By Dr. Stacey Jones Solakian
On March 15, 2018 Dr. Mary Ellen Strong was enshrined into the NNPA Gallery of Distinguished Publishers during Black Press Week in Washington DC. Dr. Strong was honored for her publication of The Milwaukee Defender from 1957-1961. The newspaper’s tagline was “Wisconsin’s only news of and by Negroes.” This is the first posthumous honor that she has received since her death in 2012 and it provides an opportunity to reflect upon her many lifetime accomplishments.
Dr. Mary Ellen Strong was born in Indiana in 1921. Her family migrated North from New Orleans and would eventually settle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She began her career as a publisher and entrepreneur out of necessity due to limited economic opportunities for Blacks and women in Wisconsin. Her first successful endeavor was the first Negro Business Directory in Wisconsin. She published the directory from 1949 until the late ‘50’s.
After publishing the Negro Business Directory and the Milwaukee Defender newspaper, she moved to
Chicago in the mid-1960’s and began working for the Chicago Courier, a weekly newspaper founded by S.B. Fuller, one of the first Black millionaires in the United States. Strong was the marketing director for the newspaper and during that time she was honored as Businesswoman of the Year by the Chicago Chamber of Commerce alongside actress Joan Crawford who was being honored for her work with Pepsi Cola.
Strong took her marketing experience and launched her own marketing company called The Welcome New Neighbor Service. The company did door-to-door sampling in African American and Hispanic neighborhoods throughout the United States. Strong’s company held contracts with Sears, Purex, Kellogg’s, SC Johnson Company and Proctor and Gamble. Among the accomplishments of the marketing company was the successful launch of Huggies diapers in these communities for Kimberly Clark. She also used her influence in the corporate community to develop an investment banking program, where she encouraged corporations to make large deposits in Black owned banks which allowed them to establish corporate credibility.
In 1980, she combined her marketing expertise with her publishing background to create Black Family Magazine. The focus of the magazine was to encourage the preservation of the Black family unit. She refused to accept cigarette and liquor advertisements and focused content on issues impacting the deterioration of the Black family in the United States. The magazine was published until 1985.
In the eighties she also became an ordained minister and sought after speaker in churches and on Christian television programs often speaking about women and family issues. In the nineties she published the Atlanta Courier Journal newspaper and began her own spice company called Gugi’s Global Foods.
In addition to her involvement in the worlds of business and ministry, she was also involved in politics throughout most of her adult life. She ran for office in Milwaukee and was involved in both Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. She was especially active with the Republican Party during the Reagan administration.
Dr. Mary Ellen Strong’s legacy lives on through honors such as the recent NNPA Enshrinement as well as through the Mary Ellen Strong Foundation. The NNPA is a trade association which is known as the Black Press of America. The 2018 NNPA Enshrinement honor was accepted by Dr. Stacey Jones, Strong’s granddaughter and the Director of the Mary Ellen Strong Foundation. The Mary Ellen Strong Foundation was created in 2014 with a mission to promote mental health in the African American community. This year the foundation is piloting a Professional Development Program in Wisconsin designed to provide scholarship, guidance and professional opportunities for African American graduate students dedicated to providing mental health services in Milwaukee’s underserved communities.
For more information about the Mary Ellen Strong Foundation go to: www.maryellenstrong.org.