Of the Kingdom of Commerce

By mid-century African Americans had become increasingly visible to corporate America as consumers. At first catered to by solely black businesses and white cosmetic firms—hawking hair-straightening and skin-whitening ointments—African Americans recognized themselves as a market force that had money to spend, tastes to indulge, style to express, and rights to claim. Emboldened by Depression-era labor organization and the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans protested unequal treatment in the marketplace through store boycotts and sit-ins, linking the struggle for freedom to their power as consumers.

Mid-century Chicago was at the heart of this revolution. Comprising not only one of the nation's largest "Negro markets," Chicago also boasted a cohort of design professionals who experimented in aesthetic style and business models that were meant not only to push back against the legacy of blackface caricature but also to make claims on the rights and wealth of the teeming postwar consumer economy. As they became crucial brokers between the black community and corporate America, African American designers were tasked not only with selling goods to the valuable "Negro market," but also with selling the race to white-run corporations.