Botwc Firsts

Barbara Gardner Proctor Was The First Black Woman To Own An Ad Agency

Barbara Gardner Proctor Was The First Black Woman To Own An Ad Agency

Photo: WTTW News 

Barbara Gardner Proctor blazed her own trail in 1970 when she launched her own business and became the first Black woman to own an advertising agency.

Despite being born to a 16-year-old single mother in North Carolina and raised by her grandparents in a dirt-floor shack that had neither running water nor electricity, Proctor was never the one to allow her circumstances to define her. She went on to earn a scholarship to Talladega College in Alabama, where she obtained a degree in English, psychology and social sciences. 

While she made plans to return home to work as a teacher, her plans changed after she stopped in Chicago following the completion of her summer camp counseling job in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 

"I wound up spending all of my money and didn't have bus fare to get home,” Proctor told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. “And in large measure, for 30 years I've been trying to get my bus fare back to North Carolina." 

Photo: Sun-Times archives 

In her unexpected career change, Proctor worked for the Urban League, DownBeat magazine, and Vee-Jay Records. During her time at Vee-Jay Records, she closed a deal that helped introduce the Beatles to America. 

Then, after working for a few different advertising firms, Proctor went on to secure an $80,000 Small Business Administration loan and started her own advertising business, Proctor & Gardner Advertising. It grew into the nation's largest Black-owned agency within a six-year time period, reported the Chicago Sun Times.

Photo: Ad Age Archive 

“It is not, in any way, easy to be a minority company,” Proctor said, “and as I am a woman and Black, it has been a double minority situation."

However, Proctor did it for 25 years. As a matter of fact, according to WTTW News, by 1983 her company had $12 million in billing and a client list that included Sears, Kraft, and Jewel Foods. Her firm later dissolved in 1995 due to losing business to other Black-owned firms that her work paved the way for. 

In her 86 years of life, Proctor also served as president of the League of Black Women, became a lifetime member of the NAACP, and was a member of several boards including the Better Business Bureau and White House Conference on Small Business. 

On December 19, Proctor crossed over to be with the ancestors and left behind a legacy that will continue to inspire generations of African Americans in advertising.