New Research

Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers, and Civil Rights from the 1930s to the 1980s

By Assistant Professor Traci Parker

Several years ago, I walked into Bloomingdale’s, an upscale department store on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, to browse the women’s designer shoes (which needless to say, I could not afford). I was pleased to see a number of African American sales workers in the shoe department, assisting women shoppers from different races and backgrounds. At that time, I was consumed with research on the history of African Americans in department stores. Day in and day out, I wrote about African Americans’ movement to end racial discrimination and segregation in department-store work and consumption in the twentieth century. So, as I stood surrounded by Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo shoes, the dichotomy of the past and present struck me.

It is now commonplace to see African Americans on both sides of the sales counter as workers and consumers. Despite being an African American woman, I, myself, paid little attention to it until I began researching and writing my book. Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement examines the decades-long struggle to create opportunities for African Americans to freely work and shop in the marketplace. For a better part of the twentieth century, department stores were democratic in that everyone was welcome to enter and purchase. Simultaneously, they obeyed the tenets of Jim Crow. African American customers received second-class and uneven service: they were prohibited from trying-on and returning clothes, and from eating at lunch counters, tearooms, and store restaurants. African American workers were barred from working in skilled jobs in sales, offices, and management. Instead, they were employed as janitors, cooks, and elevator operators.

In response, African Americans leveraged these contradictions—as well as their collective labor and purchasing power—to integrate white-collar work and consumption and acquire the material base needed to realize middle-class citizenship, as status dependent on their equal treatment as consumers as well as workers. In the 1930s, they organized the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” movement. In the 1940s, they persuaded store management to hire a token number of African Americans in sales and offices. In the 1950s and 1960s, they employed sit-ins, picketing, and selective patronage programs to desegregate lunch counters and sales work. Thereafter, African Americans sought the protection of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the courts.

Figures 1 and 2: African Americans picketing a Richmond Department store, protesting racial discrimination.

The story of African Americans’ relationship with department stores broadens our historical understanding of the labor and economic dimensions of the black freedom movement. It reveals that both work and consumption were battlegrounds for the Civil Rights Movement. The movement thus never abandoned labor and economics, a focus of the black freedom struggle in the 1930s and 1940s, as other scholars have argued; rather activists remained attentive to these issues in the 1950s and 1960s and beyond. My book also reveals aspects of the mid-twentieth century evolution of the black middle class. Indeed, the department store was a key site for the inception of a modern black middle class. By “modern,” I mean a class identity produced by consumer capitalism, rather than industrial capitalism, because class status in black communities was defined as much by relationships with American consumer culture as by occupation.

When I left Bloomingdale’s, I had a newfound appreciation of African Americans’ efforts to challenge racial discrimination in the marketplace. But I also remained keenly aware of the decline of department stores and the persistence of racial discrimination in the industry and their impact on African Americans in the twenty-first century. African American customers are frequently provided substandard service, denied services, sold degraded products, and are closely monitored, questioned, searched, and detained for suspicion of criminal activity such as shoplifting and credit card or check fraud. African American workers find that retail work is no longer a direct pathway to a middle-class life. Race discrimination confines them to unskilled, non-managerial positions in the industry; while the work itself frequently fails to meet the needs of African American workers who—compared to their white counterparts—are paid less and confined to dead-end positions. Many black workers find that retail work enables them to live on the bare bones of subsistence level but not thrive or climb the socioeconomic ladder in ways that retail work once promised, as a result. So, it seems, the movement must continue.

Traci Parker is assistant professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers, and Civil Rights From the 1930s to the 1980s (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Image Credits: Brenda Lauderback (Spence Hollstadt/Pioneer Press). Figures 1 and 2, African American protesters (Traci Parker/Valentine Richmond History Center).