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Sears’s ‘radical’ past: How mail-order catalogues subverted the racial hierarchy of Jim Crow

Monday’s announcement that Sears would file for bankruptcy and close 142 stores came as little surprise to anyone who has followed the retail giant’s collapse in recent years. Still, the news inspired a wave of nostalgia for a company that sold an ideal of middle-class life to generations of Americans.

A lesser-known aspect of Sears’s 125-year history, however, is how the company revolutionized rural black Southerners’ shopping patterns in the late 19th century, subverting racial hierarchies by allowing them to make purchases by mail or over the phone and avoid the blatant racism that they faced at small country stores.

“What most people don’t know is just how radical the catalogue was in the era of Jim Crow,” Louis Hyman, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, wrote in a Twitter thread that was shared more than 7,000 times Monday in the wake of the news of Sears’s demise. By allowing African Americans in Southern states to avoid price gouging and condescending treatment at their local stores, he wrote, the catalogue “undermined white supremacy in the rural South.”

Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Oct. 15 and announced that it will close 142 stores. (Video: Reuters)

As historians of the Jim Crow era have documented, purchasing everyday household goods was often an exercise in humiliation for African Americans in the South. Before the advent of the mail-order catalogue, rural black Southerners typically only had the option of shopping at white-owned general stores — often run by the owner of the same farm where they worked as sharecroppers. Those store owners frequently determined what African Americans could buy by limiting how much credit they would extend.

While country stores were one of the few places where whites and blacks routinely mingled, store owners fiercely defended the white-supremacist order by making black customers wait until every white customer had been served and forcing them to buy lower-quality goods. “A black man who needed clothing received a shirt ‘good enough for a darky to wear’ while a black family low on provisions could have only the lowest grade of flour,” historian Grace Elizabeth Hale wrote in an essay published in Jumpin’ Jim CrowSouthern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights.”

In 1894, Sears, Roebuck and Co. began sending out 322-page illustrated catalogues. The year before, Congress had passed the Rural Free Delivery Act, making it possible for the Chicago-based retailer to easily reach communities across the rural South. Notably, the company made an effort to accommodate customers who were barely literate, enacting a policy that the company would fill any order it received regardless of the format.

Sears used to sell houses by catalogue. Buyers then put them together. The Sears brand may soon vanish, but these sturdy homes live on. Step inside for a look. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

“So, country folks who were once too daunted to send requests to other purveyors could write in on a scrap of paper, asking humbly for a pair of overalls, size large,” the Bitter Southerner explained this summer. “And even if it was written in broken English or nearly illegible, the overalls would be shipped.”

But even more important, the catalogue format allowed for anonymity, ensuring that black and white customers would be treated the same way.

“This gives African Americans in the Southeast some degree of autonomy, some degree of secrecy,” unofficial Sears historian Jerry Hancock told the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast in December 2016. “Now they can buy the same thing that anybody else can buy. And all they have to do is order it from this catalogue. They don’t have to deal with racist merchants in town and those types of things.”

Even though white store owners wanted black customers’ business, many were uncomfortable with the idea of blacks having money. Mamie Fields, a black woman who was born in segregated South Carolina in 1888, wrote in her memoir: “Some of them did think colored people oughtn’t to have a certain nice thing, even if they had enough money to buy it. Our people used to send off for certain items. That way, too, the crackers . . . wouldn’t know what you had in your house.”

The company has even been credited with contributing to the development of a unique genre of black Southern music —  the Delta blues. “There was no Delta blues before there were cheap, readily available steel-string guitars,” musician and writer Chris Kjorness wrote in Reason, a libertarian magazine, in 2012. “And those guitars, which transformed American culture, were brought to the boondocks by Sears, Roebuck & Co.” By 1908, anyone could buy a steel-string guitar from the catalogue for $1.89, roughly the equivalent of $50 today. It was the cheapest harmony-generating instrument available on the mass market, Kjorness noted.

There isn’t enough data available to determine exactly how much black customers contributed to Sears’s bottom line during the Jim Crow years. And historians have noted that purchasing from the catalogues was an option only for African Americans who had enough cash on hand to place an order, or, once ordering via telephone began replacing mail order, access to a phone.

Still, Southern merchants clearly felt threatened by the competition from mail-order department stores: As catalogues for Sears and Montgomery Ward made their way into more and more homes, local storekeepers began circulating rumors that the companies were run by black men.“The logic, of course, was that these fellows could not afford to show their faces as retailers,” Gordon Lee Weil wrote in his 1977 history of the company, “Sears, Roebuck, U.S.A.: The Great American Catalog Store and How it Grew.”

By the turn of the century, some merchants were even encouraging people to bring in their catalogues for Saturday night bonfires and offering bounties of up to $50 for people who collected the most “Wish Books,” historians Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen wrote in “Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness.” In response, Sears published photos of its founders to prove that they were white, while Ward offered a $100 reward in exchange for the name of the person who had started a rumor that he had mixed black and white ancestry.

Meanwhile, in the ensuing decades, Julius Rosenwald, who had become a part owner of the company after Alvah Roebuck sold his share of the business in 1895, became a well-known philanthropist to the black community. He donated $4.3 million — the equivalent of more than $75 million today — to open nearly 5,000 “Rosenwald schools” in the rural South between 1912 and 1932, when he died.

“These schools were in very, very rural areas, where many African American kids did not go to school. If they went to school, they went to a very ramshackle building,” writer Stephanie Deutsch, who published a book on the history of the schools, told The Washington Post in 2015. “These schools were new and modern, with big tall windows, and lots of light streaming in. They felt special, because they were new and they were theirs.”

Although most Rosenwald schools shut down after Brown v. Board of Education mandated an end to segregation, 1 of every 3 black children in the South attended a Rosenwald school during the 1930s, The Post’s Karen Heller reported in 2015. Among the schools’ notable alumni were poet Maya Angelou and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

Rosenwald, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, became a friend of Booker T. Washington and served on the board of the Tuskegee Institute. He also helped fund black YMCAs and YWCAs and provided financial support to black artists and writers, including opera singer Marian Anderson, poet Langston Hughes, photographer Gordon Parks and writer James Baldwin.

Sears went only so far in subverting racial norms. Up until the middle of the 20th century, the company followed Jim Crow laws in its Atlanta department store, Bitter Southerner noted, meaning that black employees could work only in warehouse, janitorial and food service positions. Still, the company allowed both blacks and whites to shop there, which wasn’t the case for other stores in the area at the time.

And for a significant portion of U.S. history, the Sears catalogue offered black shoppers something that they couldn’t find anywhere else: dignity.

Correction: A photo caption previously misidentified the record-playing device pictured in the 1902 Sears Roebuck catalog. It is a Columbia Grand Graphophone, not a gramophone.

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