Historian Explains How The Sears Catalog Was A Radical Challenge To White Supremacy In Jim Crow Era South

Sears filed for bankruptcy this week and is being criticized for falling behind the times, but one history professor explains the company was more than just a retailer — it was a radical force for social change in the Jim Crow era South.

This week, what was once the world’s largest retailer filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to close more than 100 stores. As NBC News reported, experts say the company failed to evolve with a marketplace where online sales are now king and brick-and-mortar stores are becoming a thing of the past. It was surpassed by both Amazon and Walmart, outlets with thriving and easy-to-use online arms that deliver products right to customers’ doors.

Ironically, that was once how Sears gained its reputation, releasing its iconic catalog that allowed customers to order products by mail and have them shipped to their homes. It was a radical concept at the time, and not just in the retail world.

As historian Louis Hyman explained, the catalog was also a critical outlet for black families living in the Jim Crow era South and created new opportunities for them to move beyond the confines of a prejudiced society. As he explained in a now-viral Twitter thread, blacks were often subjected to racist store owners before the advent of the Sears catalog.

As the Cornell University professor and author wrote, black southerners were treated as second-class citizens in stores where white patrons were always served first and they had to endure racist depictions meant to demean them.

These stores were often designed to keep black patrons in debt to their landlords, Hyman added.

“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,” he wrote.

“Until Sears. The catalog undid the power of the storekeeper, and by extension the landlord. Black families could buy without asking permission. Without waiting. Without being watched. With national (cheap) prices!”

This came with a backlash among white store owners, whose stores often also functioned as the post office. As Hyman explained, they would often refuse to sell stamps to blacks in an effort to prevent them from making orders from the Sears catalog and spread rumors that the company was run by a black man (to which the white Richard Sears responded by publishing a picture of himself). Sears also helped black shoppers by publishing instructions on how they could send orders directly with postal carriers, he explained.

So even as Sears the company is failing, Hyman hopes the history lesson can help people “think about how retail is not just about buying things, but part of a larger system of power” in the United States.

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