By Jan Uebelherr
of the Journal Sentinel
Mary Ellen Strong, a pioneer in black media and marketing in Milwaukee and Chicago, died Tuesday of heart failure at her California home. She was 91.
Strong had lived in California for several years, where she had worked with various ministries, said her son, Jerrel Jones.
“She was the first in so many things,” he said.
“She did have the pioneering spirit.”
Her long and varied career included politics, publishing and marketing. It began with the annual Wisconsin Negro Business directory in 1949.
“It started many things, and was the beginning of my known work,” she said in 1956, when she made an unsuccessful bid for 6th district alderman. In a feature story at the time, she said, “Milwaukee has a great soul. I want to give it body. I think this is the most strategic ward in Milwaukee. I’m in love with it.” It was the same year that Vel Phillips ran for an aldermanic seat and became the first black and the first woman elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council.
Around the same time, Strong founded the Milwaukee Defender, a weekly newspaper in Milwaukee billed as “Wisconsin’s only negro news of and by negroes.” It published until 1961.
“She was a spirit in terms of business and making things happen in Milwaukee,” said Clayborn Benson, founder and director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society.
Benson called the business directories she produced a comprehensive look at Milwaukee’s black community at the time, covering business-es as well as clubs, civic and social organizations and more. It featured ads for black businesses and businesses that were friendly to blacks, including a national listing of hotels where blacks could “vacation without humiliation,” according to a Wisconsin Historical Society archive listing. The directory published until 1961.
In 1963, Strong started the Milwaukee Courier, part of the Courier chain newspaper and radio station in the United States. Mr. Jones became interested in print media through his mother, Dr. Mary Ellen Strong, who owned the Milwaukee Defender weekly newspaper — the only newspaper “of and by” the African-American community. He credits much of his success to his mother and his mentor S.B. Fuller, a renowned African-American entrepreneur who owned a national newspaper chain.
Through his leadership of the Milwaukee Courier and WNOV, he helped develop multimedia communications industry professionals in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Many of newspapers, said her son, who now runs the paper.
In 1972, Courier Communications Corp. bought WNOV, the first black-owned radio station in Wisconsin, Jones said.
By the mid-1960s, Strong had moved to Chicago and was publisher of Black Family Magazine in Chicago, had founded her own public relations, marketing and research firm and was director of the marketing and research division of the Chicago Courier.
She also was founder and president of Welcome New Neighbor Service Inc., a nation-wide marketing company aimed at black consumers, and worked as a marketing and advertising consultant.
One of eight children, Strong moved to Milwaukee with her family a short time after she was born in Gary, Ind. Her father died when she was young. She attended Milwaukee Public Schools and was the first black person to attend what was then the Milwaukee Business University, according to the 1956 story on her aldermanic bid. She took vocational school classes in the evening, studying everything from speed reading to millinery and real estate law.
The latter would come in handy when she bought a plot of land in Chicago and announced plans to build “a high rise building that will stand tall in the second largest Negro market in America,” according to a 1966 Milwaukee Journal story on her life in Chicago.
She sold the building when she moved to Atlanta, where she became involved in ministry work, her son said.
Her nephew, Monty Shadd, remembers her as “always very busy, always on the go.”
He added, “She was an adventurer. She was a pacesetter, a ground breaker – not only assertive but aggressive. What she did was so radical in some cases. She knew what she wanted, and she went after it.”
Strong was married four times. Her marriage to Jesse Jones ended in divorce, as did her marriage to Lawrence Shadd. In 1970, she married attorney James Strong, who had been a U.S. diplomat to Gambia and worked as a marketing executive with Kellogg Corp. After his death, she married Andrew Gaines of Atlanta, the father and manager of the late singer Donna Summer. He died about five years ago.
For more than 25 years, Strong was involved with ministries – including Abundant Living Family Church in California, Crenshaw Christian Center in Los Angeles, Word of Faith in Detroit and Nashville, Believers Bible Christian Church in Atlanta and others.
Her son said he read a quotation recently that reminded him of his mother. It began, “Work for a cause, not for applause,” he said.
“That’s the way she was. When she left Milwaukee, believe me, Milwaukee had a void.”