Historian Explains Sears' Surprisingly Radical Role in Dismantling Jim Crow Laws

Sears catalogue played a pivotal role in the democratization of purchasing power.

Jim Crow poster and Richard Warren Sears

On October 15, the 132-year-old Sears chain announced that it was declaring bankruptcy. Sears, founded in 1886, is one of the U.S.’ oldest retail brands—and Louis Hyman, a history professor at Cornell University, has responded to the announcement with a YouTube video and a series of tweets describing the ways in which Sears affected Jim Crow Laws and racial segregation in the U.S.

Richard Warren Sears founded his company 78 years before the Civil Right Act of 1964, launching his first mail-order catalog in 1886. In his tweets, Hyman explained that when African-Americans gained access to Sears’ catalog, they were able to bypass discriminatory local shops.

On October 15, Hyman posted on Twitter, “What most people don’t know is just how radical the catalog was in the era of #Jim Crow.”

Hyman elaborated, “Every time a black southerner went to the local store, they were confronted with forced deference to white customers who would be served first…. The stores were not self-service, so the black customers would have to wait. And then, would have to ask the proprietor to give them goods (often on credit because...sharecropping). The landlord often owned the store. In every way, shopping reinforced hierarchy.”

But the Sears catalog, Hyman added, “undid the power of the storekeeper, and by extension the landlord” by allowing black families to buy “without asking permission. Without waiting. Without being watched.”

Realizing how much African-Americans were using the Sears catalog, Hyman noted, “Southern storekeepers fought back” by organizing catalog bonfires and refusing to sell stamps to black people.

The Sears catalog, according to Hyman, became “dangerous to the white supremacist order, because cash of white people and cash of black people had the same buying power. And the ability of cash to undermine this Jim Crow order ultimately leads to one of its main reasons why it comes undone in the 1960s.”

Sears, Hyman stressed, underscored the battle between “white supremacy vs. consumer capitalism—this is the core contradiction of jim crow capitalism.” And it helped create “a demand for black services” while promoting “middle class black consumption.”

With the rise of Sears as well as Montgomery Ward, Hyman said, “Suddenly, African-American consumers, in the country, had options beyond that one particular store owner. They could buy without asking permission.”

Presently, about 700 Sears stores remain open—a decrease from roughly 1000 stores in early 2018. And the chain plans to close 46 more stores in November and another 142 by the end of the year.

You can read the full thread on Twitter or watch Hyman discuss the topic below:

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Alex Henderson is a news writer at AlterNet and veteran political journalist. His work has also appeared in Salon, Raw Story, Truthdig, National Memo, Philadelphia Weekly, Democratic Underground, L.A. Weekly, MintPress News and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.