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Many people are familiar with the Sears Catalog, but not many people know its role in combating Jim Crow racism in America. Purchasing everyday household goods in America during Jim Crow, was often an exercise in humiliation for African Americans living in the South.
Before the advent of the mail-order catalog, rural black southerners typically only had the option of shopping at white-owned general stores. White store owners fiercely defended the white supremacist order by making black customers wait until every white customer had been served and forcing them to buy lower-quality goods. In 1894, Sears, Roebuck and Co. began sending out 322-page illustrated catalogs. The catalog allowed African Americans in southern states to avoid price-gouging and condescending treatment at their local stores. This gave African-Americans in the south some degree of autonomy, because now they could buy the same things that white people could buy, and all they had to do is order it from the catalog. They didn’t have to deal with racist merchants in town.
The company has even been credited with contributing to the development of a unique genre of black southern music, called the Delta blues. There would not have been the Delta Blues if there were no cheap, readily available steel-string guitars and harmonicas. Sears guitars transformed American music culture, by providing the cheapest harmony producing instruments to the rural South. The Sears catalog offered black shoppers something that they couldn’t find anywhere else: Dignity.
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