How the Sears catalog revolutionized the way blacks shopped

CHICAGO — Sears was founded in Chicago and started out as a catalog business. Little did its founder Richard Sears know, it would grow to become the world’s largest store and a great equalizer for black people who were suffering under Jim Crow.

Under Jim Crow, state and local laws were enacted after slavery ended to enforce racial segregation in the South. They remained in place until 1965, but the Sears catalog restored dignity to black shoppers who were forced to wait in line behind white people to be served and then couldn’t buy the same clothes or food.

Sears even went so far as to print instructions in the catalog on how to bypass those store owners and instead engage with postmen and station agents at the railroad to place your order. It led to a revolt.

Louis Hyman, an associate professor at Cornell University, teaches a course in the history of American retail.

"There are accounts of store owners organizing bonfires in the street. There are accounts of giant contests of who can bring in the most catalogs to be destroyed, because they are serious about maintaining local control over what black people could and couldn’t buy," he said.

He said store owners even spread rumors that Richard Sears and his one-time partner Alvah Roebuck were black, as a way of discrediting the brand. Many black people to this day, still believe Roebuck was black, even though he wasn’t.

While the Sears catalog was an economic equalizer for blacks in the south, Hyman said the story changed once Sears started opening brick and mortar stores.

“They embraced the hiring practices of their local neighborhoods and cities, which were racially exclusionary. They tended to hire white people," Hyman said.

It was a complicated relationship to say the least, but Hyman said the story of Sears is the story of American history.

“Capitalism will win out, we see that again in the 1960s, the first civil rights act was not about voting, it was about consumer access, the importance of the black dollar becomes essential to arguments for civil rights in the 1960s," he said.

That remains true now. A 2018 report by Nielsen put black buying power at $1.2 trillion—even though blacks only make up 14 percent of the country’s population.

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