Booker T. and His Piano: The National Negro Retail Merchants Association and the Cultural Politics of the Black Purse, 1914-1919

Shennette Garrett-Scott

The National Negro Retail Merchants Association (NNRMA), an affiliate of the National Negro Business League (NNBL), encouraged its merchant members to see themselves and black consumers as partners in a joint effort for racial uplift and economic development. Merchants enjoyed a salient place in the black community; they supplied everyday needs, provided credit, and doubled as centers of social interaction and leisure activity. However, the difficulties merchants faced because of Jim Crow and stiff competition for black consumers were not problems easily addressed through rhetoric alone. In addition, they faced growing criticism from NNBL members and leadership concerned about high prices, substandard inventory, and aggressive sales tactics. In addition, misguided spending and misplaced social ambition encouraged by merchants, they argued, threatened to hobble blacks’ steps toward the economic independence and power that would bring political rights. This presentation explores the raced, gendered, and classed discourses linked to consumption refracted in the fraught relationship between the NNBL and the formative years of the NNRMA.