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

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

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

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

Synopsis

In this book, Traci Parker examines the movement to racially integrate white-collar work and consumption in American department stores, and broadens our understanding of historical transformations in African American class and labor formation. Built on the goals, organization, and momentum of earlier struggles for justice, the department store movement channeled the power of store workers and consumers to promote black freedom in the mid-twentieth century. Sponsoring lunch counter sit-ins and protests in the 1950s and 1960s, and challenging discrimination in the courts in the 1970s, this movement ended in the early 1980s with the conclusion of the Sears, Roebuck, and Co. affirmative action cases and the transformation and consolidation of American department stores. In documenting the experiences of African American workers and consumers during this era, Parker highlights the department store as a key site for the inception of a modern black middle class, and demonstrates the ways that both work and consumption were battlegrounds for civil rights.

Excerpt

Just about every weekend in the late 1980s and 1990s, my parents shuttled my younger sister and me from our home in Baltimore City to one of Maryland’s suburban shopping malls for an all-day excursion. Our tour guide of sorts was my mother. No matter what shopping center we visited—Golden Ring Mall, White Marsh Mall, or Eastpoint Mall—we parked by the entrance of Hecht Company and began our jaunt in the store’s shoe department. For what felt like hours, my mother browsed and tried on shoes, while my father wandered over to the men’s department and partook in his own shopping ritual (which, to be honest, remains a bit of a mystery because my sister and I tended to stay within eyeshot of my mother). Effectively, my sister and I were left to our own devices: we pranced the selling floor in oversized display shoes, played make-believe with store mannequins, or found a quiet place to camp out and read books we had brought from home. Occasionally, my sister and I bickered over a pair of shoes we both wanted to try on; but our spats ended as quickly as they began with one stern look from my mother—a look that unmistakably said, “Don’t make me come over there.” Here, amid the display of women’s shoes, the two of us constructed a playground or nursery of sorts—amenities that had disappeared from department stores nearly twenty years earlier.

After my mother finished shopping for shoes, and despite our silent wishes to head to the toy department or leave the mall altogether, she led us to women’s handbags, sportswear, housewares, and then the children’s department. Even if she found what she was looking for at Hecht’s, she would always “take a quick look at what they’ve got” in Woodward & Lothrop, Macy’s, and Lord & Taylor. of course, nothing about her “taking a quick look” was quick. in those stores, my mother followed her same shopping pattern—shoes, handbags, clothes, housewares, and then more clothes. She visited each store with the same exuberance as she had in Hecht’s, while the rest of us grew increasingly impatient, bored, restless, and tired. Frequently she crossed paths with family members and friends and proceeded to stand in the aisles gossiping and exchanging information about her purchases or lack thereof, which were usually attributed to poor store . . .

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