"Don't Buy Where You Can't Work": An Investigation of the Political Forces and Social Conflict within the Harlem Boycott of 1934

Article excerpt

"Don't Buy Where You Can't Work": An Investigation of the Political Forces and Social Conflict Within the Harlem Boycott of 1934


On August 4, 1934, a huge crowd of Harlem residents gathered in front of Abyssinian Baptist Church. An atmosphere of excitement and satisfaction was evident; the spirit of celebration was not dampened by a prolonged rainstorm. This rare collection of men, women, and children represented a cross-section of the class and political spectrum of one of the most celebrated communities in Black America Harlem's citizens were assembled to participate in a victory parade sponsored by the Citizen's League for Fair Play. Just ten days before, Blumstein's Department Store signed an agreement to hire forty-five "colored clerical and sales...clerks." A six month campaign had broken the most powerful white merchant on 125th Street.(1)

Organizers tried to postpone the event at 1:00 p.m. because of the foul weather. Thousands "who braved the rain" eventually "wended their way homeward" when word of cancellation reached them. Nearly 1500 celebrants refused to leave and waited patiently for the leadership to reconsider its decision. By 4:00 p.m. the "first ray of sunshine brightened the scene" and the dedicated began to march down Lenox Avenue to 110th Street. Carrying signs which read "Don't Trade Where We Can't Work," the marchers recaptured the rhythm and joy of the 1920s. Some even danced the "two-step" as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the Jenkins Orphanage Bands provided the necessary music to inspire those who traveled the route. "While the parade was still moving up Seventh Avenue..., the marchers took occasion to roundly boo while they were passing the office of the Amsterdam News."

Those who were keen observers must have been impressed with the diversity of community participants. Some of Harlem's "finest" rocked with the music and shouted "cries of victory." Fraternal groups, church clubs, ministers, women's societies, celebrities, and professionals joined the unemployed, push-cart vendors, street corner spokesmen, cult members, and Garveyites to form an impressive united front. At Dorrence Brooks Square two loud speakers, supplied by the Dunbar Radio Company, amplified the voices of the boycott leaders. Each "reiterated the story of the fight and...what the League planned to do in the future."(2)

By mid-September 1934, the Citizen's League for Fair Play was hopelessly split by bitter factional politics. Some of its most prominent members were quick to disassociate themselves from what a few termed a "messy situation." Within a short time, picket lines reappeared at Blumstein's sponsored by what became known in the Black press as the "Rebel Picketing Committee"(3) or the "Renegade `Boycott' Committee."(4) In later months, this labor action was dubbed by its opposition as the "Racket Committee...on Foul Play."(5) Some Jewish and Italian businessmen labeled the resumption of picket activities as a "race hatred campaign."(6) What happened to the impressive united front that characterized the post-September momentum of the Citizen's League for Fair Play? What forces contributed to the factional chaos that plagued the later stages of the Harlem boycott? Can we utilize this multidimensional event as a historical lens to view and examine the competing elements seeking to exploit the political opportunities created by the Depression?

The purpose of this paper is to investigate the above questions and provide a broad historical appreciation for the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" boycott campaign. Largely neglected by historians or relegated to a minor consideration,(7) the "Don't Buy" movement is central to understanding the flowering of nonviolent direct action popularized by Martin Luther King and the student sit-ins of the 1950s. The seeds of the modern civil rights movement can be found among a fertile field of community boycott efforts that sprouted, matured and died in the 1930s. …