For the Records: How African American Consumers and Music Retailers Created Commercial Public Space in the 1960s and 1970s South

By Davis, Joshua Clark | Southern Cultures, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

For the Records: How African American Consumers and Music Retailers Created Commercial Public Space in the 1960s and 1970s South


Davis, Joshua Clark, Southern Cultures


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Records is a market that can be used to brighten the future of lots of black people with jobs and higher prestige all over the country," Jimmy Liggins announced in 1976 to the readers of the Carolina Times, Durham, North Carolina's most prominent African American newspaper. Liggins, a minor rhythm and blues star of the 1950s, was publicizing his Duplex National Black Gold Record Pool, headquartered in Durham, which sought to "help and assist black people to own and sell the music and talent blacks produce." With the aid of this "self helping program," aspiring hit-makers could record and release music that Black Gold sold through mail order and at Liggins's shop, Snoopy's Records, in downtown Durham. (1)

Kenny Mann vividly recalls his frequent trips to Snoopy's as a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Liggins "was like a god" to Mann and other young customers who patronized the store. "Everybody knew" Liggins and his two business partners, Henry Bates and Paul Truitt. "These guys, I was listening to them talk about bringing Tyrone Davis and Johnny Taylor and A1 Green to town ... It was fun to go [to their store] because it felt like the place to be; there were girls in there, and I was twelve, thirteen years old." Not only that, but Mann "never felt the pressure to buy something" like he did in stores in his hometown of Chapel Hill, where white shopkeepers frequently followed young African American shoppers around their businesses, suspecting they might shoplift. "They had a double standard," Mann remembers. Chapel Hill "really was set up as if they didn't want to do business with us black people." In sharp contrast, Liggins envisioned Snoopy's as "our mall"--a "hang out" where black consumers could buy black music in a record store owned and operated by African Americans. Black-owned record stores like Snoopy's represented a crucial nexus where African American enterprise, consumer culture, community, and of course, music all met. And by the early 1970s, Liggins was booking and promoting shows for Mann's band, which eventually became Liquid Pleasure, the popular Chapel Hill-based funk and soul outfit still active today.

In the postwar United States, record stores were perhaps the place where consumers most commonly interacted with individuals who made their living from popular culture. Yet, while music writers and scholars have devoted much attention to black-oriented radio stations and record labels, we still know very little about the retail businesses from which African Americans purchased music, especially in the South. Conservative estimates would suggest that at least 400 to 500 black-owned record stores--and probably closer to one thousand--were in operation throughout the region during this period. An examination of the black-owned record stores in one southern state, North Carolina, not only reveals valuable insights about the southern marketplace for African American music, but also much about the broader role consumer culture played in southern black communities during these transitional decades. While desegregation measures were beginning to significantly alter the racial make-up of some areas of southern society, such as public schools, many African American record retailers and consumers hesitated to assimilate into white-dominated pop-music marketplaces. Black merchandisers envisioned the record trade as an arena in which African Americans could pursue a broader strategy of bolstering economic self-sufficiency and sustaining black public life. And by seeking out music from black-owned record stores, African American consumers partook in a vibrant form of commercial public life, a community-based consumer culture that welcomed shoppers regardless of their color, age, or financial means. (2)

AFRICAN AMERICAN ENTREPRENEURSHIP

African American entrepreneurship dates back centuries, but in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, black communities in the South expressed renewed interest in harnessing business' potential for self-empowerment.

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