Mrs. Smith and Mr. Doggett: civil rights struggles in 1892 Kansas City
Boycotting merchants who practiced discriminatory racial policies didn’t start in the 1950s. There was a boycott by African Americans of a leading Kansas City retailer, Doggett Dry Goods Company, in 1892. The Doggett Company proclaimed itself the “representative department store of the West,” and was an indefatigable advertiser in the mainstream newspapers. “Second to None!” one advertisement proclaimed of the store’s products; “For Discriminating Buyers.”
Doggett ads were always chirpy and chatty, even during the bank panic of July, 1893, when it ran an ad under the heading “Brighter prospects,” assuring customers “The banks have plenty of money in reserve to meet all demands,” and promising a “memorable week” at Doggett’s store. John Doggett was interviewed by a reporter for the Journal in late August, after the worst of the panic had passed but while citizens were “still inclined to jump at every financial shadow as though it were a ‘sheeted ghost,’ and who are still uncertain whether Kansas City has passed triumphantly through the panic which recently vibrated from coast to coast....”
Doggett, billed as a “shrewd, far seeing business man,” assured the reporter that Kansas City’s economy was prospering even if things were still “blue” in New York. The American people, he said, citing the opinion of a New York carpet executive, “had been living too fast … if a young man is receiving $1,200 a year salary and is spending $1,500, things are going against him; but if he spends only $1,000 he is all right.” In Kansas City, however, said Doggett, “on account of its superior geographical situation… failures were considerably less in number and payments more prompt than in other cities of equal size.”
Doggett also reported the views of a New York banker that what was helping the country out of financial depression was “a decrease in the imports, an increase in exports.” The dollar amounts seem miniscule in contemporary terms -- imports had diminished to $7,000,000 from $13,000,000 the year before, with exports $1,500,000 in excess of imports -- but the financial issues, including the lack of liquidity occasioned by continued adherence to the gold standard, have a contemporary ring, as does the boycott by African Americans that Doggett had faced in the previous year.
The boycott began in February, 1892, after an African American woman, Mrs. Mamie Smith, was refused service in Doggett’s store. C.H.J. Taylor’s American Citizen, a four-page weekly published in Kansas City, Kansas, that appealed mainly to African American readers, reported her experience: she had seen an ad inviting ladies shopping at Doggett’s to sample a soup the Armour company had on display, but was told that“colored folks were not included in the invitation.”
Mrs. Smith was not a person to be trifled with. She immediately appealed to Doggett, who denied responsibility and objected that “colored women were always pushing themselves, and placing themselves in a position to be snubbed…. Such is the sentiment,” said the Citizen “the would be merchant prince of eleventh and Main entertains in regards to the Negroes, who frequent his store.”
Mrs. Smith told Doggett she would shop elsewhere in future and would ask her friends to do the same. Doggett “retorted by saying she might do so, as he did not care for the little the Negro trade brought him any way.”
The Citizen called on “all the self-respecting ladies of our race” to boycott Doggett’s store, saying “There is much to be gained by a concerted action on our part in this matter and we once more urge upon the ladies to boycott the store until the lordly proprietor feels that a dollar in the hand of a Negro is as desireable [sic] as one in the hand of a white man and if so the Negro is entitled to all the rights and privileges of any other customer.”
A letter from Mrs. Smith appeared later in the year in the Citizen adding additional details. She said that Doggett had put the blame on the Armour company supplier for the discriminatory policy:
I told Mr. Doggett he was at the head and manager of the firm and was supposed to have full control of the doings of the same…. Mr. Doggett was not in the least disposed to interfere in my behalf or to speak one words in the defense of any colored lady, for that matter, who had been mistreated and outraged as I had been; so to make short work of my business with him I told him that since he favored injustice, discrimination etc., shown his colored patrons I for one would transfer my patronage exclusively to other stores and would use all the influence in my power toward encouraging my friends to do likewise. At this Mr. Dogget [sic] gave vent to his ire and exclaimed, “now I don’t want any insult to this house, we can get on without you all, so stay away we don’t need you.”
Now Doggett to prove that he means every word of this should, I think, hang a placard out before his store bearing this inscription: ‘No colored patronage wanted here.’ It is high time we were resenting insults imposed upon us on account of our color. It is an indisputable fact that the reason we have so many of these indignities to contend with is because we are too prone to accept them as mere nothings.
To fight for their rights as American citizens amidst the rising tide of Jim Crow laws, lynchings and other abuses, argued Mrs. Smith, such “occasional acts of injustice shown to us, prompted by prejudice on account of color” should be resisted: “Why some white people with their hydra-headed persistency will try to thrust upon us a knowledge of our inferiority to them – baffles all sensible reasoning.”
It is principally the “less refined and intelligent” of whites who practice such prejudice, she claimed; a “real lady” who finds herself sitting near a colored person in a street car “isn’t in the least disturbed by it,” but a “white woman of lower birth and station” will “expand her nostrils as though she smelled something quite decomposed….”
Mrs. Smith was not finished with Doggett yet, however: she recounts that she went to Armour’s Packing House to speak with the supplier Doggett blamed for his discriminatory policy and found that the man had given no such orders, and had in fact told his employees to serve the soup to all alike regardless of color.
Charles H.J. Taylor’s American Citizen enthusiastically backed the boycott, reporting in April that “many ladies” had joined it, showing them to be “ladies who have the good of the race at heart…. We should stand together in these matters and prove to proprietors of stores that their paid hirelings cannot insult us with impunity…. We have gone to the extreme of not looking in his show windows or even reading his ‘Ad,’ we do not ask you to go that far but we do ask you to buy nothing of him.”
Taylor promised a “plan of organization some what crudely formed, at present, which we expect to present to you soon… which will make us a powerful factor in this city. When our plans are completed we shall ask everybody in the city to become a part and parcel of the organization and we hope to meet with your help, encouragement and endorsement.”
The organization Taylor was envisioning was probably a union of African American Democrats in Kansas and nationally, aimed at leveraging the black vote and gaining influence within the Democratic Party. By June of 1893 Taylor was denouncing the “fusion” alliance between Kansas Democrats and Populists, believing the latter had done no more for black Americans than had the Republicans. In September, the Negro National Democratic League had a conference in Washington, with Taylor playing a crucial role.
Doggett changed his mind about African American customers: within a couple of years he was advertising in The American Citizen.. He was bought out in 1898; the store’s name was changed to Peck’s Dry Goods Company in 1901.
Whether or not Mrs. Mamie Smith ever went to Doggett's Dry Goods again to shop, she deserves a place among civil rights pioneers in Kansas City history.
February 15, 2013