Tuomi’s Time Machine: Eyes on the Avenue

A brief history of Shopping While Black in Germantown. 

These days, being able to shop when and where you choose is often taken for granted. But for many Black Germantown residents in the years before World War II, shopping could be a source of tension because of racial profiling, especially in the shops and department stores in the Chelten and Germantown business district.

To be clear, there were many Black community-owned businesses both on and off “the Avenue,” including John Trower’s catering business at 5706 Germantown Ave., and George W. Deane’s real estate office nearby, as well as many Black-owned professional offices on streets immediately west of Germantown Avenue. However, these welcoming locations were too few and far between for Black shoppers who were often discriminated against in many Germantown businesses, particularly “destination” department stores like Rowell’s, Woolworth’s, Cherry’s, Allen’s and S.S. Kresge’s.

Long-time Germantown resident Alyce Jackson Alexander had this to say about the district in the 30s and 40s: “Yeah, they was nice little stores, and I think everybody was used to ‘em. But you were always watched, you know, just by being a Black person. You didn’t have the freedom to shop and do what you wanted to do. And so that’s just something that’s in you and you just overlook it. I guess it was hard. But your parents would say ‘Now don’t bother this. Don’t do that.’ Because even in the little candy store, they thought you was going to steal something.”

Alexander shared a particularly frustrating memory about visiting Rowell’s department store (which was at 5615 Germantown Ave.) in 1942 to search for a wedding gown. “But the lady there wouldn’t let me try it on. She said, ‘Well all you have to do is give me your measurements and all, and I will see to it that you get the gown.’ So I said ‘No way.’” Ms. Alexander eventually purchased her wedding dress at Sterns, in South Philadelphia.

Her trip to South Philadelphia points to another trend. Fed up by the discriminatory environment, many Black residents of Germantown in the 1930s and ‘40s would often shop elsewhere. Arthur Baylor, another long-time resident, said that he and his family “…got together and went down to Ninth Street because we had cars. We rode in about three cars and went down there and the Italian market. We did that two or three times a month.”

It was unusual at the time for a Black family like the Baylors to own a car. Those who didn’t had to rely on public transportation, particularly the Route 23 trolley, when they shopped outside of Germantown. The 23 served as a vital link to shopping and schools in other areas in which discrimination against Blacks was less prevalent.

Conditions improved somewhat in the Germantown business district after World War II as the rapidly expanding Black community in the 1950s and 1960s wielded increased economic power and businesses gradually welcomed Black patrons. In a demonstration of this increased Black economic power, entrepreneur Curtis Sisco purchased the name and inventory of Rowell’s Department Story from the estate of Clarence A. Rowell in 1974, and when he did, Cisco became the first Black department store owner in the United States. (Rowell’s was also the largest Black-owned business in Philadelphia county throughout the 1970s.)

Unfortunately, the business district began to decline shortly after Cisco took over, but his entrepreneurial skills kept Rowell’s operating into the 1990s.

Interviews obtained during the completion of the Germantown Historical Society’s “African Americans in Germantown Between the World Wars” oral history project, as well as period maps and photographs, and Baugh’s “Souvenir of Germantown” informed the writing of this article.

Historic Germantown is a partnership of 18 extraordinary houses, museums and destinations in Northwest Philadelphia organized to protect, preserve and share some of our city’s most prized historical assets. Tuomi’s Time Machine goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Historical Society’s extensive collection.

Alex Bartlett, Librarian of Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. Read last month’s article here.

Historic Germantown’s Library and Archives include an incredible wealth of fascinating documents and publications — lots you can view online, and also available in-person and even via mail. Over 5,000 photos plus books, church records, deeds, scrapbooks and maps going way back to colonial times. Open Tuesdays (9AM -1PM) and Thursdays (1PM – 5PM), contact office for Sunday hours or additional assistance.

Learn more about the history of Germantown and surrounding northwest Philly neighborhoods!  Contact Alex at (215)844-1683, or email library@germantownhistory.org with any inquiry. 5501 Germantown Ave. 

About Alex Bartlett 33 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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