Sears will soon close more than 100 stores after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and amassing millions in debt. The closing list has inspired some people to reflect on the retail company’s legacy, especially with African-American shoppers and its catalog.
Sears offered some solace to Black shoppers during the Jim Crow era when racism kept them out of local stores. Through the Sears mail-order catalog, consumers of color could avoid racist caricatures and treatment that they typically received while having to buy items from Southern storekeepers. They were often subjected to long wait times as storekeepers catered to white customers first — a fact highlighted by Louis Hyman, a history professor and the director of the Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City.
With many Black southerners being kept out of certain places, they were also subjugated while visiting other stores.
When Sears, Roebuck and Co. introduced its catalog in 1894, African-American shoppers had a chance to order needed items without their color being held against them. They didn’t have to ask permission, wait for help or battle racist profiling, Hyman said. Richard Sears, a white man, spearheaded the catalog’s creation and distribution perhaps unaware of the potential impact that it would have on Black communities more than a century ago.
Southern storekeepers fought back against the catalogs by burning them and finding ways to lash out at African-American consumers. Postmasters refused to sell stamps or money orders to Black people to dissuade them from using the catalogs. African-American shoppers, however, found a way around that by giving their orders and money directly to mail carriers who purchased money orders and mailed them on their behalf.
In doing so, Sears was able to tap into Black buying power that has since inflated to more than $1 trillion annually.
Things were not all good with Sears, though, as the company still has a negative side of its legacy when it comes to Black folks. Company leaders challenged social and economic movements that sought to empower both women and African-Americans. There were also several instances of racism seen in its stores, prompting boycotts in the 1930s, according to the Smithsonian.
With Sears succumbing to financial troubles and changing times, it means something for customers to look at its legacy, including the good, bad and the ugly.