In 1963, Barbara Gardener Proctor was flying to Europe to swap records while working for a black-owned record company. Upon her arrival back home, Vee-Jay records started publicizing her find. Soon, “England’s No.1 Vocal Group,” the Beatles, would be everywhere.
Proctor, a trailblazing businesswoman and community activist, died on Dec. 19, according to her son Morgan. She was 85.
Born to a 16-year-old single mother in North Carolina, Proctor was raised in a dirt-floor shack by her grandparents before earning a teacher’s certificate from Talladega College in Alabama. After a detour in Chicago left her penniless, Proctor stuck around.
Beyond her early contributions to radio airwaves, Proctor founded the first ad agency founded by a black woman. After securing a $1,000 loan from a friend and office space above a Pizzeria Uno, her clientele grew to include Kraft foods. By the 1980s, she’d risen to national prominence with the help of a mention from Ronald Reagan during his 1983 State of the Union speech. The “rose from a ghetto shack” who went on to “build a multi-million-dollar advertising agency in Chicago” would see her firm, Proctor and Gardner, dissolved by 1995. Still, her firm’s end was due in large part to competition from other black-owned firms, a space her handiwork had created.
Five years earlier, Proctor reflected on her trailblazer status.
“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.”