In this talk, based on her new book, Department Stores and the Black Freedom Struggle: Workers, Consumers, and Civil Rights, Dr. Traci Parker will reveal the African American movement to dismantle racially discriminatory hiring and customer service practices in department stores. She shows how blacks leveraged their collective labor and purchasing power to fully realize middle-class citizenship, a status dependent on equal treatment as consumers as well as workers.
Department stores (like Connecticut’s G. Fox & Co.) were epicenters of American consumption and modernity in the twentieth century. They were places of consumption, leisure, and work, as well as sites for self-fashioning, self-expression, and human satisfaction. They enthroned consumption as the route to democracy and citizenship and invited everyone—regardless of race, gender, age, class, and country of origin—to enter, browse, and purchase often superfluous material goods. But even as department stores celebrated democracy, they were, in fact, Jim Crow institutions designed to satisfy the needs and desires of middle-class whites, albeit with an ambiguous color line.
African Americans, therefore, were initially hired only in menial positions, though a few eventually moved up to white-collar jobs in sales and in the office. Meanwhile, African American customers were welcome to shop, but were provided uneven, unequal service and found their movements and participation in the usual shopping “experience” severely constrained. They were routinely refused service at lunch counters, restaurants, and beauty shops. They were forbidden use of dressing rooms and restrooms, were prohibited from trying on and returning clothes, and could be arbitrarily refused entrance or service at any moment.
Free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served. Let us know you’re coming by emailing [email protected].
Questions? Contact Natalie Belanger, Adult Programs Manager, at [email protected].
About the Speaker
Traci Parker holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. She is currently an assistant professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her work focuses on African American history, gender, labor, and capitalism.