How Sears and its catalog helped subvert Jim Crow in the South

Feb. 1, 1961 - Atlanta, Ga.: - Protesters against the city's two major department stores march in downtown Atlanta demanding an end to segregation.

Credit: Unknown

Credit: Unknown

Feb. 1, 1961 - Atlanta, Ga.: - Protesters against the city's two major department stores march in downtown Atlanta demanding an end to segregation.

Sears' declaration of bankruptcy this week was entirely expected, a train wreck long in the making.

What might have caught many by surprise were the immediate reflections by African-American scholars on the role that the retail giant – and its catalog — played in helping black Southerners survive the 20th century.

Upon the Sears announcement on Monday, Louis Hyman, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, began a string of notes on Twitter with this: "In my history of consumption class, I teach about #Sears, but what most people don't know is just how radical the catalog was in the era of #Jim Crow."

By Thursday, the Tweet had been shared nearly 17,000 times.

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

But the story of Sears is far more Southern than that, and stranger, too. It begins with Tom Watson, one of the most disreputable figures in Georgia political history. Until 2013, his statue graced the entrance to the state Capitol. It has since been given an out-of-the-way spot in a garden across the street.

Watson was an author and journalist – a polemicist, really – who at the turn of the 20th century pressed successfully for the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in Georgia. He is credited with rhetoric that helped spark the Atlanta race riot of 1906, which left a dozen black citizens dead, and the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank.

None of those accomplishments are carved into the pedestal beneath his statue. But years before he turned bigot, Watson was an agrarian populist who built a following among black and white farmers alike.

In 1892, he was elected to a single term in the U.S. House, and in those brief, two years accomplished one lasting thing that merited a notation on his pedestal: “Author of rural free delivery.”

RFD was the mind-bending, revolutionary notion that the U.S. post office should come to you, rather than require you to make daily or weekly trips to the far-away post office. Congressional approval was won in 1893. Sears, Roebuck and Co., started the next year. Its 322-page illustrated catalog was every bit as disruptive as Amazon.com is today.

Tom Watson would have been appalled by what he had wrought.

The Sears Roebuck & Company mail order plant in Chicago. (Library of Congress)

Credit: Library of Congress

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Credit: Library of Congress

Rural free delivery and the Sears catalog gave white farmers a direct commercial connection to the outside world. It gave black Southerners that, too, and something more — anonymity in a society where access to the good things in life had heretofore been distributed according to skin color.

"This gives African-Americans in the South some degree of autonomy, some degree of secrecy," said Sears historian Jerry Hancock, in a 2016 interview on "Stuff You Missed in History Class," an Atlanta-based podcast. "Now they can buy the same thing everybody else can buy, and all they have to do is order it through this catalog. They don't have to deal with racist merchants in town."

Sears cultivated the connection. The plight of African-Americans in the South dominated the philanthropy of Julius Rosenwald, who succeeded Richard Sears as company president. By 1932, his foundation had built nearly 5,000 schools in the rural South to educate black children. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, was one graduate. The poet Maya Angelou was another.

“I genuinely believe that, even though it was very hard to track, I’m sure African-Americans in the Southeast were dedicated Sears customers through most of the 20th century because of the contributions of Julian Rosenwald,” Hancock said.

The Sears connection was not without controversy. Bonfires of its catalogs were organized. According to Louis Hyman, the Cornell academic, white retailers in the South at one point spread a rumor that founder Richard Sears was black — in an attempt to prompt a boycott.

But it wasn’t just a rumor spread by the white side of the South.

“We used to say Roebuck was black, and that he had all the good ideas,” smiled Andrew Young, the former Atlanta and U.N. ambassador. “It was the mythology of equality, that nothing happened that wasn’t black and white together.” (Both Sears and Alvah Roebuck, in fact, were white.)

As a boy, Young witnessed the power of direct mail. “My daddy had a dental trailer. He used to drive around Louisiana, fixing people’s teeth for free — under the Huey Long administration,” the former ambassador said. “Rural folk always had a Sears Roebuck catalog.”

The newest edition was kept in the house. The older one was consigned to the outhouse, for reading and other purposes.

“But everybody had a Sears catalog. We didn’t do a whole lot of shopping so much as dreaming,” Young said. “It created a vision of what was possible, that even when you were dirt poor, you could still dream.”

In 1956, fresh out of seminary and newly married, Young’s first job was as pastor of two congregations in Thomasville, on the Georgia border just north of Tallahassee, Fla.

He was engaged in the dangerous business of voter registration, and the Sears store in Albany, 60 miles away, was the nearest retail outlet where Young and his wife felt welcome. Young is 86 now, and his knees are a wreck, so he hasn’t been there lately – but he thinks the Kenmore refrigerator they bought in ’56 is down in his basement, still running.

He lamented the end of Sears’ 124-year run. “I used to criticize Sears for leaving its roots and going into the suburbs and building the tallest building in the world in Chicago,” Young said. “They forgot who they were and where they came from. And Amazon came in and took their place. Amazon is just Sears on steroids.”

And it may be doing similar service.

Before I visited Young at his office, I’d reached out to several local academics.

When I got back to my computer, an email was waiting for me, written by an African-American scholar who said he didn’t have much to add to the story of Sears and its catalog — but that he now shops on Amazon.com for much the same reason.

Amazon, he said, allows him to shop anonymously without being followed by store security, or being asked for photo ID when he presents a credit card – something white customers are rarely asked to do.

“Shopping while brown or black” was a thing then, and still is, he wrote.

So God bless rural free delivery. Though perhaps not the man who gave it to us.

In this AJC file photo, the statue of Tom Watson as it stood at the entrance of the state Capitol. It was moved across the street in 2013.

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