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 had her first Coke.
“I had my first Coke at around 7 or 8 years old,” Alexander recalled in an interview with Coca-Cola. “After a long, hard day of working on the farm, that was our treat at the end. We’d get an ice-cold Coca-Cola.”
Becoming only 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 junior year in 1955 and was so focused on her studies that modeling was the last thing on her mind. But the housemother of her dorm came to her and told her that Coca-Cola was recruiting African Americans for a new advertising campaign. Her dorm mother asked her to attend the interview session on campus.
With no modeling experience, Alexander almost didn’t attend the interview session. Her dorm mother insisted so she went. “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 nearly left thinking she would not 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 that they chose me,” she said. “Girls there were from Atlanta and New York. I was just a simple country girl!”
Alexander started working towards her first photoshoot, which she described as “nerve-wracking.”
“I went back to my room and cried a little bit. I was afraid this wasn’t what I should be doing. My parents were very strict, and I wanted to make sure they were okay with it.”
But her sadness turned to joy when the final ads were released. Her parents were also happy for her. “We told the whole family and spread it around campus. It was surreal… I was just so happy.” Alexander earned $600 total for about 15 ads, and she used that money to pay for a full year of her college tuition.
All in all, she earned about $1,500 modeling for Coca-Cola. Her face was on billboards, newspapers, magazines, and New York subway stations. But soon, she “fell out of touch” with Coca-Cola, marking the end of her modeling career. That didn’t stop her from making history in other areas. After graduating college, she moved to Detroit for a master’s degree that will enable 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. Some years later, she also became the first African-American female director of vocational education for the state of Michigan. During these history-making moments, she still had no contact with Coca-Cola and hardly even talked about her modeling job for the company.
And then around 2006, more than 50 years after Alexander’s Coke ad, her niece and a high school classmate were going through old photos when they saw the print of the billboard ad featuring Alexander and took a picture of it. 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 who claim to be models,” Jamal Booker, who was manager of heritage communications, later explained. But Alexander had kept a letter from the company confirming her selection for the modeling job. She faxed the letter in, and Coke officials immediately contacted her.
“In more than 30 years of people claiming to be models, Miss Mary was the only one who had proof. We were shocked,” Booker said.
In August 2007, Coca-Cola recognized Alexander for her groundbreaking role in the company’s African-American marketing initiative. Many of the ads she appeared in had gone on display in the new World of Coca-Cola museum, which opened in Atlanta in May 2006. She and her husband Henry Alexander were there to see the exhibit.
“Miss Mary reflects the humble confidence of the brand Coca-Cola itself,” said Booker. “She rarely, if ever, mentions the fact that she was an advertising trailblazer. If it had not been for a fan of hers, we wouldn’t have even known she was out there.”
Alexander’s husband did not even know his wife was a Coke model until later when they were married. “We were married three years before I realized I was married to a Coca-Cola model,” said Henry Alexander.
After the exhibit, Alexander continued to keep in touch with Coke while living in Ocala, Fla. “I hope I opened some doors. I hope I laid some groundwork for people in the future to see what can be done despite the odds,” she said of her pioneering role in advertising.