How Black Independent Store Owners In The 1920s Created A Movement To Stay Competitive

1 Posted by - October 6, 2015 - BLACK BUSINESS, Looking Black On Today

For two months in the spring of 1929, a group of grocery store owners in Winston-Salem organized public lectures, meetings, exhibits, and food tastings that attracted large audiences and national attention. What was all the fuss about?

The grocers were joining a new cooperative business group called the Colored Merchants Association (CMA), which had begun in Alabama. On April 17 they announced in a local newspaper an ambitious plan to create “a movement looking towards the salvation of the Negro independent grocery stores, through cooperative buying and teaching the lesson and value of advertising.” National Negro Business League leaders promoted the grocers’ efforts as a national model for African American businessmen working in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

To understand why the Winston-Salem activities got so much attention, it is important to know about changes in the grocery business in the 1920s and about the impact of segregation on African American store owners and shoppers.

In the 1920s, segregation laws and customs restricted public activities based on race. Signs marked such spaces as public bathrooms, train station waiting rooms, or sections in movie theaters for “white only” or “colored only.” (The terms colored and Negro were widely used for nonwhites and for persons of African descent, respectively, in the early twentieth century.) Despite the restrictions, African Americans started successful business communities and created vibrant neighborhoods in the segregated South. Local grocery stores became the most common small businesses run by merchants. That’s a big reason why the Winston-Salem grocers made such an impact. In 1929 the city directory listed 373 grocery stores. African Americans operated more than 30 percent (128 of them), making up by far the largest group of black businessmen there. These store owners faced new challenges because of important changes in the retail trade.

Chain stores—such as Sears, Roebuck and Company, F. W. Woolworth, and the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P)—grew a lot in the early 1900s. A chain is a company that runs many stores in different places, operating under the same name and selling the same merchandise. Chain stores created new ways to sell groceries—which meant stiff competition for smaller stores.

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