Abstract: The Selling of Soul: African American Music Businesses and Commercial Public Life in North Carolina, 1968-1983

Joshua C. Davis


This paper explores black-owned record stores and radio stations in the 1970s South as safe spaces in the marketplace where young African Americans could thrive, not as second-class shoppers, but as first-class citizen consumers. In so doing, I challenge scholarship that claims black-owned businesses have consistently failed to provide social benefits to black consumers and communities, as well as the popular view that black-owned businesses typically suffered immediate deaths following de jure desegregation. In this paper, I illuminate how Black Power ideology and renewed interest in black community institutions unexpectedly provided new life to Southern black music businesses in the 1970s, while other black-owned businesses, such as those in insurance and cosmetics, struggled to survive in the region's desegregating marketplace. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the desegregation process in states like North Carolina favored traditionally white institutions by closing countless black schools and firing hundreds of black principals in just a few years. Consequently, this process dramatically undercut historically black public life and black leadership, which especially hurt teenage and young-adult African Americans. At the same time, however, black record store owners and radio deejays increasingly served as role models and provided much needed public spaces to their young consumers. African American record dealers offered young black consumers—even when they had little or no money to spend on records—a rare refuge in the marketplace, where they could hang out, listen to music, and interact with successful black entrepreneurs. Black radio deejays acted as business people who not only sold on-air advertisements and served as liaisons between record stores and record labels, but who also visited schools and youth groups regularly, organized free community parties, and even gave young listeners input on station operations in the form of contests and song requests.