Meet six unsung civil rights heroes-- among the first black men to fight their way into the executive suite. 
By Cora Daniels

(FORTUNE Magazine) – In 1962--less than a lifetime ago--Harvey C. Russell did what no other black man had done before. He became a vice president of a FORTUNE 500 company.

The company was Pepsi-Cola, and Russell, then 44, had been a standout salesman in its Negro Sales Department for the previous 12 years. "Mr. Russell's promotion was based solely on merit," Pepsi's president, Herbert Barnet, told the New York Times a few months later. "He came the hard way and has been one of our brilliant young men for 12 years." But this milestone was not greeted with widespread rejoicing. The Ku Klux Klan called for a national boycott of Pepsi's products. The group flooded the country with handbills that read: DON'T BUY PEPSI-COLA AND MAKE A NIGGER RICH.

Today the upper echelons of FORTUNE 500 companies include men and women such as American Express CEO Ken Chenault, Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons, and PepsiCo CFO Indra Nooyi (see "The Diversity List: The Most Influential 2005"). So it's easy to forget just how long most major corporations kept their doors closed to black and other nonwhite professionals--and what hostility those professionals faced when the doors first cracked open. "We have no official policy against hiring Negroes," an unnamed corporate president told the Harvard Business Review in 1963. "But the fact is, we don't have one on the payroll."

It wasn't until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that a handful of black men began trickling into the executive suite. (Black women weren't represented in any numbers until well into the 1980s.) In 1970, when there were only about 25 black vice presidents at big corporations, Russell told Time: "Even though I was proud [of my promotion], I remember at the time feeling that all the attention just pointed up the gross inequities. It made me even more aware of how little progress really had been made."

While Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Jackie Robinson are household names, those who first integrated the nation's biggest companies are largely unknown. So FORTUNE spent nearly a year searching for them. Russell died in 1998, but we discovered that many of his fellow pioneers are alive and well, full of riveting tales of isolation, perseverance, and bravery. Full of modesty too. "I never thought of myself as a pioneer. Who had the time?" laughs George Lewis, the highest-ranking black executive during his 34-year career at Philip Morris. "I was just trying to make it."

But most of the six men featured in the following pages--all but one of whom were working for large companies at the height of the civil rights movement--say they saw their careers as another way of marching for the cause. "Gordon Parks has this great expression, 'choice of weapons,'" says Clifton Wharton, the first black CEO of a large company (TIAA-CREF). "In terms of fighting, you always have a choice of weapons. Some of us chose to do our fighting on the inside." Here are their war stories.

James Avery, 82 Exxon, 1956-86; rose to senior vice president "When I arrived in town on business, I never knew where I was going to sleep that night."

In the late 1950s James Avery was a marketer at Esso (now Exxon), charged with building relationships with black consumers. But Jim Crow laws meant he couldn't stay in white-owned hotels in the segregated South, even though his job required him to be on the road virtually nonstop. So he relied on the hospitality of black strangers. "I would get leads on people who could provide me a room from black ministers or members of the black teachers' association in the South or members of my fraternity," says Avery. "I always traveled with toilet paper, towels, soap, and bug spray" just in case.

Finding a place to lay his head night after night was only one of the challenges facing Avery, who had never expected to go into business at all. The first in his family to attend college (Columbia University), he was working as a teacher in a mostly white school in his hometown of Cranford, N.J., when he was approached after classes one day in 1956 by the father of a student. The man was an Esso executive. He told Avery that the company wanted to hire blacks to establish a Negro Markets Department. Avery didn't jump at the chance. "I loved being a teacher," he says. "But if I could wear a shirt and tie and work for a major corporation? Doing that was much more important."

Avery found himself driving around the South talking to black communities about Esso, in an era when traveling could be dangerous for a black man. He wasn't sure how to go about selling Esso--and Esso could offer no guidance. "We had to learn everything as we went, because it was all new," he says. "No one, black or white, ever understood what it was like for us to always be on our own like that."

But gradually Avery made inroads. With his help, Esso started distributing an already popular underground guide (known in black circles as the Green Book) that listed gas stations and restaurants where black travelers would be allowed to use the restroom. It became a must-have for black marketers and helped win trust for Esso in black communities. Then, in the '60s, Esso began sending Avery to speak to business groups about the oil industry's need to develop black talent. White audiences usually listened respectfully. But Avery was always ushered into the auditorium via the back door or through the kitchen, as if he were a black entertainer at a whites-only venue.

In those early days, black executives "weren't facing guns like those [black students] trying to go to school in Alabama," says Avery. "But the warfare that went on in corporate America was a lot more sophisticated." Consider an episode from 1967, when he was PR manager for the company's northeastern region. Esso sent its few dozen communications managers to Chicago for television training. When it was Avery's turn to be "interviewed" under the studio lights, the media trainer looked at him and asked matter-of-factly, "What's it like being the head nigger in charge up there at Esso?"

Avery was not surprised, he says, and neither was anyone else in the room. He calmly answered, "It feels damn good," and the interview continued without a pause. Inwardly, though, he says he wished he could "take the interviewer outside." "I always knew I was dealing with prejudice," he says. "You couldn't get mad. You always had to remain calm no matter what, because they wanted you to get mad. And you had to succeed no matter what."

James "Bud" Ward, 80 Marriott, 1966-85; rose to senior vice president "You didn't really feel segregation until you got old enough to go to work."

Most graduates of the Cornell hotel management school's class of 1952 quickly got scooped up by major hotels across the country. But Bud Ward--the school's first black graduate--had just two offers: one from a small restaurant in New Jersey, the other from a hotel in Saudi Arabia. "I did not get any offers from any of the traditional hotel chains," he says. After all, it was an era when some hotel doors still carried signs that read NO NEGROES. NO JEWS. NO DOGS.

Ward landed at a small motel in Miami that catered to blacks. But by the early 1960s he was fed up with being shut out of the mainstream. So he left to become a diversity consultant. His timing was perfect: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to oversee discrimination complaints, and companies needed help to ensure compliance. Soon Ward was working with huge corporations like American Airlines and Gulf Oil.

One day in 1966 he got a call from a former Cornell classmate who was now a Marriott vice president. He asked Ward to study how well the company was developing minority workers. Ward spent weeks visiting the chain's hotels and restaurants, speaking to employees from the bottom to the top. On the day of his presentation, he took the stage at the company's Washington, D.C., headquarters and looked out at more than 400 managers--every one of them white. Ward couldn't help himself: "I feel like a fly in a bowl of buttermilk," he said to the crowd. No one laughed but him.

Ward proceeded to give a frank assessment of how poorly Marriott was doing. At the time, 70% of the company's 14,000 employees were black, but all worked as clerks, secretaries, maids, or janitors. Many complained of disrespect and racial slights from managers. Ward called employment the "No. 1 civil-rights concern"--explosive language at a time of race riots. He ended with a challenge: "Motivating and developing productive working relationships with minority groups ... may call for some to subdue their own feelings of prejudice. But your help is needed to move the minority worker beyond opportunity to achievement."

Two weeks later Ward got a call at his office. "I'm Bill Marriott," said the gentle voice on the other end of the line, "and I would like to talk to you." Marriott was the company's founder and CEO--a legendary figure in those days. When Ward got to the CEO's office a few hours later, Marriott was sitting in one of two oversized armchairs flanking a coffee table. The only item on the table was a transcript of Ward's speech. Marriott picked it up, waved it, and said, "I've read this thing maybe four or five times. I gather you don't think very much of our company, do you?"

Ward responded, "Mr. Marriott, I think you make a great Mighty Mo and Orange Freeze," referring to the company's signature burger and shake. Marriott laughed--and offered Ward a job. The title would be associate vice president of industrial relations. Ward asked how many associate VPs the company had. None, he was told: The other executives at his level were all VPs. Ward refused until Marriott boosted his title to VP. And so, after months of negotiation, he became the hotel industry's first black vice president.

Ward's appointment ruffled some feathers. Other VPs complained that they didn't want to be paid less than a black man. To ensure office peace, Ward says, he got two checks on payday: a red check at the office for less than the rest of the VPs and a blue one mailed to his home that made up the difference. The blue check was cut from Bill Marriott's private funds. The two-check system lasted until Ward moved to another division two years later.

Ward worked at Marriott for 20 years, rising to senior vice president. During that time he oversaw the opening of 350 hotels, helped develop the lower-priced Courtyard by Marriott chain, and supervised Marriott's infotech team. After he retired in 1985, at 60, he used his IT knowledge to start a small software business in D.C. called Symbiont. Though Ward is thrilled to be working for himself--he still goes into the office every day--his career at the hotelier looms large. "It was a two-pronged thing," he says. "You do the marching and the raising hell and whatnot, but you've got to have somebody on the inside to interpret that to the individuals that you're trying to reach. I saw that as my role."

Darwin Davis, 73 Equitable, 1966-88; rose to senior vice president "I realized very quickly that I'm under a microscope in corporate America. People are watching everything I do."

In 1972, the manager of the Detroit district sales office for Equitable (now part of AXA) was closing in on the biggest honor the insurance company had to offer: The President's Award, given to the manager who generates the most revenues. But then the manager, Darwin Davis, was called to the main office in New York. Equitable's president and executive VP sat down with him, fumbled for words, and asked him to withdraw from the competition. The man conceded that the request "was unfair" but said it was "best for the company." "Honestly, I never got a straight reason why," says Davis. "I felt they were just uncomfortable because I was black and most of my sales team was black. It was the most hurtful thing that ever happened to me in my career."

Davis threatened to quit rather than withdraw. The president backed down, and Davis won the President's Award that year--and the next year too. It was the first time anyone had won two years in a row. When CEO Coy Eklund handed Davis his second award, he told the crowd that it would be the last year Davis would win. The room fell silent. Then Eklund said that it was because he was promoting Davis to vice president and moving him to New York. Davis would go on to be the first black senior-level executive at Equitable, ultimately rising to senior vice president.

It was a triumph that the Flint, Mich., native could scarcely have imagined in 1954, the year he collected a business degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He had approached General Motors for a job but was told that the only ones available to blacks were on the assembly line. "They were very nice and cordial about it," he says, smiling a bit. "It was just how it was."

So after a stint in the Army, Davis became a math teacher in Detroit. And waited. He waited for ten years. In 1966, when Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles, and other cities were being torn by race riots, many companies started making aggressive efforts to integrate. One of those companies was Equitable. "It shall be the goal of Equitable," Eklund announced, "to recruit, to hire, to train, and to promote blacks into every position."

That fall Davis met with Equitable's district manager in Detroit. He quit his teaching job the next day to become a local salesman for the company. Just two years later he was a member of the Millionaires Roundtable, meaning he had sold more than $1 million worth of policies. In 1969 he was named district manager, with about 16 people reporting to him. Many of his hires were black: Davis felt it was his obligation to fill the office with faces like his. "People in Detroit used to joke that Equitable was a black company," he says, again smiling. Of Equitable's 960 districts, Davis's outshone them all.

When Davis was promoted to vice president, though, he began supervising a group of regional managers who were all white. It was common for regional managers, who were typically at the top of the food chain in their respective communities, to take the VPs from New York out when they came to visit. Davis noticed that these guys would rarely introduce him to their peers or wives as their boss. "They were ashamed ... because they hadn't told anyone they worked for a black guy," says Davis. He would always make sure to slip in a revealing comment about how his host "was doing such a good job for us." Or he would say, "We are expecting such great things from him." He would always get the same shocked reaction. Says Davis: "I would do it because they needed to know that there were blacks who could succeed at that level."

Still, those were just bumps on a great ride. "I really loved my work," says Davis, who retired in 1988. "When I got off the [commuter] train at Grand Central Station, I'd be striding. I was just on fire. By the time I got to Rockefeller Center, my feet wouldn't be touching the ground. I was so excited about what I was doing."

George Lewis, 64 Philip Morris, 1967-2001; rose to CEO of Philip Morris Capital Corp. "I felt if you could control the money, you could rise above people's subjectivity and have a little bit of power."

Clutching a stack of ham sandwiches, George Lewis eavesdropped on his future. It was 1960, the summer after his freshman year at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), a black college in Virginia. He was working for his uncle, a restaurant owner, delivering lunches to white businessmen in downtown Philadelphia, and he kept overhearing executives talking about their deals. "It looked like fun," he says. "It looked like power. I knew it was something I absolutely had to do."

So when he returned to Hampton he switched majors to accounting. That sent shock waves back to Burgess, Va., the tiny Chesapeake Bay fishing village where he had grown up. "Accounting? Finance? You just didn't do that if you were black at that time. My parents were convinced I would never get a job."

But Lewis was born just late enough to escape being spurned by large employers upon college graduation, the way Bud Ward and Darwin Davis had been. In fact, his timing was perfect. In 1962, when he was a junior at Hampton, only one major company came to recruit. The next year, when it was Lewis's turn to interview, ten FORTUNE 500 companies showed up. They included General Foods, where he got his first corporate job. "I was lucky," he says. "Things were just starting to open up."

Lewis started working at General Foods in 1963 as a financial analyst for the Kool-Aid division in New York--the first time he had been immersed in a white world. "I was fortunate to work with some very good people. But"--he pauses for a long moment--"it was very lonely." At every business meeting he attended, his was the only black face. With a wife and daughter at home, he plunged himself into work and school, earning an MBA at night in 1966.

At a black job fair the following year, Lewis, then 28, started talking to Philip Morris. When he walked into Human Resources for his interview, a VP asked in a heavy Southern accent, "What do you want, boy? We don't have too many of y'all here." Lewis wasn't fazed; he had heard such comments before. He handed over his résumé. The VP started looking for something in accounts receivable/accounts payable. Lewis said such a position was for nothing more than a glorified clerk. "I don't want to waste your time, and quite frankly, I don't want you to waste my time, so I am going to tell you what I want," he said. Lewis had studied the tobacco industry and was convinced the company needed to make some changes. "You are going to have to diversify your product line. I am interested in strategic planning--acquisitions and mergers."

The VP was a little stunned. But Lewis wound up getting hired by Philip Morris's strategic planning division--and started buying companies in the medical supply business, and later in food and beverages. Over the next 34 years he climbed the ladder, assuming top financial posts in subsidiaries Philip Morris Industrial and 7-Up. In 1984 he was named treasurer of Philip Morris, making him one of the highest-ranking blacks in finance. When he retired in 2001 he was the CEO of Philip Morris Capital Corp., the tobacco giant's financial services subsidiary, and a member of Philip Morris's corporate management team--one of the company's six most senior executives.

The isolation that weighed on Lewis early in his career faded with time, but it never disappeared. "Being an African American," he says, "you don't have anyone like you that you can go to and say, 'Let me bounce ideas off of you.' " His efforts to play golf with his peers also served as a reminder that he was a bit of an outsider. He learned the game when he was at Milwaukee-based 7-Up, but when he returned to New York City in 1984, he found that country club memberships were still closed to blacks. "I'm treasurer of PM, the seventh-largest company in the nation, and I'm playing public courses," he says, still sounding frustrated. "All the other treasurers I'm running into are holding meetings at their private clubs, and I can't get anyone to sponsor me."

It took four years, but in 1988 Lewis became a member of the exclusive St. Andrews, making him the first black member of a country club in New York's Westchester County. His sponsor was neither a colleague at Philip Morris nor one of the investment bankers he spent his days with (he asked several; none agreed), but a reporter from Golf Digest.

At 60, in 2001, Lewis retired from PM and corporate America. "I wanted to see how good I could get at golf before I got too old," he says, completely serious. He has since lowered his handicap from 14 to nine.

Lee Archer, 85 General Foods, 1970-87; rose to CEO of three of the company's investment arms "Why should it be notable that you're the first? It doesn't mean you were the first who was capable. It just means you were the first to be given the chance."

A military jet touches down at a small commuter airport outside New York City. Two Air Force fighter pilots step out, draped in their military best. One pilot tells the other to go into town and "take care of business." The airport staff is agape. Why? The year is 1969, and the two pilots are black. "The National Guard commander at the airport almost had a stroke when we landed," laughs Lee Archer, one of the pilots. "Two black guys coming in on a jet aircraft talking about 'taking care of business'? It wasn't something you saw every day." The "business"? A job interview Archer had with General Foods.

As a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary all-black unit that integrated the Air Force during World War II, Archer flew 169 combat missions over 11 countries, downing more enemy planes than anyone in the unit. Lt. Col. Archer became the war's only black flying ace, meaning he made at least five enemy kills. (His ace status was awarded 30 years late, by the way, after a military investigation revealed that records had been doctored to deny him the honor.)

After 30 years of service Archer was ready to leave the military, but he wasn't tired of fighting. So in 1969, when General Foods CEO Tex Cook asked the well-known war hero to be the company's vice president of urban affairs, Archer signed on. "A friend of mine would always say, 'When opportunity knocks, have your bags ready because he may not knock again,' " says Archer. But he found the job unfulfilling and marginalizing--it carried no bottom-line responsibilities. "It was baloney," he says, sucking his teeth with disgust. (Archer does not mince words. He has recently been taken off the Air Force's lecture circuit, he says, because he refused to stop calling President Bush "an imbecile." An Air Force spokesperson declined to comment.)

After a year in the post, "I walked in one day and said [to Cook], 'If I can't do better than this, I don't want [the job].'" The CEO, sitting with some senior managers, shot back, "We were waiting for you to bitch." "Then they asked me what did I want," remembers Archer. Nothing, he said, in personnel or public affairs or community affairs, where black faces were typically being placed at the time. Like George Lewis, he wanted financial responsibility.

So General Foods sent Archer to the University of Pittsburgh to take a graduate course in financial management. He came back a venture capitalist. In 1973 he became CEO of Vanguard Capital Corp., General Foods' minority-business investment company. Two years later he also became CEO of North Street Capital Corp., the company's small-business investment arm; in 1980 he became CEO of Hudson Commercial Corp., a tobacco-investment arm. In those three roles he helped create 74 companies, including Essence Communications and Black Enterprise magazine. Archer also became a key advisor to the late Reginald Lewis in the leveraged buyout deal that created the conglomerate TLC Beatrice in 1987. "Lee is tough, just like my husband," says Loida Lewis, widow of the Beatrice CEO. "Lee constantly challenged him, which made him better."

The hardest part of his corporate career, says Archer, was knowing who was going to be fair and who wasn't. For the 17 years he was at General Foods, he kept journals with lists of names. The names are divided into two lists: white hats and black hats. The white hats "gave me a shot," he says. The black hats ... Archer stumbles, trying to pick the best bad word he can think of. "It can't be published," he concludes. He won't name names. For him it is enough simply to write them down.

These days Archer is constantly traveling to business meetings around the world as head of his own venture capital firm, Archer Asset Management, which he founded after retiring from General Foods in 1987. The firm is backing several tobacco businesses in Zimbabwe. Archer says he marvels at how different the opportunities for black college grads are today. "I'd like to be a young man in corporate America," he says, "now."

Clifton R. Wharton Jr., 79 TIAA-CREF, 1987-93; CEO "It was my responsibility to perform to the best of my ability to keep the door open [for other black executives]."

Picture a senior management meeting like so many others across corporate America. The conference room is full of officers. Somewhere in the middle of a long blond wood table, a presentation is going on. But no one at the table is looking at the people doing the talking. Instead, all eyes are fixed on the man at end of the table--the company's new CEO. It is 1987, and Clifton Wharton has just become the first black chief executive of a major company.

"It was as if people were thinking, 'Are you real? If I blink my eyes three or four times, will you disappear?' " says Al Wilson, the former associate general counsel and corporate secretary of TIAA-CREF, the multibillion-dollar pension fund company that Wharton was now running. "I mentioned it to [Wharton] once afterwards, and he just winked."

Wharton was used to being the first. The son of the nation's first black career ambassador, he spent most of his childhood in Spain's Canary Islands. His mother tutored him and sent his homework on a two-week trip by ship to his teachers back in the States. When Wharton was 10--and already a world traveler, fluent in Spanish and French--his parents sent him to live with his grandparents in Boston to be "Americanized." He wouldn't see his parents for three years. "My first conscious exposure to racism occurred when I came back to the States and went to a public school," Wharton says. "One of the children said something--I don't remember now what--but I remember what my grandmother said to me: 'They tried to put you in a box. Don't ever let anybody put you in a box.' "

Wharton took her advice. He went off to Harvard at 16, and soon the firsts started piling up: first black graduate of John Hopkins's School of Advanced International Studies (1948); first black Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago (1958); first black president of a predominantly white university, Michigan State (1970); first black head of a large university system, the State University of New York (1978). He made history again when he was named chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1982.

It's well-nigh impossible to get Wharton to speak of the challenges he faced along the way. He doesn't dwell on the past--good or bad. "People often ask me, 'How did you feel when you didn't see your parents for three years?' " He shrugs and says, "I missed them." He does credit part of his success to spending his early years outside the United States. Racism "seemed strange to me," he says. "I had already seen that anything was possible."

Corporate boards provided Wharton's entrée to the business world. In 1969 he was named to the board of insurance company Equitable (where Darwin Davis was just breaking through), becoming only the third black corporate director in the nation. He went on to serve on a dozen or so more boards, including those of Ford, Federated Department Stores, the New York Stock Exchange, and Time Inc. (FORTUNE's publisher). "Clif is a serious leader," says former Goldman Sachs CEO John Whitehead, who once served on TIAA-CREF's board. "He's very popular, and [he has] good judgment."

Business school case studies and magazine cover stories have analyzed the turnaround Wharton engineered at TIAA-CREF. When he arrived the company was at war with its policy members, who because of a tradition of paternalistic management had little say about how their retirement nest eggs were invested. Wharton reorganized the ingrown bureaucracy, introduced new investment options, and succeeded in stopping major academic institutions from abandoning TIAA-CREF altogether. What's more, he completely changed the culture. Within the first few days of his arrival, Wharton walked every floor of the company's headquarters--an entire Manhattan skyscraper and parts of two neighboring buildings--introducing himself to every employee he passed. "When you walked by Clif's office," says Marcus Alexis, a former TIAA-CREF board member, "he would be in these long discussions. You could never tell who he was talking to--another CEO or the cleaning crew--because he treated everyone with the same respect."

According to Wharton, the challenge for corporate America now is to make sure the progress continues. "It's great to be [the first] one," he says. "But I'd like to see more twos, threes, fours, and fives." Wharton spoke these same words a few years ago to another reporter. Asked now why he's repeating the comment, he says, "I'm still waiting."