Market Propagations: Visions of the Black Consumer and the Black Businessowner in the Twentieth Century

Since the late nineteenth century, African American economic thought reserved a vital role for the Black consumer. Whether it was self-help ideology, Marcus Gravey’s Black Nationalism, or the “Double-Duty-Dollar” campaigns of the post-war era, African American consumers were expected to demonstrate racial solidarity in order to promote Black business and help uplift the race. At the same time, African American community leaders expected Black business owners to earn this solidarity by adhering to middle class standards of efficiency and respectability. As Booker T. Washington professed during the 1913 Annual meeting of the National Negro Business League (NNBL), “all things being equal, of course it is our duty to support Negro enterprises,” but, “don’t let us have the short-sightedness to say that we must patronize black people.” Instead, “let our business men count on support and patronage … not simply because we are colored, but rather because we manufacture the best goods and render the highest service.” My paper will survey this dual discourse about the Black consumer and the Black proprietor as they developed from the end of Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Era. Using the annals of the NNBL, the Black press, and documents from the Commerce Department, I will trace the changing attitudes concerning Black marketplace interaction and the extent to which these attitudes affected commercial behavior. As the paper will show, throughout the period, the Black consumer and the Black proprietor remained at the center of uplift ideology as crucial elements in the struggle for equal rights.