DuPont and the Culture Wars of the 1960s: A New Digital Collection

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

When Charles "Brel" Brelsford McCoy (1909-1995) became president of DuPont in December 1967, much was made of the fact that he was only the second president in the company’s history to come from outside the du Pont family. But McCoy, who began working at DuPont in the summer during his college years, was from a DuPont family: his father (a former vice-president), a brother, and his sons all worked for the company.

As a result, much of the material in the newest addition to the Hagley Digital Archives, which draws from our Charles Brelsford McCoy papers (Acc. 1815), was likely not a surprise to McCoy. The collection contains records that would have been familiar to many of his predecessors; work like lobbying and politicking, industrial relations and industrial management, participation in relevant trade associations, and keeping an eye on what industry trends might mean for the company’s finances had long been the responsibilities of the heads of large corporations. Other records, however, reveal stressors for executives that have become commonplace, but were less likely to be anticipated by McCoy.

Contemporary articles about his ascendency noted that he was inheriting a company facing an economic downturn and increasing marketplace competition, but little else in the way of corporate woes. McCoy himself seemed untroubled; a December 19, 1967 issue of Wilmington’s The News Journal noted that he didn’t believe that “his times [were] any more complex than those of any other president of the Du Pont Co.” But by April, McCoy inhabited a corporate headquarters whose city was occupied by the Delaware National Guard in response to a nationwide eruption of urban uprisings that occurred in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Quickly and persistently afterward, McCoy’s business records filled with demands (and accompanying corporate responses) that the company become an active participant in the political and cultural battles playing out across the nation.

Telegram from the Roy Wilkins of the NAACP recommending that DuPont observe a period of silence at the beginning of Martin Luther King’s funeral, April 9, 1968. Hagley Museum and Library.

Letters from stockholders, employees, and notable figures arrived, calling for the company to play a more active role in opportunities for women, in protecting the environment, and similar affairs. These letters were, of course, countered by others demanding that the company remember its stockholders and resist the “worldwide reactionary retreat into altruism.”  Ralph Nader arrived to investigate and DuPont began conducting social responsibility studies.

These crises reached inside the company as well. McCoy was called upon to respond to a racially motivated firebombing of a couple working for company. The company offered a reward for information leading to an arrest. In 1971, the appearance of a Confederate flag on the grounds of the Experimental Station necessitated an investigation—it was chalked up to some “frisky fun” by visiting painters.

McCoy and other DuPont executives have often received credit during these years for their roles in racial easing tensions and facilitating the integration of Wilmington in 1968 and the years after. They took actions like joining the board of the Urban Coalition of Metropolitan Wilmington, a community action group that provided support to poor and minority populations in the city and engage them policy-making. The company affirmed its commitment to non-discriminatory fair employment practices, launched affirmative action programs, funded training programs to create a pipeline for Black professionals into its ranks, and advocated for the construction of housing, and inclusionary housing policies to house them once they arrived.

DuPont’s efforts led to new opportunities for Black people working in STEM and at DuPont plants around the country. But stockholders’ fears that it was “going woke” were overblown. In 1973, the company was embarrassed by the discovery that its own Wawaset Park residential properties’ contracts still contained by-then legally unenforceable restrictive racial covenants (McCoy insisted that this language was a forgotten and unenforced remnant from the 1919 purchase). And behind the scenes, McCoy and his public relations staff seemed reluctant to engage too passionately or too publicly on the issue.

By the time DuPont was engaging with the Urban Coalition, many of its original, more radical members had departed, replaced by more moderate, business-friendly members from Wilmington’s social service organizations, churches, and other city institutions.[1] DuPont became a financial supporter of the National Urban League, but invitations to its events were routinely declined (unless the invitation came from David Rockefeller). Requests for funding from other leaders in the Black Freedom Movement like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were consistently rejected.

McCoy and DuPont executives were less ambiguous about their relationship with young people and the New Left, however. The records in this collection make it clear that DuPont was sincerely concerned that public perception of the company might thwart their efforts to recruit these bright young minds. McCoy fretted about this in speeches, while his executives held student-executive dinners and attended teach-ins.

In May 1970, the company debuted “College Students' Attitudes and Du Pont”, an internal memorandum. That same month, students across the nation participated in a letter writing campaign to DuPont and other corporations demanding support for an impending student strike for peace. On June 4th, McCoy delivered a much-publicized speech at the annual meeting of the Manufacturing Chemists' Association in which he called for an early solution to the war, decrying the questions it raised about the “preservation of democratic values”. The speech concluded with a discussion about what the industry must do to address the criticism it was receiving from the nation’s college population.

Charles Brelsford McCoy’s tenure as president of DuPont ended in 1973, though he remained on the board until 1987. The month he left office, he received a letter from the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The diocese wanted to confirm, as a stockholder, that DuPont did not engage in “racist hiring practices”, “unequal treatment of women employees,” “[r]epeated violations of pollution laws,” “[e]conomic involvement” in South Africa or Rhodesia," or “involvement in syndicated crime.” McCoy left the duty of the response to his brother-in-law, DuPont Secretary Henry T. Bush.


[1] Yanich, Beverly. 1984. “Urban Community Partnerships: Symbols That Succeed and Strategies That Fail.” Journal of Voluntary Action Research 13 (1): 23–37.

Skylar Harris is the Digitization and Metadata Coordinator at Hagley Museum and Library