Growing up in Baltimore I can remember seeing the little trucks rolling up and down the road with Parks Sausage blazoned on its side. Or, looking in the fridge – as we called it – and seeing those tasty pork sausages wrapped in white packaging.
Launched in 1951 in Northwest Baltimore by Henry Parks, Parks Sausage would become an iconic company for a number of reasons. One, it was a Black owned company started at a time when it was incredibly difficult for Blacks to get funding for businesses or operate in the meat manufacturing industry. Two, selling a well received sausage product line it became the largest Black owned company in Baltimore and created significant opportunities for Black employment. Three, it was the first Black owned company to go public(NASDAQ). Four, it’s “More Park Sausages Mom, Please”, campaign is one of the most memorable slogans in advertising history.
"Parks Sausage roared through the 1950’s and 60’s earning multimillions and hiring a significant level of employees. What started out as two employees was now a company with well over 200 staff by 1969."
Henry Parks was born (September 29, 1916) in Georgia, but raised in Dayton, Ohio, by his parents and maternal grandmother. Witnessing firsthand the employment limitations his parents experienced, Parks set out to overcome the obstacles presented to Black Americans.
While most college bound Blacks were striving to get into Historically Black Colleges, Parks applied and was accepted to Ohio State University. At one point his roommate was none other than, Olympic Gold Medal winner, Jesse Owens.
Accounting degree in hand in 1939, Parks employment pursuits would take him to meet Mary McLeod Bethune(Bethune-Cookman College). A few years before Parks graduation, Bethune was appointed director of the Division of Negro Affairs within the National Youth Administration. President Roosevelt would later appoint her to run the Resident War Production Training Center in Wilberforce, Ohio. Parks mentorship with the profound educator, known as “First Lady of Struggle” would help lay his management foundation when Bethune provided Parks the opportunity to manage the training of hundreds for jobs that supported America in WW II.
PABST BREWING COMPANY and W.G. Graham
Like most budding entrepreneurs, Parks mind was always bubbling with ideas to generate income. A short stint at Pabst Brewing would be another step on the ladder to success. Pabst hired Parks in 1942, as a beer salesman for the –at that time – Negro market. He grew to become one of the best salesman, developing campaigns to penetrate the Negro market. He showed his persuasiveness by getting leading Black entertainers –Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington – to appear in ads. The sales campaigns he would implement for Pabst would be a precursor to what he would ultimately do at Parks Sausages. After a short stint at Pabst, Parks and co-worker W.G. Graham started an advertising firm, W.G. Graham and Associates that would later lead to business projects with boxer Joe Louis and his wife.
For a time Parks managed the entertainment career of Joe Louis’ wife, Marva Trotter-Louis. He also worked with Joe Louis and Baltimore icon Willie Adams to launch a drink in the boxer’s name, Joe Louis Punch. Joe Louis punch was to challenge Coca-Cola. Let’s just say things didn’t go to well challenging this titan. But how many Black owned companies today have the vision to challenge the titans of their industry?
Upon ending the partnership with W.G. Graham, Parks invested in the launching and expansion of Crayton Southern Sausage Company, in Cleveland, Ohio. Parks ideas of developing a brand that would appeal to the palate of southerners did not go over well with his partners. Parks divested, moved to Baltimore and opened Parks Sausages with just two employees.
The money he earned from the sale of his interest in Crayton, as well as the knowledge he gained, helped to establish Parks Sausage. But the other key component was William L. Adams, also known as “Little Willie”. Adams was a powerful figure in Baltimore and a man with deep pockets. He had made his money through a number of illicit activities including number running. Truly, he was a venture capitalist before the term became popular. He invested his money in legitimate businesses and financing a number of Black owned startups. A chance meeting in 1948, set the stage for the launching of Parks Sausages in 1951, with Adams financial investment.
Another key player would be Raymond Haysbert who would become president of the company in the mid 70’s and later CEO. Haysbert joined Parks one year after its launch, just after returning from WWII. Parks, Adams and Haysbert would be the foundation to establish Parks as a historic brand.
The Parks team first target was to establish a firm presence in Black households. The 1950’s would lay the foundation for their ultimate success in acquiring significant support amongst Black consumers. For those who think cooking demonstrations in Sam’s Club or free taste samples from Asian restaurants is contemporary hustling, well there is nothing new under the sun. Parks moved pork products by giving in-store cooking demonstrations, taste tests and product give a-ways. Parks Sausage delivered scrapple, sausage and other pork products to stores daily. And, customers loved Parks Sausage's distinctive southern flavor that reminded many of their roots in the south. Parks was a hands on manager that frequently tasted his product to insure the best sausage product was on the market.
In addition to normal obstacles faced by entrepreneurs, Parks also faced a heap of racism so he knew the company had to be several times better than other firms to succeed. According to lore, some stores intentionally allowed the products to spoil or placed them on shelves where customers were less likely to see the product. Many didn’t take kindly to seeing Blacks in meat manufacturing.
To overcome some of the obstacles, quality production and control was key and the company was one of the first to put production/”sell by dates” on its products. Parks ran his company with a firm and innovative hand. Parks Sausages’ products were made and sent out for sell in the same day. These were the days when food preservatives were not as wide spread as they are today. Parks employees would go to stores to remove product that did not sell by its specified date to insure consumers had the freshest of product. It also allowed federal inspection of its products at a time when only state inspection was required.
Speaking of employees, while the company created job opportunities for Blacks, some of its White employees had to deal with the criticism that came with working for a Black owned company. According to some neighborhood “historians”, the husbands for some of the White women employees did not appreciate their wives working for a Black man. But this hurdle would be circumvented. In fact, Parks Sausage was steadily finding its way into the homes of many White consumers. In 1955, it was one of the sponsors for Major League Baseball’s World Series.
More Parks Sausages Mom, Please
To further build momentum and further solidify the presence of Parks Sausages, Parks knew he would have to emphasize brand identity. In steps Leon Shaffer Golnick, Baltimore’s premier ad man. In 1954, “More Parks Sausages Mom” hit the airwaves. Not only did this build brand awareness with Black consumers but helped to penetrate White consumer markets. But the ad also had a number of complaints. This was the 1950’s and social norms were a little different. Some consumers thought the child in the ad was disrespectful. So the Parks team acquiesced and later added “please” at the end. There were some Black customers that wondered why a White child was used in the advert. This was done to help Parks Sausage get into targeted markets and stores.
First Black owned company to go public
Parks Sausages roared through the 1950’s and 60’s earning multimillions and hiring a significant level of employees. What started out as two employees was now a company with well over 200 staff by 1969. This would be the year that the company hit another milestone. Parks Sausage became the first Black owned company to go public. The well run company was now a premier brand in Baltimore and its advertising strategy helped solidify it as a major regional player.
Health Challenges for Henry Parks
Twenty plus years of running a growing enterprise was taking its toll on Parks. The 1970’s would serve as a set up for an exit strategy. By this time Parks had served several years as a Baltimore City councilman and become a corporate leader who served on boards and commissions. In fact, his connections and influence as a councilman helped secure him the W. Hamburg Street location in 1967 for the company, which had raised some ethical questions at the time. But Parks was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
In 1974, Haysbert was installed as president of the company. Three years later the company was sold to Norin Corporation with Parks playing a consulting role after the sale. Ironically, the sale process would include an offer by a young fellow Baltimorean, Reginald F. Lewis. The offer was declined but history would later prove Lewis would be a force to reckon with.
The end of an era
After a few shaky years under Norin’s control, the company would end up back into the hands of Black ownership after Haysbert and a team of investors bought back controlling interest. The firm would face a number of industry challenges including a move from its Camden Industrial Park (W. Hamburg Street) location to Park Circle in 1990. The move to Park Circle brought a shiny modern facility that stood out like a beacon in a declining neighborhood. But an expensive facility coupled with increased competition would ultimately force Parks to sell to former football players Franco Harris(Steelers) and Lydell Mitchell (Colts). The Harris and Mitchell team eventually sold the operations to Dietz and Watson in 1999.
The Sun Sets on an Icon
The 80’s would be reflective years and a direct contrast to the decades before as a corporate and citizen leader. The man who was born in Georgia, raised in Ohio, and made history in Baltimore, had defied the odds. In an interview he noted: “I think that I proved that Black businessmen not only can be successful, but that they can be successful on the same terms as anybody else.” Parks died in Baltimore on April 26, 1989. Oddly, this was at the time ground was being broke on the new location of Parks Sausages at Park Circle.
A benefactor of Henry Parks philanthropic activities was The Arena Playhouse. That said, entrepreneurs and actors have something in common. Each plays varying roles throughout their career but there is always one role that defines their career. For Henry Parks that role was being the man behind Parks Sausage Company.
(copyright 2014) C.Green/School 18 Project