clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Department stores have a long history of exclusion.
Shaneé Benjamin for Vox

Filed under:

The department store’s false promise to Black America

Department stores have a long, complicated history of racist exclusion.

In the fourth episode of Lovecraft Country — HBO’s much-discussed television show that premiered last fall — one of the show’s main characters, Ruby, enters a department store with one goal in mind: employment. As Leikeli47’s “Money” scores the scene, Ruby walks into the entrance determined, dressed in a belted, striped dress with a matching straw hat tilted to the side, and her résumé in hand. She pauses on a black and gold logo; the camera pans up to Ruby’s face as she takes in the hustle and bustle of the store, the place she is so set on becoming a part of. Behind her, a gold-plated sign reads “Marshall Field and Company.”

Set in 1950s Chicago, Lovecraft Country’s deliberate insertion of Marshall Field’s exemplifies the show’s commitment to blending horror, magic, and science fiction with historical references to explore racial injustices faced by Black people in the US. Ruby’s determination to work at Marshall Field’s not only references racial discrimination in department stores writ large, but her persistent return to this store specifically is reflective of its impact on the city.

Now a Macy’s in downtown Chicago, Marshall Field’s was once a pillar in the Windy City, transforming the retail experience from merely an errand to an outing worth looking forward to. From its ceiling designed by Tiffany & Co. to its series of retail firsts, the building has a storied history complete with success, failure, and innovation. It also has a history of racism that long impacted Black Chicagoans eager, like Ruby, to work and shop there.

Ruby enters Marshall Field’s on HBO’s Lovecraft Country.

After navigating a handful of business partnerships and a succession of location-destroying fires through the mid-1800s, Marshall Field officially opened his eponymous department store in the Chicago Loop in 1881. The building is located on State Street and is difficult to miss for anyone visiting the city. After relocating to Chicago in 2018, I, myself, have been awestruck by the sheer scale of the building. From the famed clock at State and Randolph streets to its ornamental window displays that have long attracted pedestrians during the holiday season, Marshall Field’s, as it came to be called, turned a quick trip to the store for necessities into an experience, ushering in a new wave of consumption.

Photographs from the early to mid-20th century show pedestrians elegantly dressed in the period’s latest fashions as they peer into the store’s windows; meticulously staged displays in its numerous departments; and fashion shows held in its fabric department. A postcard from 1909 features a rendering of the interior of the new (and final) Marshall Field’s building completed in 1907 that passersby and shoppers continue to encounter today. In the rendering, countless shoppers crowd the multi-tiered atrium; above them is a 6,000-square-foot vaulted, mosaic dome designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany & Co. After its 1907 addition, Marshall Field’s briefly became the largest department store in the world, claiming the title from other famed outlets of the era such as Wanamaker’s and Macy’s. It continued to expand, opening suburban and out-of-state locations.

It is at Marshall Field’s that some local Chicagoans have some of their fondest memories. A close friend who is originally from the city worked there in 2011, and he shared with me that he had the opportunity to see some relics of the original store. When he was a child, he said he remembered feeling as if “he had arrived” while visiting the store. He and his family would get dressed up and visit the Walnut Room, the first restaurant to be featured in a department store, and the large Christmas tree installed there every year. Marshall Field’s innovation notably impacted many of our experiences in department stores today, things that we’ve undoubtedly taken for granted. It was the first to install escalators, the first to introduce department store restaurants, and the first to offer bridal registry. It was also the first to include a bargain basement, selling low-priced items to its less affluent and Black customers.

In Lovecraft Country, Ruby gets discouraged after a brief encounter with a Black woman working as a sales clerk at the store (presumably the store’s first). Later in the fourth episode, Ruby mentions that the store would never hire more than one Black woman to work there. By the fifth episode, she finally gets the job, but not before going through a horrific transmogrification that further illustrates the history of racial violence that guides the entirety of the show — in short, she’s given a potion by one of the show’s antagonists, which turns her into a white woman.

In an interview with Variety, Lovecraft Country’s production designer Kalina Ivanov said that she designed the show’s fictional Marshall Field’s with black-and-white interior design to represent the racial segregation of the period; viewers might have noticed black-and-white wallpaper wrapped around columns on the sales floor as Ruby walks over to the counter to converse with the aforementioned store clerk. Ruby is also the only Black shopper in the store.

The original Marshall Field department store in Chicago, Illinois, which burned during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
Bettmann Archive

Despite the innovation and design that went into ensuring a welcoming environment for its customers, Marshall Field’s, like many shopping locations around the US during that era, was a site of much contention for Black residents in Chicago. The city was one of the most popular apexes of the Great Migration, which saw Black people moving north and west from Southern states beginning in the first half of the 20th century.

Chicago’s Black population ballooned from just over 44,000 at the start of the migration to 1 million by the 1970s, as noted by Isabel Wilkerson in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Warmth of Other Suns. This relocation was spurred by both a need to escape the racial violence of the South as well as an opportunity to participate in a blossoming labor force. While Jim Crow laws pervaded the South, enforcing discrimination across education and public space, Illinois had passed its Civil Rights Act in 1885, forbidding discrimination in public accommodations including, but not limited to, restaurants, hotels, and retail stores. However, Black Chicago residents’ lives were still shaped by racism, which manifested in housing and as history-defining race riots in Illinois in the early 20th century. It also continued across public life, including in stores like Marshall Field’s.

To say Marshall Field & Company welcomed Black people into their stores in the 20th century would ignore the lengths the store went to remind them, through a host of discriminatory practices, that Black people were not their ideal customers, or employees. Across the Black press, from the early to mid-20th century, writers opined and recorded the store’s relationship with Chicago’s Black residents. In 1905, Broad Ax published a scathing critique of the department store, noting the store’s refusal to hire Black employees. The unnamed writer implores Black people to refuse to shop in stores such as Marshall Field’s, Mandel Brothers, and Montgomery Ward and Company, which did not find them worthy of working there, even in the lowest of positions.

In the spring of 1914, Ida B. Wells — the prominent investigative journalist, anti-lynching activist, and suffragist — visited Marshall Field’s to make a last-minute purchase in a department in the store’s basement. According to the Chicago Defender, itself a prominent figure in the Great Migration and one of the most popular Black newspapers in history, once Wells was ready to make her purchase, she was ignored and insulted by a white salesperson on the floor. The general manager of the store apologized to Wells, “declaring that discourteous treatment was not the policy of the store; that race, creed or color had no place in their business.”

In 1916, the Negro Fellowship League, an organization founded by Wells, held one of its usual meetings. On the agenda was a celebration of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s birthday, as well as the continuation of the “Conference on Race Discrimination at Marshall Field’s.” At the meeting, attendees were invited to share their experiences with the store, including Wells herself.

According to notes from the meeting published in Broad Ax, speakers suggested that men who worked for the Pullman Porter Company — then one of the largest employers of Black people in the country, with many living on Chicago’s South Side — encouraged the company to withdraw their contract with Marshall Field’s, where porters were required to purchase their uniforms.

Three white female mannequins in a department store window in 1940s fashions.
A window display at Marshall Field & Company, circa 1945.
Hedrich Blessing Collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

By 1953, an article published in the Black newspaper Pittsburgh Courier ran with the headline “Richard Dowdy Jr. Deserves Job Break.” In 1950, Dowdy Jr. applied for a job in merchandising or finance at Marshall Field’s, and after successful correspondence, traveled to Chicago to interview for a position. The employer did not know that Dowdy was Black, and upon meeting him, told him that they did not hire Black people. The article asserted that three years later, Dowdy Jr.’s efforts should be applauded, given the strides that the store had made.

That year, Marshall Field’s, with the assistance of the American Friends Service Committee — a Quaker organization that worked to support integration during the civil rights era — hired Audrey Harper, the first Black person to work in a white-collar position at the store, which, became a headline in the Black press. The position was behind the scenes, with the store still neglecting to hire Black salespeople to work on their shop floors. Historian Traci Parker notes that it wasn’t until the mid- to late-1960s that Marshall Field’s hired more Black sales workers.

While publications such as Pittsburgh Courier and Jet magazine wrote at the time that Harper was the first Black person hired to work at the store, Parker says there were some Black women working at the store prior to this. Yet it’s no surprise that no one knew. In her book, Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement, Parker writes that Black women were working at Marshall Field’s and other department stores around the United States as sales clerks as early as the 1930s. The women who were hired for these positions were often of a lighter complexion and would pass as white (making the store clerk’s hiring in Lovecraft Country anachronistically generous). Collecting the scant anecdotes from some of the women or descendants of these women that document this otherwise covert history, Parker notes that as sales clerks, Black women worked in secrecy and under great fear that their identity would be revealed.

Parker’s book focuses specifically on the civil rights era, as she looks at department stores such as Marshall Field’s, Sears, and Macy’s, and how they became not only sites of resistance in the civil rights movement, but also fundamental in constructing the Black middle class.

Tracing progress from the 1930s “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” movement to the 1981 Sears, Roebuck and Co. affirmative action cases, Parker discusses activism such as sit-ins and unionization in Northern and Southern cities. Not only was shopping at these stores a way to display Black Americans’ movement up the class ladder, but working in them was both a means of employment and a means to acquire income to shop there. When the stores refused such opportunities, Parker’s book homes in on how Black people fought back.

Holiday shoppers at Marshall Field & Company in the 1960s.
Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Department stores, especially Marshall Field’s, were symbols of aspiration for Chicago’s Black residents. Working as a sales clerk might not guarantee financial stability, but it did offer a level of prestige and worldliness. Walking into the store, surrounded by multiple departments, the products offered, and taking it all in, “you could imagine what your world could be,” Parker tells me over Zoom. The store mastered pomp and circumstance during its epoch, but Parker argues that Marshall Field’s was probably the most racist store in the city.

Even after looking at Black purchasing power, Parker says the records confirm that the store just did not care about Black people seeking employment there. “What management constantly says, whether or not it makes sense, they keep giving the excuse over and over again, even in the 1970s, that we don’t want to alienate our white customers,” Parker says. “And the other excuse, of course, which is always the excuse … we can’t find qualified Black people.”

It should be noted that despite the aspirations attached to Marshall Field’s, Black Chicagoans had much different experiences at other department stores. For instance, South Center Department Store, which was located in the city’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood, was known to be a retail store where Black shoppers were largely welcomed.

Originally opened in 1928 by Harry and Louis Engelstein, the store was eventually purchased by two Black men, John H. Sengstacke and S.B. Fuller, in 1963, making it the largest Black-owned retailer in the country, according to the Chicago Defender. (Sengstacke was also the publisher of the Defender.) Even before Sengstacke and Fuller, South Center was noted as one of the most integrated retailers in the country. Black employees were front and center on the sales floor, advanced to leadership positions, and shopped freely throughout the store. After mishandling of the business by Fuller, the store closed and the building was demolished in the 1970s.

South Center wasn’t the only department store where fortunes changed. As Parker writes, by the late 20th century, department stores had taken a sharp decline, changing not only consumption patterns, but also the sought-after careers they once offered. The store clerk positions that Black residents once aspired to are today some of the lowest-paid in the industry. They’re also overwhelmed with Black employees.

Parker accredits this shift to a host of advancements in retail, such as the emergence and proliferation of discount department stores like Kmart and Walmart, and technology that expedited the checkout process, which deskilled the once prestigious position of the sales clerk. “The work itself declines, and this tends to be the case in most industries, then it becomes okay to hire even more Black people,” Parker says. “You’re going to pay them less, they’re not supposed to be representatives of your business in the same type of way. You expect less of them.”

It isn’t just the work that was devalued, it was the worker. As Parker explains, hours were cut and schedules managed to the “point where you don’t offer them benefits.” She says that by the ’80s, “All of a sudden now you can say, I can get you 30 hours of work but not 40 hours. I call you in in the morning and say I need you here at 12. And so it’s acceptable to do this to Black bodies, it’s not acceptable to do this to white women, who were the primary employees for the better part of the 20th century.”

In 2006, Marshall Field’s and its various locations were renamed Macy’s after being purchased by Federated Department Stores. Just a year before its renaming, the city of Chicago designated it as a Chicago landmark (it was listed on the register for National Historic Places in 1978).

Marshall Field & Company’s famous clock.
Andrew Woodley/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Less than a mile away, another renaming happened in 2019. The city of Chicago officially renamed its Congress Parkway Ida B. Wells Drive.

Parker remembers when she first began conducting research for her book, while living in Chicago from 2003 to 2015: “I remember walking into Marshall Field’s … you felt special, and you could understand how if you were an African American in the midst of the Jim Crow North, how you could go downtown and walk in that store and see the Tiffany ceiling and see all the glass and sit in this new lighting.” As much as she remembers the look and feel, she also remembers that she didn’t see any Black people working there (which is not to say that they weren’t there). Although her experience was astonishing given the time, she says, it could also be a reflection of how the store was still trying to hold on to its old way of doing things, even as the tides were turning within the retail industry.

In Lovecraft Country, the racial terror and anxieties of Chicago are mixed in with literal monsters; emotional, psychological, and bodily horror infused in vials of potions; a glimpse of an otherwise world, always interrupted, always under siege by white magicians obsessed with power. In 2021, in real life, the consequences of this history are more complicated than a simple curse. A location that dangled the hope of mobility and offered a lifestyle one aspired after, the Marshall Field’s building looms over city streets as a vessel that stands for so much and so little at once — a purveyor of its era in design, an emblem of the city, and a site of uncompromising racial tension, until it was too late.

Since relocating to Chicago, I have walked past and through this building now more times than I can count. Walking up the stairs from Chicago’s ‘L’ train onto the street and seeing the department store is still quite a sight. Yet, like most department stores that have been greatly impacted by decline, the hustle and bustle has waned. Now, shoppers crowding the streets seem more eager to get to other retailers such as Zara, Apple, and other luxury stores downtown.

The once-booming retailer that shaped their experiences in the newer stores feels forgotten. Once a 12-story building with multiple departments, Macy’s has sold some of the floors that made up the original store. The air of mobility and aspiration that customers experienced is a different one now. I only enter the store on particularly cold days, walking in one end and out the other to get to the end of the block.


Why buying a house in the US is so hard right now


It’s just a tip

Supreme Court

Billionaires had a surprisingly bad day in the Supreme Court today

View all stories in Money