Abstract: To Help Build Bigger and Better Negro Business: The National Negro Housewives League, 1930s-1950s

Shennette Garrett-Scott


The connections between individual consumption and collective activism are certainly not new. From T. H. Breen's "marketplace of revolution" to Lizabeth Cohen's "consumer's republic," various scholars have explored mass consumption as a strategy to reaffirm U.S. democratic values and to promote the fitness of the national economy. However, precious little work has been done on black women's organized consumer activism, particularly before the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s. This presentation will explore black women's consumer activism from the 1930s to the early 1950s in the National Negro Housewives League (NNHL), formed in 1935. It looks closely at the role of gender and class in reconfiguring the black group economy and in shaping the image of postwar domestic black femininity through business and consumption. The women in the NNHL and its local leagues advocated a number of civic-minded goals that they felt could only be achieved through the power of the black purse. It was with dollars and cents—rather than the ballot or appeals to white conscience—that these women would achieve what the vote had not and, perhaps, could not have done: assert black women's economic independence and power.