Beating Back Bigotry, One Sears Catalog at a Time

Our friends at Intellectual Takeout, on Monday, republished an excellent recent article by Brittany Hunter of the Foundation for Economic Education: “When Sears Used the Market to Combat Jim Crow.”  How exactly did Sears do that starting in the 1880s?

“In those days,” Hunter wrote, “mail order catalogs were as revolutionary as Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping is today.  And not only did Sears provide all the basic household necessities, but it also provided an alternative for black consumers who feared being mistreated in public—a rather radical notion in the era of Jim Crow.”

With more consumers of all kinds buying all kinds of things from the Sears catalog, brick-and-mortar store owners became “livid.”  But rather than competing with Sears fair and square like good capitalists, shopkeepers and others started rumors that “both Sears and its new competitor, Montgomery Ward, were owned by black men.”  Eventually, “the outrage got so out of hand that business owners began hosting ‘book burnings’ of the catalogs each weekend.”

I assume most bonfire leaders knew that Sears wasn’t really owned by black men.  But I also assume they didn’t know that a Jewish businessman by the name of Julius Rosenwald had bought a one-fourth interest of Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1906.  And that he became chairman of the board in 1925.  And that in 1908, another Jewish guy, Albert Henry Loeb, became vice president and treasurer of the company.  Of a benignly different order, I assume few Minnesotans know that Richard W. Sears was born in Stewartville in 1863, and that as a very young man worked as a railroad station agent in Minneapolis and Redwood Falls.

By not making a Jews principal scapegoats, it would appear the fiery rabble were either (1) enthusiastic about making Jews absurdly wealthy and their company iconic, or (2) they were too stupid to know what was going on.  I trust the answer is much more the latter.

In fact, during the lengthy eras of Jim Crow, Southerners routinely gave Jews their business, as the first half of the 20th century also was the periods of what were affectionately or nastily known as “Jew stores”: small general stores in rural communities that sometimes grew much larger.

One of the most satisfying books I’ve read was called simply The Jew Store, by an older Jewish woman named Stella Suberman, whose father, in 1920, moved his family to a small town in Tennessee to start and run such an establishment.  It had been his dream.  As a reviewer wrote: “Suberman evokes early-20th-century life in the rural south and depicts her family’s struggles to find a place in a town where African Americans suffered discrimination and poverty, the Ku Klux Klan was on the march and townspeople viewed Jews with suspicion.”  Commercial risks and worries nowadays generally don’t match those of yesteryear in some parts of our country, especially when treating all customers respectfully and fairly was far from a risk-free commonplace.

I noted above that Suberman was “older.”  How old, precisely?  She was born in 1922 and The Jew Store came out in 1998, making her 76 when her first book was published.  She went on to write two more books before dying just last year, at 95, in Chapel Hill, NC.  According to her obituary, “She died instantly and without pain from a longstanding but asymptomatic heart condition.  We should all be so lucky.”

Steeped in language, idiomatic and otherwise, I’m guessing Stella might have written that last line herself.