Hennessy may be the unofficial official spirit of Black America (before you say “What about Ciroc?” while we’re loving Diddy’s drink of choice, too…but you can’t compare the new kid on the block to the elder statesman). The cognac’s popularity crosses class lines and is as likely to be spotted in the ‘hood as it is in the Hamptons and is as ubiquitous at Hip-Hop shows as it is at Jazz festivals. No one can deny our love of Henny. And a look at the brand’s history might just make you feel even better the next time you pour up.

You’ve probably heard about the 2009 limited edition Hennessy VS bottle that was produced in honor of the inauguration of President Barack Obama (something the brand had never done for any previous POTUS), with proceeds benefiting the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund. But what you (and your favorite Henny toting rapper) probably didn’t know was that the 247-year-old cognac house was instrumental in the growth of Tuskegee Institute and in the creation of the National Urban League.

Noel Hankin, Senior Vice President for Multicultural Marketing for Moet Hennessy USA and Chairman of the New York Urban League, breaks down the refreshing history of one of our favorite drinks :

The Tuskegee Connection:

In 1896, the president of our company (then known as Schieffelin and Co.) was William Jay Schieffelin, who was believed to be a relative of John Jay, one of the founding fathers of this country. Schieffelin befriended Booker T. Washington, who was the founder of Tuskegee (Institute) in Alabama. Schieffelin joined the school’s board of directors in 1896, and then encouraged friends in the North, including the wealthy, industrialist and much of the society crowd in New York to support Tuskegee Institute. In 1928, he organized a train ride from New York City to Tuskegee and encouraged his friends to witness what this institute was all about. On the train, there were people such as Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Andrew Carnegie, along with many other names that are not known today, but were successes and high achievers of that time.

Schieffelin became chairman of the Tuskegee board in 1932 and served in that capacity until he died in 1954. There is word, that he had never missed a board meeting at the college. If you visit Tuskegee today, one will see a very impressive campus, were it is believed that William Jay Schieffelin assisted in the establishment of this university as the world-class college it is today.

The Founding of the National Urban League:

In 1906, Schieffelin and Co. was a pharmaceutical company and owned a factory in lower Manhattan called the Williams Center. Schieffelin was then made aware of the poor working conditions that African Americans were experiencing in New York City. While factories across the country were horrific at that time in history, the facilities that were occupied by Black people were particular dangerous. Schieffelin looked to create an organization to fight this problem, and to create publicity in order to make changes to the factory industry.

Schieffelin hired George Edmond Hanes, the first Black man to graduate with a Ph.D from Columbia’s School of Economics and who had also completed his undergraduate studies at Yale University, to serve as the executive director of this nonprofit organization to fight the conditions in factories. Hanes was a very smart and well-travelled young man; a visionary, he knew that this organization could be much bigger than originally inteneded. A meeting was arraigned with leadership from two similar organizations and it was decided that they would merge under the direction of William Jay Schieffelin.  

In 1910, the Committee for Improving the Industrial Conditions of Negroes in New York City was born. The original name of the organization was quite long and was changed to the National Urban League one year later.

The EBONY Effect: 

Toward the end of World War II, the Germans created the Vichy Line, a very large and well-equipped force in order to block the efforts of Western allies from America. The U.S. sent an all-Black tank battalion to attack the Vichy Line, with the idea of softening up the competition so that a White battalion could follow and break through with the victory. But in fact the Black battalion broke through and kept going, encircling Russian forces in Austria, a major feat. White U.S. officers did not want that Black battalion to receive the honor they felt they deserved, so they refused to give them gasoline for their tanks. Somehow the Black battalion stole the gas anyway. The men were later disbanded from the Army so that they could never be honored for their tremendous achievement.

In contrast, the French celebrated all Americans for their WWII efforts, including the Blacks. It is said that African Americans were first introduced to cognac during these celebrations. This was in 1945, the same year in which EBONY was founded. Hennessy ran the first spirit ad to appear in EBONY in 1951 (and also JET’s first spirit ad in 1953). The power of EBONY held in the Black community was particularly extraordinary because everyone read it and became familiar with the people and brands featured in between its pages. That Hennessy ad is believed to be the start of the loyalty that the African Americans have to the brand today.

Want more Henny? Check out our interview with Maurice Hennessy, heir to the iconic brand, in the February issue of EBONY!