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The cover of the Sears catalogue, 1900. Photo: Getty

As Sears filed for bankruptcy yesterday, we chronicled how the once-iconic department store has been misunderstanding its shoppers for decades. But early in Sears' long reign, it was a revolutionary force in the U.S., among other things subverting Jim Crow-era practices that blocked black Americans from shopping freely, and charged them usurious prices.

In the late 1800s, the rise of Big Retail was empowering for black consumers, says Louis Hyman, a historian of capitalism at Cornell and author of Temp. As Sears and Montgomery Wards pioneered mail order retail through catalogues, black shoppers at once had another source of goods besides predatory country and company stores to buy anything from

"Equal access for consumption was a long fight for African-Americans," Hyman, who had a tweetstorm yesterday on Sears and civil rights, tells Axios.

  • Before the mail-order houses, black sharecroppers and tenant farmers had no choice but to shop at local stores where they'd be served only after white customers and charged higher prices for the same goods. In many cases, the storeowners would flatly refuse to sell black shoppers certain items, Hyman said.
  • Now, black consumers in the South could pay cheap, national prices.
  • This created an enormous backlash, with country store owners rioting and burning catalogues in bonfires.

"It didn't really matter what [Sears' and Ward's] personal beliefs were," says Hyman. They inadvertently kick-started a revolution that lifted up black, immigrant, poor and illiterate consumers around America.

Go deeper

AP: Justice Dept. rescinds "zero tolerance" policy

A young girl waves to onlookers through the fence at the US-Mexico border wall at Friendship Park in San Ysidro, California in Nov. 2018. Photo: Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden's acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson issued a memo on Tuesday to revoke the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy, which separated thousands of migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border, AP first reported.

Driving the news: A recent report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz emphasized the internal chaos at the agency over the implementation of the policy, which resulted in 545 parents separated from their children as of October 2020.

Biden picks up his pen to change the tone on racial equity

Vice President Harris looks on as President Biden signs executives orders related to his racial equity agenda. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

President Biden is making a down payment on racial equity in a series of executive orders dealing with everything from private prisons to housing discrimination, treatment of Asian Americans and relations with indigenous tribes.

The big picture: Police reform and voting rights legislation will take time to pass in Congress. But with the stroke of his pen, one week into the job Biden is taking steps within his power as he seeks to change the tone on racial justice from former President Trump.

Most Senate Republicans join Rand Paul effort to dismiss Trump's 2nd impeachment trial

Photo: Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images

Forty-five Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, supported an effort to dismiss former President Trump's second impeachment trial.

Why it matters: The vote serves as a precursor to how senators will approach next month's impeachment trial, making it highly unlikely the Senate will vote to convict. The House impeached Trump for a second time for "incitement of insurrection" following events from Jan 6. when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol.