The Fultz sisters were born on May 23, 1946 and became the first identical African-American quadruplets on record. They were instant celebrities upon entering the world and endured the highs and lows of publicity.
Born into the public eye
Mr. and Mrs. Fultz were poor with six children when they gave birth to the identical quadruplets in the segregated wing of a North Carolina hospital. Almost simultaneously, the cameras and endorsements came knocking because of the rarity of this high order multiple birth. Of the interested companies, Pet Evaporated Milk offered to pay all medical bills associated with the birth, hire an in-home nurse to care for the girls, and give the family their own farming land and house. The hired nurse, Elma Saylor, shares what 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
Doctor Fred Klenner, who delivered the Fultz Quads, actually negogiated the deal with Pet turning down two other milk companies, Borden and Carnation. He seemed to take charge of the girls lives in the beginning, having experimentally put Mrs. Fultz on high dosages of vitamin C in the latter part of her pregnancy and then naming the quadruplets upon birth. (The girls became Klenner’s “vitamin C babies”.)
“The doctor took it upon himself to name the girls — all of them Mary, followed by the names of the women in the Klenner family. There was Ann, for the doctor’s wife; Louise, his daughter; Alice, his aunt; and Catherine, his great-aunt.
To the delivery nurse, who is black, it didn’t seem strange.
“At that time, you know, it was before integration,” Margaret Ware, 79, recalled recently. “They did us how they wanted. And these were very poor people. He was a sharecropper, Pete [Mr. Fultz] was, and she [Mrs. Fultz] couldn’t read or write. — News & Record, “And then there was one” by Lorraine Ahearn, Aug. 2002”
In addition to naming the sisters, Klenner set up visitations at the Fultz home for curious strangers who wanted to see the quadruplets. The girls were put on display in a glass-enclosed nursery.
Dr. Fred Klenner stated that visitors would be welcome at the home between the hours of 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. each afternoon, and that the quads could be viewed through a glass screen. — News & Record
And so it began …
Publicity and disappointment
The end of the Second World War had brought intense economic growth. The Fultz Quads subsequently became “national icons of the post-war baby craze and of the birth of the black urban consumer,” appearing in countless Pet Milk advertisements into their teenage years. (Pet Milk sold more cans in 1950 — four years into the sisters’ lives — than it had sold in its 65-year history. The company attributes that feat to “the post-war prosperity and baby boom”, but one has to wonder what portion of that success is actually due to the Fultz Quads and five other quadruplets appearing as the faces for Pet Milk.)
As the Fultz Quads grew into young women, they continued to appear in the public eye. In November 1959, at age thirteen, they performed as a string quartet in the annual Orange Blossom Festival in Miami, Florida. For their 16th birthday, they were featured in a Pet Milk ad for an autographed picture of the girls. That same year, they met President John F. Kennedy at the capital where twelve years before they had also met President Harry S. Truman during his walk. These are just some of the many appearances the Fultz Quads made.
Many African Americans saw the Fultz Quads as the black version of the Dionne Quintuplets, reaping the monetary benefits of fame. However, behind closed doors, the sisters were not as compensated and financially secure as many thought. Unlike the white Dionne Quintuplets, who received $1 million in a trust fund at age seven, the girls were paid scraps. (The Dionne Quintuplets also have a sad story worth reading.) Elma Saylor, the nurse who was hired to care for them in their home, and her husband, Charles Saylor, had adopted the quadruplets in 1956 and knew the truth of their lives.
They had always been [poor]. For no matter what the public thought, the highly publicized Pet Milk advertising contracts had brought in just enough money – $350 a month – to keep the Fultz Quads off North Carolina’s welfare rolls …
[Saylor then shares] “… Out of that $350 came my salary …
Somebody ought to just take a trip down to North Carolina and inspect that great farm that was played up so much in the newspaper stories. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and the land’s so poor that you can’t even get timber to grow on it anymore. Then the place has always been so hilly that you couldn’t raise good crops on it …
There was also a lot of publicity about the family’s ‘very own house’ on the farm. Let’s set the record straight: it was an old four-room place in which 13 to 14 people, including myself as the babies’ nurse, had to live. Pet Milk put in a faucet and electricity and a gas hot plate for cooking, and they closed in the front porch so that I’d have a place to sleep. That was, I guess you’d call it, the ‘nurse’s quarters’ — my room, out there on the porch …
I’m not saying that Pet didn’t do everything it promised to do; I’m saying that they could have done more.” — EBONY
Aside from this truth, there was the reality that the sisters had difficulty adjusting to normal lives. After two years of college, the Fultz Quads were forced to withdraw. When EBONY Magazine interviewed them in 1968, the sisters were in Peekskill, New York living in a small two-bedroom apartment with their adopted parents and working at a factory making men’s raincoats for low wages. Though the girls were not exactly suffering, they were certainly not doing much better than the average African American at that time.
Breast cancer and death
Later in life, the Fultz Quads went back to school ultimately graduating from Barbizon in 1985. At least one of the sisters went on to marry, and that is all we really know about their lives until 2002. The last journalist update on them sadly informed readers that three of the sisters had developed breast cancer and died.
The last one born, the unexpected one, she [Catherine] was now the only survivor. First, Louise had died of breast cancer at age 45, then Ann, from the identical cause at age 50. Finally, Alice had lost the same battle, at 55, her body about to leave Annie Penn in a funeral-home ambulance — the same way the over-taxed hospital transported the four babies home to their parents’ tobacco farm in 1946. — News & Record
It has been said that Catherine also developed breast cancer but then went into remission. No other news has been found about the Fultz Quads since then.
EBONY, “The Fultz Quads” by Charles L. Sanders, Nov. 1968.
News & Record, “And then there was one” by Lorraine Ahearn, Aug. 2002.
Have you heard about the Fultz Quads?