Black History Forgotten: How The Fultz Quadruplets Were Exploited By Pet Milk

The Fultz Quadruplets serve as a reminder of why black history should be a required course and not an elective, or regulated to one month out of the year.

Sadly, if you want to learn black history, then you have to research on your own, and in doing so, you uncover endless stories about inspiring pioneers and inventors of blood banks, potato chips, the refrigerator, the electric trolley, the mop, the comb & brush, clothes dryer, lawn mower, traffic signals, the mailbox and many more items we use in our daily lives.

The tale of the Fultz sisters is one of fascination and tragedy. They were born on May 23, 1946 and became instant celebrities as the first identical African-American quadruplets on record to survive until adulthood. As the story goes, their mother, Annie Mae Fultz, was deaf and mute and in her late 30’s when she gave birth to them. She was the wife of an illiterate sharecropper, and they lived on a farm in the south with their other children.

Fred Klenner was a family doctor who delivered the babies, each weighing 3lbs. at birth. Klenner didn’t have access to proper medial suppliers, most especially the type of equipment required to care for quads. The girls were born during a time when blacks had no rights, and no protection under racial segregation. Klenner took advantage of this, and named the sisters himself. He gave them each the name Mary, after women in his family: his wife Mary Ann, his daughter Mary Louise, his aunt Mary Alice, and his great-aunt Mary Catherine.

The Greensboro Daily News reported the birth of the sisters with the headline: “Quadruplets Born To Negro Family In Rockingham Reported Thriving.” As the curious birth of black quads spread like wildfire, baby formula companies sought to capitalize off them. Most black mothers breastfed their newborns because they couldn’t afford formula, but formula companies used the baby girls to lure black mothers. Borden and Carnation offered Klenner a deal to use the babies to promote their brand, but it was Pet Milk that Klenner chose to aid him in exploiting the babies. Dr. Klenner, not the parents, was awarded a contract with Pet Milk. The company compensated the Fultz’s with medical care and a nurse, plenty of food for the girls, and a farm (that turned out to be barren).

BlackGirlLongHair notes what the hired nurse, Elma Saylor, said about how much the offer meant to the struggling family.

“[Mr. Fultz] had never made more than $500 a year in his whole life. So when Pet came around with that offer, Mr. Fultz and the others thought they’d had a blessing from heaven. You’ve got to remember that all that was more than 20 years ago in the rural South, and anything that white people did for you in those days was kind of unusual. And to think that after all those years, the Fultz family would have a 150-acre farm and their own house just given to them by a big company way off in St. Louis. Why, everyone down there thought that was just marvelous.- EBONY, ‘The Fultz Quads’ by Charles L. Sanders, Nov. 1968”

Dr. Klenner also used the girls in his “Vitamin C Therapy.” Once the Fultz sisters were healthy enough to be discharged from the hospital, Klenner put them on display inside a glass nursery within the family home. The local newspaper notified the public of the daily visiting hours of 2:00-4:00pm. The girls were used in almost every Pet Milk ad – well into their teenage years, and featured in numerous magazines, including Ebony.

Fultz Sisters
[Image via Facebook]

Four years into the sisters’ lives, Pet Milk sold more cans than it had sold in its 65-year history. The company attributes that success to the baby boom, while others credit the Fultz Quads. The girls were so popular that one ad offered an autographed picture of the sisters, and the year they turned 16, they met President John F. Kennedy at the capital. Twelve years prior, they also met President Harry S. Truman.

As they got older, however, the public lost interest, as did Pet Milk. The sisters were eventually adopted by their nurse, Elma Saylor, and grew up to live relatively quiet, but poor lives. They did not reap the financial rewards from endorsing Pet Milk. Elma told Ebony that the sisters received $350 a month, enough to keep the Fultz Quads off North Carolina’s welfare, but a part of that also paid Elma’s salary.

“I’m not saying that Pet didn’t do everything it promised to do; I’m saying that they could have done more,” Elma is quoted as telling Ebony.

Tragically, three of the sisters died of breast cancer. According to the News-Record, Louise was the first to die at age 45, then Ann at age 50, and finally Alice at age 55. The surviving sister, the youngest – Mary Catherine, also developed breast cancer, but went into remission. No further updates about the quads, or their legacy, have been reported since the early 2000’s. Over the years, researchers and historians have suggested that it was their daily diet of Pet Milk that led to poor health later in life. Many have called for the company to compensate the Fultz descendants for child exploitation.

Had you ever heard of the Fultz Quadruplets before today?

[Image via Shutterstock]