Monday, October 4, 2010

Oshkosh Greets Theodore Mack

Forty years ago this week Oshkosh began coming to terms with the fact that it was now home to America’s first black-owned brewery. On October 3, 1970 Peoples Brewing Company announced it would hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house to celebrate the arrival of its new President, Theodore F. Mack Sr., who had been tersely introduced six months earlier by the Oshkosh Northwestern as “a Milwaukee negro”. The ensuing months were marred by acrimony and rumors, some of them recirculated by the Northwestern, that Mack would change the company’s name and hire only black workers. The announcement of the open house set the stage for an odd bit of theater designed to show that Mack was a businessman who could be trusted and that Oshkosh wasn’t composed entirely of bigots.

Theodore and Pearlie Mack October 10, 1970
The event took place on Saturday October 10, 1970 and began with a ribbon cutting ceremony that was as symbolic as it was ironic considering that the brewery was now 59 years old and nearly insolvent. Mack cut the ribbon and told the crowd “In these days of confrontation, you make a pretty picture standing there, black, white and brown.” Standing before a crowd of approximately 2,000 people, Mack was praised by guest speakers for his “courage, initiative and guts” and was officially welcomed to Oshkosh by Council President Byron Murken. Mack thanked Murken saying, he “took the heat along with me” during the previous six months. With that, the crowd was welcomed into the brewery for a tour, a lunch of hot dogs and potato chips and a few glasses of “tap-fresh” Peoples beer. Estimates put the total number of people who toured the brewery that day at 5,000. Brewery presidents had been coming and going in Oshkosh for more than 100 years. None of them had gotten the sort of reception that greeted Mack.

Taken at face value, the event looks like an awkward mea culpa staged to gloss over the eruption of bigotry that followed the news that Mack was trying to purchase the brewery. But if you dig a little deeper you find that perhaps the show of support Mack received in October of 1970 was more earnest than it appears. Before Mack was able to complete his purchase of the brewery, he needed to raise an additional $200,000 to supplement the $390,000 loan he had already acquired. Mack’s plan for raising the additional money was to sell stock in the company. Within five weeks of the stock going on sale he had the money he needed and, according to Mack, much of that stock had been purchased by Oshkosh residents. The Sunday following the event the Milwaukee Journal quoted a “white woman doctor” who didn’t wish to be named who said, “Investing in Peoples Brewery is not like watching the stock market. It’s watching a venture in which we are all concerned.” That’s quite a contrast to the attitudes reported upon six months earlier when, amidst the uproar, nobody bothered to notice that there were a significant number of people in Oshkosh capable of identifying with and investing in the dreams of a black man.

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