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Sears' complicated history with black customers

During a recent visit back home, I was surprised to see that the Sears, Roebuck, and Company at the Columbia Mall had closed. I shouldn’t have been, but I was. Sears once occupied the place in the American consumer psyche that Amazon now holds. For nearly a century, it was the go-to place for meeting shoppers’ wants and needs ranging from clothes to home furnishings and appliances to car parts.

I, like so many Americans, descend from a long line of Sears shoppers: My great grandparents purchased from the mail-order catalog; my grandmother and mother patronized Baltimore’s first Sears store located on Harford Road and North Avenue (now the Eastside District Court); and, after it closed in 1981, they shopped, often with my sister and me in tow, at Sears anchoring Eastpoint and White Marsh Malls.

As its iconic slogan states, Sears was “Where America shops.” It made African American customers, like my family, a priority long before many of its competitors — an action that led many contemporaries and scholars to celebrate Sears as a civil rights pioneer. But Sears’ treatment of African Americans was complicated. More than that, it was contradictory: On the one hand, Sears valued black workers and consumers; on the other hand, however, it often treated them as second-class citizens and was a target of civil rights protests as a result.

Sears’ mail-order catalog enabled African American customers to circumvent the humiliations and abuses of shopping in Jim Crow stores. From 1951 to 1953, Sears sold the first mass-produced, realistic black doll, named Sara Lee. It was created with the help of anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. (Another 15 years passed before other mass-produced black dolls were sold.) Since the 1970s and 1980s, Sears had been target-marketing African Americans when other retailers believed doing so was a risk.

In other ways, however, Sears was like its peers. Dependent on mass consumption, it operated under the principle of free entry and browsing. It also conformed to and endorsed notions of racial order. This meant that Sears welcomed blacks — but then constrained their movement and participation within the store. Accordingly, African Americans were hired as janitors, porters and maids but barred from white-collar positions in sales, clerical and management. Black customers were welcome to spend their money on material goods in many stores, and of course its mail-order catalog, but were frequently ignored and underserved. They were refused service at lunch counters, prohibited from trying on and returning clothes, and denied credit.

Due to their contradictory treatment of African Americans, Sears was often a target of the civil rights movement. In 1919, the National Urban League pressured the retailer to hire hundreds of African American women as office workers. In the 1930s and 1940s, African Americans boycotted against Sears and exposed the retailer’s racist hiring and customer service practices. In the 1950s and 1960s, the retailer fervently refused to integrate sales, clerical and managerial jobs. Only after unrelenting pressure from civil rights organizations did Sears capitulate; still their employment of African Americans in these positions was of a token nature. And in the late 1960s, welfare-rights activists protested the retailer’s discriminatory credit policies.

In the 1980s, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed five lawsuits against Sears. Four were based on race and national origin discrimination and one based on sex. These suits challenged, prominently and unsuccessfully, racial and gender inequalities that had been historically and deeply entrenched at Sears. The race cases were settled out of court. The sex case charged Sears with refusing to hire women in commissioned sales jobs. It went to trial in September 1984 in the U.S. District Court in Chicago and was decided in favor of the retailer in 1986.

It would be easy to solely extol Sears’s accomplishments or exclusively condemn its missteps with regards to African Americans, but we should not. Instead we should respect the retailer’s ups and downs, its growth and backslides, and everything in between. We should see Sears as an embodiment of the possibilities, limitations, and contradictions of capitalism for African Americans. And perhaps, we should take this moment as an opportunity to reimagine and reshape the retail industry — a terrain that may feature a once-again thriving, albeit a more specialized Sears — in ways that value and protects its workers and consumers of color.

Traci Parker is the author of “Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers and Civil Rights from the 1930s to the 1980s” (University of North Carolina Press, 2019) and an assistant professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She will presenting her book at Red Emma’s Bookstore at 1225 Cathedral Street, Baltimore, on Thursday, June 27th at 7 p.m.

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