Black Pride, Peoples Beer Cans | Wisconsin Historical Society

Feature Story

Black Pride, Peoples Beer Cans

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object Feature Story

Black Pride, Peoples Beer Cans | Wisconsin Historical Society


EnlargeBlack Pride Beer Can

Black Pride Beer Can

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum Object 2012.135.5

Black Pride Beer Can, 1970-1972 
(Museum Object 2012.135.5)

EnlargePeople's Brewing Can

People's Brewing Can

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum Object 2019.45.291

Peoples Beer Can, 1965-1973
(Museum Object 2019.45.291)

These two beer cans are emblematic of a particular moment in Wisconsin and United States social and brewing history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s African American brewing entrepreneurs pursued two different experiments in economic self-determination in Wisconsin. One group of investors created a new brand, brewed on contract and marketed specifically to Black consumers in Black neighborhoods. Another group purchased an existing brewery and operated it in a traditional, essentially color-blind way. Both aimed to generate wealth for the Black community. 

Black economic self-determination has a long history in the United States, dating back at least to the 1890s, when Booker T. Washington asserted that Black economic success would pave the way for the privileges of full citizenship for African Americans. Although different leaders advocated different approaches, they agreed that Black communities should create and patronize Black businesses, to keep the money spent by Black consumers circulating within the community, rather than being siphoned off by White interests. This theme received new impetus in the 1960s through voices as diverse as Malcolm X and James Brown: “I don't want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I'll get it myself.”[i] 

The idea was so appealing that Richard Nixon made “Black Capitalism” a centerpiece of the Republican response to the challenges of the Civil Rights movement. By appealing to the tradition of Black economic nationalism, Nixon could shift the burden of economic equality from the federal government to African Americans themselves. 

EnlargeBlack Pride, Inc. President Edward J. McClellan, from The Brewers Digest, December 1969

Black Pride, Inc. President Edward J. McClellan

From The Brewers Digest, December 1969.

Black Pride – the Branding Option

In 1969, Edward McClellan, a former Chicago police sergeant and Executive Secretary of the Southside Chicago Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, led the founding of Black Pride, Inc. (BPI), which McClellan described as “in every respect a bootstrap, grass roots endeavor.” The goal of the for-profit corporation was to create wealth by marketing goods and services - including but not limited to beer - within the Black community. It was funded by 75 small-scale African American investors, who contributed $1000 each.

BPI contracted with the West Bend Lithia Company of West Bend, Wisconsin, to brew and package 20,000 barrels of "Black Pride" beer, which used the slogan “A beer as proud as its people” and a lion to symbolize African heritage. It also received Chicago distribution rights for West Bend Lithia’s own brands Old Timer’s Lager and Lithia Light. Black Pride beer reached Chicago retailers on November 24, 1969.

EnlargeVisitors begin to line up for a tour of the Peoples Brewing Co. following the ribbon cutting ceremonies in Oshkosh, Wis.

Visitors begin to line up for a tour of the Peoples Brewing Co. following the ribbon-cutting ceremonies in Oshkosh, Wis.

Peoples – the Ownership Option

Meanwhile about 90 miles north, Theodore “Ted” Mack created United Black Enterprises (UBE) to gain an African American foothold in Milwaukee’s brewing industry. Mack, a 1959 graduate of Marquette University, had been hired by the Pabst Brewing Company to bring Pabst’s overwhelmingly White workforce into compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, becoming Pabst’s head of production and industrial relations. When Pabst was finally forced to sell Milwaukee’s Blatz brewery in 1969 after ten years of antitrust litigation, UBE submitted a $9 million offer. UBE lost the acquisition when the judge in the case prevented the group from trying to match the G. Heileman Brewing Company’s competing bid. 

Within a year, however, UBE purchased the Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. By 1970, the brewery, which had been founded in 1913 and survived Prohibition, was facing closure. 80% of the stockholders agreed to sell to UBE, for a bargain price. The brewery re-opened with a public ribbon-cutting on October 11, 1970. The new owners retained the workforce, brewmaster, and branding, while trying to expand the brewery’s distribution outside its traditional local area. If you did not know that the ownership was Black, there was nothing about the product to tell you so.


Both approaches faced steep odds, as the brewing industry continued its intensive process of consolidation. Between 1933 and 1973, the number of American breweries shrank from about 750 to just 65, and the big ones just got bigger. The majors invested in economies of scale and national advertising, and often undercut smaller competitors on price, while making up for their lower profit margins with their unbeatable volume. They sometimes pressured distributors to drop smaller breweries or risk losing their business. 

At the same time, the national breweries discovered African American consumers and began devoting some of their huge advertising budgets to attracting Black customers. 

Peoples and Black Pride also faced unique challenges based on race. Mack had to quash rumors that the White workforce in Oshkosh would be replaced entirely by Black workers and that the beer’s quality was being cut. He had to persuade Oshkosh-area tavern owners to resume selling Peoples after they removed the beer from their taps en masse. And without a significant advertising budget, Peoples’ efforts to break into new, urban markets failed to gain traction. Meanwhile, Black Pride had a different concern: trying to convince the Black community that the new brand was not just a front for White investors. 

The outcome was predictable: in 1972, both of these bootstrap efforts fell to the same, inexorable economic forces that were shuttering small breweries nationwide. The Black Pride brand died when West Bend Lithia closed in 1972, and Peoples was forced out of business the same year.

When the Black Pride brand was launched, Edward McClellan said, “Of course, the possibility of success implies the possibility of failure. We accept that possibility, but if we fail, it will at least be on our own terms and it won’t be because we haven’t tried to succeed. There’s dignity in that, too.”

[Sources: Shennette Garrett-Scott, “A Historiography of African American Business,” Business and Economic History Online, Vol. 7, 2009. Accessed 15 Nov. 2021; Rev. Darren Cushman-Wood, "Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X: economic insights and influences." Monthly Review, vol. 45, no. 1, May 1993, pp. 21+. Gale Academic OneFile, A13767790/AONE?u=greenbay&sid=googleScholar&xid=36c4c837. Accessed 15 Nov. 2021; “For a Brighter Future … BLACK PRIDE,” Brewers Digest, December 1969. Reprinted at Accessed 15 Nov. 2021; John Harry, “Beer for the People — How Wisconsin’s First Black-Owned Brewery Took on the Entire Beer Industry,” Accessed 15 Nov. 2021; Lee Reiherzer, “Untangling the History of Ted Mack and Peoples Brewing,” . Accessed 21 Nov. 2021; Lee Reiherzer, “1972. The Year Brewing Died in Oshkosh,” Accessed 21 Nov. 2021.]

[1] Lyrics from "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)," written and recorded by James Brown. It was released as a single in March 1969, and reached #3 on the R&B and #20 on the Pop charts. Brown expressed a similar sentiment in “Funky President,” released in 1974:

“We got to get together and buy some land 
Raise our food just like the man 
Save our money, do like the mob 
Put up your fight and own the job.”