Business pioneer Allen McKellar is the keynote speaker at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance at UMSL at 10 a.m. Jan. 16 in the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.

When Allen McKellar won an essay contest in college in 1940, he had no idea it would lead him to become a pioneer in the business world. As one of the first African American salesmen to be part of a daring national advertising campaign to sell Pepsi-Cola to black consumers in the South, he helped break the color barrier for millions trying to move up the corporate ladder.

McKellar will be the keynote speaker for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance at 10 a.m. Jan. 16 in the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Don Marsh, host of “St. Louis on the Air” on St. Louis Public Raido | 90.7 KWMU, will serve as master of ceremonies. The Dickson String Quartet, UMSL’s sibling student quartet, and the St. Alphonsus Liguori Rock Church Choir will perform.

McKellar’s 1940 essay attracted the attention of Walter Mack, an innovative leader at Pepsi who was about to wage a marketing war against the cola giant Coca-Cola.

McKellar and Jeanette Maund were the first young African American college graduates hired to sell Pepsi-Cola in Texas. The two rode segregated buses and trains, slept in segregated hotels and survived the Jim Crow laws that officially sanctioned segregation in the South for nearly 100 years. When World War II broke out, McKellar left Pepsi to join the Army. He returned to Pepsi and became part of a much larger sales force of African American men. The men were embraced by the black communities they visited and were looked up to as heroes. Along the way, they sold Pepsi-Cola. Lots of it.

McKellar moved to St. Louis when he was named vice president of the old Falstaff Brewing Company. His story can be found in the 2007 book “The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business.”

For more information on the MLK Holiday Observance contact UMSL’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity.

Media coverage:
St. Louis Public Radio | 90.7 KWMU
St. Louis Beacon

Maureen Zegel

Maureen Zegel