“You are a part of all of us”: black department store employees in Jim Crow Richmond

Beth Kreydatus (University College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, USA)

Journal of Historical Research in Marketing

ISSN: 1755-750X

Publication date: 19 January 2010

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to explore the experiences of a significant group of retail employees, specifically the African‐American operations and service workers that worked behind the scenes in department stores during the Jim Crow era, defined here as 1890‐1965.

Design/methodology/approach

Department stores have rightly occupied a prominent place in business historiography. This wealth of scholarship can be explained partly by substantial archival resources, but especially by department stores' significance to US business, cultural, and social history. Yet, despite this rich historiography, a significant number of department store employees have been overlooked, and this omission has distorted the picture of the work culture and marketing strategies of these massive and influential retail institutions. Department stores employ a large number of operations and service staff, such as delivery people, housekeeping and maintenance workers, elevator operators, stock workers, packers, and warehouse workers. These positions make up roughly one‐fifth of all department store work. This paper presents a close study of the two most prominent department stores of early and mid‐twentieth century Richmond, Virginia – Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads – to offer insight into the work culture and workplace experiences of these employees.

Findings

Ultimately, this paper shows that African‐American employees played an important role in the maintenance and image of Richmond department stores. Store managers place high demands for “loyalty” and “faithfulness” on their black staff to demonstrate their lavish services to the buying public. For black employees, this means that the work environment can be highly stressful, as they seek to meet competing demands from customers and co‐workers. However, department store work offers opportunities, in particular, steady employment among a close network of African‐American coworkers. Finally, the presence of segregated black employees undermines managements' attempts to convey their workforce as one “happy family.”

Research limitations/implications

The research is entirely based on two high‐end department stores, Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, both based in Richmond, Virginia. Two store archives – available at the Valentine Richmond History Center and the Virginia Historical Society – are the primary resources for this project. Because, the papers in these archives are donated by store managers, a limitation to this study is the dearth of unmediated voices of the employees themselves.

Originality/value

This research adds to the historiography of department stores by shedding light on employees who are expected by employers to remain nearly invisible in their jobs, and unfortunately, have been fairly invisible in the historical record as well.

Keywords

Citation

Kreydatus, B. (2010), "“You are a part of all of us”: black department store employees in Jim Crow Richmond", Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 108-129. https://doi.org/10.1108/17557501011016280

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Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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