Author Archives: Stephen Whitfield

Stephen Whitfield

About Stephen Whitfield

Stephen Whitfield is the Max Richter Professor of American Civilization at Brandeis University. He is the editor of A Companion to 20th-Century America (Blackwell).

Jewish Shopkeepers in the American South

Reprinted with permission from AJS Perspectives: The Newsletter of the Association for Jewish Studies. Provided by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.

Picture this: the tin or tar-paper shacks within walking distance of the town center, where a monument to a Confederate general or simply to a Johnny Reb is conspicuously placed, the simple, mostly Protestant churches made of brick or wood, the dusty roads and the humid air, the signs advertising a regional soft drink like Coca-Cola or perhaps Dr. Pepper, the atmosphere of languor and ease.

This was the paradigmatic village of the American South, from roughly the era of Reconstruction throughout much or most of the twentieth century. The economy was overwhelmingly agrarian; and the landscape was overwhelmingly rural, with metropolises few and far between.

Neiman Marcus

Neiman Marcus was founded by
Jewish store owners in Dallas, Texas.

The “Jewish” Store

One institution is missing from the picture of this archetypal village: the dry-goods store, the clothing store, the hardware store, the furniture store, the department store that was, with charming frequency, owned and run by Jewish families. Occasionally the towns were even named for the merchants who moved there–like Kaplan, Louisiana; Marks, Mississippi; and Felsenthal, Arkansas. Operating on Main Street, these mercantile families were crucial to the economy of the South, selling to black and white customers alike.

From which other retailers would even many Klansmen have bought their denims, their shoes, even their sheets? The dominance of these stores and the families that built and sustained them in the Southern imagination may be due to the occupational structure of the Jewish population of the region. Because industry, with all sorts of notable exceptions, could gain so little traction, because cities had to struggle for life against the economic and ideological influence of agrarianism, no significant proletariat developed among Southern Jews.

With few first-class colleges and universities, a professional class needed more time to emerge than elsewhere in the United States; and because boondocks bohemias are so freakishly rare, artistically inclined Southern Jews usually had to pursue their dreams somewhere else.