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Retro Baltimore: The Afro’s ‘Orchids and Onions’ column called out racist Baltimore department stores in 1940s

For Keiffer J. Mitchell a childhood errand with his grandmother became a stark lesson about “old Baltimore.”

“I remember her taking me shopping as a young boy to buy a sweater for Christmas dinner,” Mitchell wrote in an email. “She said ‘In old Baltimore, you wouldn’t be able to try this sweater on to see if it fits because the department stores wouldn’t allow blacks to do that.’”

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Mitchell’s grandmother, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, was the first Black woman to practice law in Maryland and a prominent woman in the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood where she lived. But, like other Black women of her time, she was unable to try clothes on or make returns at many major stores.

She told her grandson, the former Democratic state delegate who is now chief legislative officer for Gov. Larry Hogan, about the headaches this created.

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“She also talked about shopping for school clothes for my dad and uncles who were her children and how it was a challenge to get them the right fit of clothes,” Mitchell said.

Hutzler's started as a small dry goods store, which opened Jan. 7, 1858. Moses Hutzler agreed to help his son Abram fund the "One Price House" on Howard and Clay streets. In 1867, Abram and his brother Charles opened a wholesale business on Baltimore Street.
Hutzler's started as a small dry goods store, which opened Jan. 7, 1858. Moses Hutzler agreed to help his son Abram fund the "One Price House" on Howard and Clay streets. In 1867, Abram and his brother Charles opened a wholesale business on Baltimore Street. (XX)

Department stores were just “one part of a very dense fabric of exclusion and humiliation,” said historian Paul A. Kramer, author of “White Sales: The Racial Politics of Baltimore’s Jewish-Owned Department Stores, 1935-1965.” Black Baltimoreans were forbidden from living in many parts of the city, attending white schools or dining in most restaurants.

Yet high-end department stores still held a unique status in 20th century American life. With their big window displays and carrying the latest fashions, major department stores are “what helps makes a city a city,” he said. The treatment of Black shoppers in these places shows how they were shut out of larger society.

In the 1940s, the city’s Afro-American newspaper devoted a column called “Orchids and Onions” to calling out these racist shops — and praising those who went on the record as treating all shoppers equally.

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Like the Green Book, a guide for Black motorists, The Afro’s Orchids and Onions column helped Black citizens navigate a city in which racism circumscribed their daily lives. The column also helped raise political awareness about companies that discriminated, encouraging readers to take action in response.

In one column published in January 1945, the list of “orchids” — “stores which serve all alike” — numbered more than two dozen.

“We have a sign posted that reads ‘everybody welcome,’ and we mean it,” said the co-owner of the Goucher Garment Company, an orchid at Fayette and Howard. “We have lost a lot of white customers because of our equal policy, but we don’t give a damn.”

A manager of the Charles Fish store at 429 Eutaw St. told The Afro in February 1945 that 90% of their patrons were Black; they could try on and exchange goods.

Discriminating shops — “onions” — included some of Baltimore’s most prominent department stores: O’Neill’s, Hochschild Kohn and Hutzler Brothers.

In addition to refusing to let Black shoppers try on clothes or exchange items, they typically barred Black customers from eating in on-site restaurants and limited Black employees to behind-the-scenes positions.

Quoted in The Afro about their policies, managers blamed their white patrons. At Stanwick’s of 204 W. Lexington St., a manager said that while Black customers were allowed to enter, “they cannot try on any clothing because the white customers objected to it.”

During the era of segregation, most white shoppers couldn’t bear the idea that the clothes they bought or tried on might have the “invisible taint” of Black contact, according to Kramer. Shopping in stores that excluded Black people also gave white customers a sense of privilege.

But people quoted in The Afro didn’t buy those excuses. Mitchell’s grandmother was quoted in an Afro column in 1945 saying, “Boycott and picket is the real solution to the problem.” Mitchell said if shop owners changed their policies, white customers would have no choice but to accept it.

A few observed that these white shoppers and shop owners employed many Black workers at home. The workers, then, should give their bosses a taste of their own medicine.

“Suppose the wife of the owner of one of these exclusive stores or one of those patrons who thinks she is too good to rub elbows with us in the stores were to wake up one morning and find herself without servants,” said Eleanor Felton of North Pine Street.

“I think after a day of preparing her husband’s meals, caring for her own children, running her own errands and scrubbing her own floors, any one of them would be too worn out, if she found time for shopping, to care about the color of the woman who tried on shoes in the seat next to her.”

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