National Museum of American History Looks at African American Businesses

Display Observes Opening of New Smithsonian Museum
September 16, 2016

A new display, “Black Main Street: Funding Civil Rights in Jim Crow America,” in the American Enterprise exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, opens Sept. 16 to commemorate the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Sept. 24. Historian and author Jay Winston Driskell Jr., a visiting scholar at George Washington University, collaborated with the museum to examine the ways in which African American businesses, both large and small, contributed to the civil rights movement.

“Black Main Street” looks at Harold Cotton, who owned and operated Bob’s Hat Shop in Greensboro, N.C., from 1953 to 2005. Objects on view include the National Cash Register from Cotton’s shop, tools he used to “block” hats (the process of restoring a hat’s original shape after steam cleaning) and metal, piecework tokens that were collected by Bob’s Hat Shop employees after finishing a shoe shine; the number of tokens collected in a workday determined that day’s pay. Also on view will be Cotton’s 1950 framed certificate from the Chicago School of Shoe Rebuilding.

Also featured is Marjorie Stewart Joyner who supervised the training of thousands of African American beauticians as vice president of the Madam C.J. Walker Co. Walker was an entrepreneur who, in 1910, launched a hair-care company and later established hair-care schools to teach her methods and employed licensed agents to sell her products. Walker became a millionaire and one of the most successful executives of the early 20th century. She was a role model to women who opened their own salons and later became grassroots leaders in the civil rights movement. The labor-intensive process of styling black women’s hair provided plenty of opportunities to share news, both personal and political. These businesses supported a variety of civil rights endeavors by providing funds and safe public spaces in which African Americans could organize and share information. On view will be beautician’s styling tools and products, advertisements that were placed by beauticians and entrepreneurs to help fund black newspapers, and civil rights buttons.