Department stores, in addition to offering products and merchandise, excited customers because they created an environment of abundance, ease, and luxury that they might not have had access to beyond the store. Many shoppers ventured downtown to flagship department stores because they could escape their daily troubles for a few hours and mingle with other shoppers of every socioeconomic class. The department store became a place of equal opportunity for white shoppers of different economic backgrounds, this did not extend beyond them. Department stores, especially flagship stores, reinforced and maintained segregationist and racist policies well into the mid-20th century. These policies turned department stores into major sites for civil rights activism.
Across the country, African Americans were unable to secure employment positions that matched their qualifications, being rejected in favor of their white peers or being offered jobs well below their capabilities. This was no different in the retail industry. Department stores, if they even hired African Americans or other minorities in the first place, only hired them for custodial, labor-focused, or back-end positions where they had little to no contact with shoppers or the store’s salesfloor. They were also compensated at lower wages, and were excluded from benefits offered to their white coworkers. As shoppers, African Americans were excluded from the same services, ignored or refused service, or even barred from entering the store at all. In many cases, stores also refused to extend credit lines to African Americans, and if they did, would often demand higher payment rates or price products differently because of their race. Jewish communities were also often discriminated against. One example included stores like Garfinckel’s refusing to hire Jewish employees.
In DC, stores like Garfinckel’s, Hecht’s, and Woodward & Lothrop all enforced various segregationist policies, and reflected nationwide practices that department stores took part in. This extended to both their hiring and employment policies and customer service. Because of this, African American shoppers, civil rights organizations, and other organizations took a number of actions to challenge and end the stores’ discriminatory practices. This included educational efforts, holding meetings with store executives, conducting worker and shopper interviews on integration, encouraging African Americans to apply to open positions, and questioning interviewers’ hiring processes, and, when these efforts were ignored or discouraged, in-person protests and boycotts.
While the civil rights movement and activism throughout the mid-20th century chipped away at industry discrimination, it took decades for these policies and practices to end – the result of numerous successes and failures. Protests in DC took place at a number of locations and often targeted stores’ eating establishments. This included the Hecht’s protests that occurred in the 1950s because of their segregated cafeteria. The Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws spearheaded demonstrations and pickets across the city to challenge segregation policies in DC due to the 1872 and 1873 “lost laws” barring segregation within the city. These protests, led by Mary Church Terrell, reversed their cafeteria policies and opened the entire facility to all. After succeeding in the District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc Supreme Court case, segregation was officially dismantled in DC. However, the ratification of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not come for another 11 years. Its ratification would expand civil rights legislation to a national level, but only after decades of protest and activism throughout the country.
This site is a stop on the "Finding Style in DC: Navigating DC’s Shopping Scene" tour.