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Yes, Ted Mack was America’s First Black Brewery President

If you do a quick Google search to find out who the first Black brewery president in America was, you’ll no doubt come across the story of Theodore Mack, Sr. — better known as Ted Mack. In 1970, when our country was still bleeding from the wounds of the Civil Rights movement, Mack did something incredible for an African American businessman: he decided to buy the Peoples Brewing Company, a modest, regional brewery in the small town of Oshkosh Wisconsin — the heart of beer country.

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From The Racine Journal-Times, May 10, 1971

His decision led to an extraordinary sequence of events that would define who he was for the rest of his life. He endured racist boycotts, personal threats, and heartbreaking failures, all in the name of pursuing what he believed he deserved: the right to own and run a business in white America.

Most blogs and articles about Ted Mack provide good synopses of these events, so I won’t rehash them here. But lately there have been questions about the claim that Mack is indeed the first Black brewery president in America. Critics of this claim point to two pieces of evidence to suggest that, while his story is noble, Mack shouldn’t be hailed as the father of African American beer in the U.S. Instead, it should belong to one of two other men, either a Black businessman by the name of Walter Bantom, who was reportedly the president of Sunshine Brewing Company in Reading, PA in 1969, or a blind African American named John Randolph Smith, who founded a Philadelphia brewery called Colony House Brewing Company in 1955.

The problem with both of these claims is the amount and type of evidence for making them.

Unraveling the “First” Black Brewery President Question

While there were literally dozens of newspaper articles published throughout Wisconsin when Mack bought his brewery, there just isn’t that much to go on for the other stories. The Sunshine Brewing Company claim is particularly problematic (if not entertaining). There is a single article in a 1970 volume of the Brewer’s Digest that tells a fantastic story about the Reading, PA brewery and its success under its new management — a group of Black entrepreneurs from Philadelphia, led by their new brewery president Walter Bantom.

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From The Brewer’s Digest, November 1970. Caption Reads: “Alex Bombinski (left), master brewer for the Sunshine Brewing Co., is congratulated by A. Bart Starr, one of the owners of the company and chairman of the board, for Mr. Bombinski’s brewing of products of continuing fine quality.”

But the story of “Black entrepreneur” Walter Bantom’s tenure in the brewery’s management actually begins in 1964. In that year, a man named Leo Israel Bloom put together a group of Reading, PA, investors to purchase Sunshine. Bloom had just come off of bankrupting his family’s furniture business, and now set his sights on making the same impact in the beer industry.

And boy did he! Within three years he’d drained the company of every dollar it had, finally forced out as president of the brewery in late 1967 by his bank through a court order. But by that time, Sunshine was in receivership, owed money to nearly 300 different creditors, and faced almost $200,000 in government tax liens.

Bloom’s talked the brewery’s employees into buying $1,000 bonds to keep Sunshine afloat. But instead of paying off creditors and improving the place, he pocketed most of the money. Then in 1969 he organized a small group of Black businessmen from Philadelphia to take out close to $1 million in loans to buy the brewery and get him off the hook. This is where Walter Bantom comes in: he was named the president of the company and, with his group, spent the next year siphoning off every last asset Sunshine had (while at the same time pocketing loans against the brewery). By 1970 Sunshine had reverted back into bankruptcy again and the Black “entrepreneurs” celebrated as the first to own and run an American brewery up and vanished.

Bloom, for his part, was arrested, and turned State’s evidence in an organized crime trial in 1971, while the brewery was finally seized by one of its creditors and sold off piecemeal. What Bloom and his colleagues left in their wake was an empty brewery, drained of all assets and worthless, but not, I think it’s fair to say, the first brewery owned and run by a Black man.

The next story that critics of Mack point to claims a blind, Black entrepreneur founded a brewery called Colony House Brewing Company in 1955. Printed primarily in Black newspapers of the day, like the Jackson Advocate and the Roanoke Tribune, the story reports that John Randolph Smith, a businessman from Atlanta, announced at a “huge banquet” attended by nearly 200 civic leaders, distributors, and tavern owners that he’d founded a new brewing company, along with a flagship beer. The attendees, it further reported, “rated the brew favorably with the best premium beers on the market.”

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From the Jackson Advocate, December 3, 1955

The article is rife with optimism and big dreams. Smith said that he’d already selected 50 metro areas to distribute to, that he’d traveled 7,000 miles creating and testing his new formula, and that his new company would be a great opportunity for Black entrepreneurs who wanted to invest their money (this last item, it seems, might be the catalyst for the article in the first place).

The problem with this account is that there never seemed to be any follow up to it. No other articles extolling the quality or taste of Colony House beer were even written, and there’s also no mention of a brewery by that name in the Philadelphia City directories of 1955 or 1956. John Randolph Smith, brewer, simply vanished, and there’s no knowing what ever became of his national aspirations. While I’m only speculating, I’m guessing that the article about Colony House — a press release probably written by Smith himself — was created to gin up interest in his venture so that he could actually carry it out. Before the article, and more than likely afterwards also, the brewery never really existed.

But What Does It All Really Mean?

Considering the evidence available, it’s a pretty safe bet that Ted Mack can still be considered the first Black brewery president in America. While other African Americans might have had designs on making beer before Mack did in 1970, none of them actually followed through.

But so what? In the end what difference does it make if it was Ted Mack or another Black entrepreneur who was the first? The brewery, after all, was only one small part of Mack’s life. He was also a sharecropper, a war hero, a Big 10 football player, a college graduate, a Civil Rights leader, a successful businessman in multiple industries, and more. We know him, we remember him, for the brewery, but in truth, his life was about a lot more than the Peoples Brewing Company.

Dr. Clinton R. Lanier is an Assistant Professor at New Mexico State University. He has written a book about Ted Mack, which is currently under review.

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