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’ 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 catalog 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 over 7,000 times Monday after the news of Sears’ demise. By allowing African Americans in southern states to avoid price-gouging and condescending treatment at their local stores, he wrote, the catalog “undermined white supremacy in the rural South.” (…)
[T]he catalog 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 catalog. They don’t have to deal with racist merchants in town and those types of things.”
Read the whole thing. Sears wasn’t perfect in this matter, but it was better than most in that era.
Too bad it was never able to adapt to the 21st century.
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