.”

Among her clients over the years were the Sears department store, Kraft foods, the hair-product manufacturer Alberto-Culver, E.&J. Gallo Winery, Illinois Bell and political campaigns including 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot.

Reflecting on her life, Mrs. Proctor remarked that she owed her determination, her successes and her resilience to her experience as a black woman who had grown up poor.

“I think blacks have a different acceptance of reality than white people,” she once told the publication Working Woman. “We’re more realistic. There is less fear. ... Once you’ve been poor and black and you survive, there’s nothing left to be afraid of.”

Mrs. Proctor died at a rehabilitation facility in Chicago of complications from a broken hip and dementia, said her son, Morgan Proctor. Besides her son, of Chicago, survivors include a sister and two grandchildren.

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