Jewish Shopkeepers in the American South

How Jewish entrepreneuers changed the nature of the South.

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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.

The groove was established in the mid-19th century by German Jews, who often started their business careers as peddlers. Even when eastern European Jews began arriving about half a century later, as Lee Shai Weissbach has shown in Jewish Life in Small-Town America (2005), the pattern was generally reproduced. As a result, the impact of the mercantile class upon not only the small-town but also upon the communal character of Southern Jewry was largely uncontested. In exploring the Southern Jewish past, we really mean business….

Entrepreneurial Jews

There is no denying how frequently Southern Jewry displayed a flair for enterprise. The beginnings were invariably impoverished. But usually within a couple of generations, thanks to fortitude and perseverance, astuteness and luck, material comfort had been achieved; and some enjoyed genuine wealth. In virtually every city, a dry goods store became a major department store: Godchaux in New Orleans, Thalhimers in Richmond, Goldsmith's in Memphis, the Gus Blass Company in Little Rock, Rich's in Atlanta, Levy's in Savannah, Cohen Brothers in Jacksonville, Pizitz's in Birmingham, Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Sakowitz's in Houston, the May Company in St. Louis, Hecht's in Baltimore, and Garfinckel's in Washington, DC.

Nor is the evidence of entrepreneurial triumph something that was especially pronounced a century or so ago. Atlanta's Home Depot, founded primarily by Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus in 1978, became the nation's second largest general retailer (after Wal-Mart). Charlotte can boast the Family Dollar variety store chain, which Leon Levine, the son of a Rockingham, North Carolina, department store owner, founded in 1959 at the age of 22. Family Dollar has spread into nearly every state, with more than 35,000 full-time and part-time employees; his son Howard Levine is currently the chief executive officer of this Fortune 500 corporation.

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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).