Blazing a Trail

This article is the first of four pieces detailing the history of African Americans at HBS for Black History Month, and is co-sponsored by the African American Student Union (AASU) and the Baker Library Historical Collections.

People of African descent have a long history in America, arriving on her shores even before the Mayflower. Though over the next 250 years most African-Americans were enslaved, a sizeable number were free and were able to achieve the American dream of entrepreneurial success. In 1841, William Liedsdoroff, a Virgin Islands native and San Francisco hotelier and educator, became the nation’s first black millionaire. In the early 1900’s Madam C.J. Walker became the first African-American woman to earn this distinction, and many have followed in their footsteps.

African-Americans also have a long history here at Harvard. The Law School graduated its first black student in 1869, and Harvard College followed in 1870. The business school’s first African-American graduate was Monroe Dowling, class of 1931. Dowling endured two years of isolation at HBS, where he was denied a place to eat or sleep, and went on to have a career in the federal government since none of the usual recruiting options were open to him.

H. Naylor Fitzhugh is probably the best known of the African-American pioneers at Harvard. He studied science and graduated with honors from Harvard College in 1931. Success in a summer sales job led him to HBS the following year; but, despite a stellar academic record, recruiters ignored him upon his graduation. He opted to return to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an independent salesman for a printing company that targeted the black community.

His frustration with the refusal of major companies that did business in the African American community to hire residents of the African-American community led him to co-found a movement called the New Negro Alliance to change those company policies. His work as a community activist also provided him the opportunity to teach a business course at Howard University, a historically black institution. A thirty-year career in academia ensued as Fitzhugh built the university’s business program, introducing a marketing department, and prepared young black students for careers in business.

In 1965, he decided to take a position with Pepsi-Cola spearheading the first marketing campaign that targeted African-Americans. During his nine years at Pepsi, Fitzhugh was responsible for developing the concept of target marketing and for bringing the enormous potential of the black community to the forefront of business minds.

It is because of his legacy, and his role as a trailblazer and mentor, that the African-American Student Union (AASU) at HBS has named its annual February conference after H. Naylor Fitzhugh.