On a farm in Ballplay, a small community in Alabama, lived Mary Alexander. She and her nine siblings grew up working in the fields. And it was during one of those moments that she drank her first Coke.
“I drank my first Coke around the age of 7 or 8,” Alexander recalled in an interview with Coca-Cola. “After a long, hard day’s work on the farm, it was our treat at the end. We would have an ice cold Coca-Cola.
Becoming the second person in her family to attend college, Alexander was at Clark College in Atlanta when she was persuaded to model for the Coca-Cola Co. She was in her freshman year in 1955 and was so focused on her studies that modeling was the last thing on her mind. But the stay-at-home mom from her dorm came up to her and told her that Coca-Cola was recruiting African Americans for a new ad campaign. Her dorm mom asked her to attend the interview session on campus.
Without modeling experience, Alexander almost did not attend the interview session. Her mother from the dorm insisted that she go. “When I arrived, about 75 other girls were already there and I thought, ‘What am I doing here? ‘” Alexander recounted in an interview with Ocala StarBanner.
At the interview, there were girls not only from Clark but also from nearby Spelman College and Morris Brown College. Alexander almost left thinking she wouldn’t be selected. But in the end, she was the only one selected for the modeling job and would become the first African-American woman to appear in Coca-Cola advertising.
“I was surprised they chose me,” she said. “There were girls from Atlanta and New York. I was just a simple country girl!
Alexander began working on her first photoshoot, which she described as “agonizing.”
“I went back to my room and cried a little. I was afraid that was not what I should do. My parents were very strict and I wanted to make sure they were okay with that.
But her sadness turned to joy when the latest advertisements were released. Her parents were also happy for her. “We told the whole family and broadcast it on campus. It was surreal… I was so happy. Alexander earned $600 in total for about 15 commercials, and she used that money to pay for a full year of her tuition.
In total, she earned around $1,500 modeling for Coca-Cola. His face was on New York’s billboards, newspapers, magazines and subway stations. But soon she “broke down” with Coca-Cola, marking the end of her modeling career. That didn’t stop her from making history in other areas. After graduating from college, she moved to Detroit for a master’s degree that will allow her to pursue a career in education. She later got a job as a real estate secretary before becoming a teacher at Mount Clemons High School, which was predominantly white. Alexander became the school’s first African-American teacher.
After three years at Mount Clemons, she left to teach at Highland Park High School and became the school’s first African-American female principal. A few years later, she also became the first African-American female Director of Vocational Education for the State of Michigan. During those historic moments, she still had no contact with Coca-Cola and barely talked about her work as a model for the company.
And then around 2006, more than 50 years after Alexander’s Coke was advertised, his niece and a high school classmate were looking at old photos when they saw the print of the billboard featuring Alexander and took it in picture. They contacted Coca-Cola and told them who the model was. Coca-Cola initially ignored it.
“We get these kinds of requests all the time. We have a whole file on people claiming to be models,” Jamal Booker, who was in charge of heritage communications, later explained. But Alexander had kept a letter from the company confirming his selection for the modeling position. She faxed the letter and Coke officials contacted her immediately.
“In over 30 years of people claiming to be models, Miss Mary was the only one with proof. We were shocked,” Booker said.
In August 2007, Coca-Cola recognized Alexander for his groundbreaking role in the company’s African American marketing initiative. Most of the advertisements she appeared in had been displayed in the new World of Coca-Cola museum, which opened in Atlanta in May 2006. She and her husband Henry Alexander were there to view the exhibit.
“Miss Mary reflects the humble confidence of the Coca-Cola brand itself,” Booker said. “She rarely, if ever, mentions the fact that she was a pioneer in publicity. If it hadn’t been for one of her fans, we wouldn’t even have known she was there.
Alexander’s husband didn’t even know his wife was a Coke model until later when they got married. “We got married three years before I realized I was married to a Coca-Cola model,” Henry Alexander said.
After the exposure, Alexander continued to keep in touch with Coke while living in Ocala, Florida. “I hope I have opened doors. I hope I have set the stage for the people of the future to see what can be done despite the obstacles,” she said of her pioneering role in publicity.