Off-white, straw fedora worn in the summer months by Harold “Chuck” Cotton, II. in Greensboro, NC. Cotton worked in his father’s hat blocking and shoe shine shop. Starting as a young boy, Chuck Cotton learned all parts of the business and quickly became an expert at cleaning and reshaping felt, fur, and straw hats such as this one. Chuck Cotton became a talented blues musician and split his time between helping in the shop and playing music.
When Harold Cotton, Sr. took over Bob’s Hatters in the 1950s, most men wore hats as part of their attire all year round. He had a steady stream of businessmen and travelers who brought in hats that had to be kept in good condition. By the 1980s, the hat blocking part of the business shrank to the winter months. In a 1993 interview, Cotton, Sr. noted that he kept the business going cleaning cowboy and baseball hats. He also noted that the store survived because it was a community hub for people from “all walks of life” who came in to socialize and share information.
Black businesses such as Cotton’s, provided an economic foundation for African American communities that faced segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence. Black shops and storefronts provided shelter for the development of black public space in an otherwise hostile environment while the income from these business sustained a range of churches, schools and other community institutions. In many cases, the entrepreneurs who ran businesses, no matter how small, had the capital to fund political and social movements.
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