Notes on White Sales from Enterprising Emporiums

Kramer, Paul A. “White Sales: The Racial Policitcs of Baltimore’s Jewish-Owned Department Stores, 1935-1965.” In Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore, 37–65. The Jewish Museum of Maryland, 2003.


1955 survey found 91% of 191 randomly-selected Baltimore businesses reported either the “exclusion” or “segregation” of blacks (p. 38)

Report stated public accomodations (e.g. department stores) were not only “the principal purveyors of goods and services” but:

“the sensitive areas of public life around which issues of racial discrimination have long existed. … [m]ore than any other aspect of city life perhaps, these establishments provide the stage for current and daily race relationships.”

Four out of five major Baltimore department stores owned by Jewish families.

Consumer politics of the kind described here were predominantly women’s politics. … The stores’ dining rooms were important spaces of daytime female sociability, both among housewives and among the growing ranks of female professionals. … Much of the protest against department store segregation was also instigated by women.

World War II was a turning point (p. 39):

transformed the social and political landscape of Baltimore in ways favirable to desegregation. The war mobilization triggered a large influx of black laborers into the city and its wartime industries, providing civil rights activists the opportunity to press for equal rights in government employment and to hold up blacks’ sacrifices for and contributions to the war effort.

1945 to 1960: a period when “public protest against department store segregation resumed and, ultimately, succeeded. …a period of rising expectations among blacks, especially for a younger generation of college students. A growing sense of consumer entitlement coincided with, and lent momentum to, visible successes in integration, especially in public schools.” (p. 39-40)

March to April 1960: Sit-in campaign organized by Morgan State University students in the Civic Interest Group (CIG) (p. 40)

How was race marked in “department store culture”?

  • Black employees referred to by first names rather than Mr. or Ms.
  • White clerks refused to serve black customers at lunchcounters or beauty shops
  • Some stores marked black credit accountd with a star in store ledgers; or denied credit entirely

Three main aspects to department store “racial practices”:

  1. Discrimination in employment (only hired as maitenance or stockroom workers, elevator operators, porters, and restroom attendants; not higher-paying, higher-status jobs)
  2. Refusal to serve African American customers at lunch counters
  3. Policies prohibiting African American customers from trying on or returning clothing (“Final Sale” policy)

“Final Sale” policy based on (p. 41):

anxieties and fears about physical contact between whites and blacks. For most whites, blacks represented sources of unspecified physical and moral pollution … Black and white boadies might “touch” in the exchange of forks and plates at store lunch-counters. Even more threatening to whites was the possibility that the clothes they tried on or purchased might bear an invisible taint of black physical contact.[@kramer_white_2003, 41]

  • early 1943: Baltimore NAACP fought state Jim Crow laws; repeal bill sent to state legislature Hygine Committee rather than Judiciary Committee (p. 42)

The downtown department stores, as some of Baltimore’s most prominent sites of civic culture and modernity, were a principal target for anti-racist protests by individuals and organizations from the 1930s through the early 1960s.[@kramer_white_2003, 42]

“Affronted by racist notions of black filth and disease, black consumers oftem attempted to trump them with class standards.” In 1956, Mrs. Madeline W. Murphy wrote to the Vice President of Hoschild Kohn (p. 43):

not only [do I] feel equal to the average Hochschild Kohn’s consumers but I feel superior to them… I am also sure that you know there are certain gentiles and Jews commonly known as trash who are infinitely dirtier, more unkempt and repulsive than those with whom you may come in contact from day to day. At yet some of these are your customers and are allowed to use every facility of your store—white skin and straight hair being their only prerequisite—even though lice are generally a malady of straight haired people and not Negroes.[@kramer_white_2003, 43]

Notes on those “who could afford to do so” making shopping trips to Philadelpha and New York; see also the buying practices of Charm Centre (Victorine Q. Adams)

  • 1938-1940: Back-room negotiations between department store owners and Baltimore Urban League and NAACP over policies; ultimately fail to resolve

Jews in Baltimore sometimes had the dubious distinction of joining blacks on the signs posted outside of WASP clubs and swimming pools: “No Jews, blacks or dogs.” (p. 44)

Father Couglin, opened a branch office on Calvert Street in 1936

Jews were “no more or less racist than other Baltimoreans” (p. 45):

Roughly 8.5% of Baltimore’s population in 1940, Jews controlled or participated in only a small fraction of the institutions that exercised racial discimination against blacks. At the same time, Jews figured prominently in a number of Baltimore philanthropies directed at African-Americans, as well as early anti-racst organizations such as the Urban League.

But … “most blacks and Jews related through a kind of intimate antagonism.”

If they did not necessarily finance them, Jews owned the shops in which blacks shopped and worked; if they did not own apartment houses, Jews were often the rental agent who black tenants confronted over payments and repairs.

the social line between the Jewish middle class and the black middle class, each excluded from above, each pushing its way out of racial and clastic mess and restrictions, was likely to be volatile.

Note: I’d be very interested in learning more about the broader history of Jewish anti-racism.

February 1943: Civil Rights leader met with J.W. Mehling, Secretary of th Retail Merchants Association:

and placed before him a program of action which we hope will remove the unwritten policy of discrimination by some department stores in Baltimore.

Note: On this issue, like many others, progress is intermittent; commitments to change policies are sometimes tenuous or limited.

1955: “community self-survey” conducted by the Maryland Commission on Inter-racial Problems and Relations, two year old “citizen-action program” sponsored by “the leading civic, religious, and fraternal organizations of Baltimore”; a hesitant turn against segregation

A woman wrote to the Hoschild Kohn’s Department Store (in response to the store’s decision to integrate restaurants and customer service in late March 1960) framing the Civil Rights issue as one of “consumer choice”:

Do you realize that by so doing [integrating], you are taking from the White Race any choice they had of segregation or integration when dining outside of their homes?[@kramer_white_2003, 54]

The essay continues:

more than one of the racist critics wrote as self-conscious suburbanites, warning the downtown that integration would further provoke the flight of white residences and businesses. In the process, they revealed the extent to which the suburbs were imagined as racial islands still free of black “invasion”: downtown segregation was the only remaining draw that could pull whites in from their comfortable, newly-designed racial enclaves.[@kramer_white_2003, 55]

Department stores “profited from, and encouraged, the beginnings of white flight to the suburbs”, e.g. Hutzler’s stores in Towson (1952), Eastpoint (1956), Westview (1958); Hoschild Kohn’s in Edmondson Village (1947).

“Ten times as many letter in support of integration survive”; greater urgency because “civil rights supporters saw integration as frighteningly reversible.”