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When Bergdorf Served Chitlins and Champagne

The curious case of soul food in department stores.

Collage image with women drinking champagne in a fancy department store, with images of soul food including fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and collard greens on the counter Photo illustration by Doug Chayka | Photos: Getty Images

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On May 20th, 1969, black designers, black models, black makeup artists, black hair stylists, and an all-black jazz quintet wearing dashikis gathered at Bergdorf Goodman. They had all been hired to participate in an evening titled “Basic Black at Bergdorf’s,” the highlights of which included Naomi Sims (considered the first black supermodel) and other women from Liaison (a group for young black professional women that organized projects for the black community) wearing clothes from Jon Haggins, Arthur McGee, Maybelle Lewis, Mr. Jack of London, Jon Weston, and Lueretha Williams (black designers who are often left out of the lexicon of notable American fashion).

Guests enjoyed a soul food feast of chitlins, fried chicken, ribs, greens, black-eyed peas, and champagne. “It’s all very in and chic to be eating soul food here at Bergdorf’s,” Mrs. Charles Taylor, a woman involved with organizing the event, told The Washington Post and Times-Herald. “But we should remember that this once was the only food poor blacks had. And it didn’t used to be all that good.”

Tickets for the event were sold for $15 each (the equivalent of about $100 today), and between 700 and 800 guests were estimated to have attended, all for a good cause. Basic Black was a fundraiser for the Northside Center, a Harlem nonprofit founded by married psychologists Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth B. Clark.

The Clarks were best known for their doll tests in the 1940s, in which they asked black children to choose, among black and white dolls, the dolls they believed were good and wanted to play with. Most children chose the white dolls. When asked which dolls were bad, children chose the black dolls. The tests offered evidence that segregation could be of emotional and psychological detriment to black children and played an integral role in the court ruling for Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated public schools unconstitutional the decade prior to Basic Black.

“I guess people were interested because they want to endorse something constructive in black-white relations,” Lorna Goodman, daughter-in-law of then-Bergdorf president Andrew Goodman, told the Times-Herald about the racialized politics of the event. Goodman himself ensured that the designers were not selected solely based on the color of their skin. “I wanted to make sure we had their things in the store, and not just drag them in for one night because they happened to be black,” he told The New York Times. “They had to be talented, too.”

The event put blackness on display for the consumption of hundreds of guests, both black and white, but of course did little to impact race relations in the country. The year was a bookend to a decade of civil rights protests that led to the passing of legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the assassinations of two of the most memorable figures in the history of black freedom struggles: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion critic Robin Givhan writes briefly about Basic Black in her book The Battle of Versailles, which centers on the landmark 1973 fashion show that propelled American fashion into the spotlight and was also steeped in blackness. The American victory over the French at Versailles was due not only to the talent of the American designers (which included black designer Stephen Burrows), but also the American models that were selected to walk the show: 10 out of the 36 models were black, marking one of the first times a fashion runway had been so diverse.

Four models at the 1973 Battle of Versailles fashion show.
Models at the 1973 Battle of Versailles fashion show.
Photo: Alain Dejean/Sygma/Getty Images
Naomi Sims on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal.
Naomi Sims on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal.
Photo: Ladies’ Home Journal
Naomi Sims on the cover of Life.
Naomi Sims on the cover of Life.
Photo: Life

Oscar de la Renta was one of the designers who showed his collection at the event and he argued that, due to their showmanship, the black models were responsible for the win. In the documentary Versailles ’73 by Deborah Riley Draper, model Pat Cleveland states that there was nothing put-on about their performance — rather, it “was the core of who we were.” The spectacularity of the black models at the show was akin to the blackness on display at Basic Black.

Leading up to both the Bergdorf event and the models’ history-changing performance at Versailles was a parade of black women becoming “firsts” by gracing the pages of mainstream publications. In 1966, Donyale Luna became the first black woman to appear on the cover of British Vogue. Naomi Sims became the first black model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968 and then Life in 1969. Despite her role in shifting the representation of black women in popular media, Sims knew that her racial identity was a novelty to the white gatekeepers of the fashion industry. “It’s ‘in’ to use me,” she said early in her career, echoing Mrs. Charles Taylor’s comments about the soul food served at Bergdorf.

In her discussion of Basic Black, Givhan confirms that soul food was indeed trendy in 1969; however, she cannot ignore the peculiarity of its placement in the throes of a fancy event held on Fifth Avenue. “Passing chitlins around the fifth floor of Bergdorf went several steps beyond authentic and well down the slippery slope of minstrelsy,” Givhan writes. She furthers her analysis in a discussion of how fashion has been used in an attempt to bring resolve to the country’s racial turmoil. “Basic Black,” Givhan continues, “was not merely raising money for a cause; it was a way of standing on the right side of history — albeit with a cocktail in one’s hand and the smell of collard greens in the air.”

What Mrs. Taylor got right in her statement to the paper is the historical stake that the food served at Basic Black represented to the black people present that evening. Soul food is grounded in the ways black Americans have always fashioned a way out of no way, taking scraps and creating a food tradition that has stood the test of time.

But to state it as “in” and “chic” in the same breath as referencing its genesis offers little interrogation of the inclusion of soul food into the retail experience. These are stores that almost exclusively serviced white individuals who enjoyed the privileges of being in the upper echelons of society. Furthermore, the decade, ushered in by the civil rights movement and making way for the black power movement, had proven that department stores themselves were an opportune site of protest for black Americans.

Three black college students participate in a lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, North Carolina.
College students participate in a lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Although black customers were technically welcome to shop at department stores, they were often ignored on the sales floors and discriminated against at lunch counters. In her chapter on Southern retail campaigns in the book Race and Retail: Consumption Across the Color Line, Traci Parker writes that these stores represented the middle class and “a new conception of American democracy in the twentieth century.” Still, black customers were denied the opportunity to return or try on clothes and barred from obtaining credit; beyond consumption, black people were rarely hired to work as salespeople, often being relegated to custodial labor. Parker outlines a campaign in Washington, D.C. in which black residents organized a protest against these discriminatory practices, as well as 1960s lunch counter sit-ins organized by students from Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Students from Smith modeled their protest after one of the most memorable events in the civil rights movement: the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins. Four college students — Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil — organized a protest on February 1st at a Woolworth’s “whites only” lunch counter to stand up against segregation at department stores and restaurants. In response to being refused service, the four men remained in their seats until the store closed.

Over the subsequent months, the men were joined at the lunch counter by other local college students, and their nonviolent tactics inspired other such actions around the country. Protesters organized sit-ins at lunch counters across the South, remaining seated while being tormented by white agitators who spewed racist remarks and violently harassed them.

Although segregation was illegal in New York City, protesters there also joined in the efforts to support those in the South; less than two weeks after the Greensboro sit-in, 30 members of the city’s Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, stood outside of the Woolworth’s on 125th Street in Harlem with picket signs. According to the History Channel, people in 55 cities in 13 states participated in the sit-ins, and by the end of July, Woolworth’s and other dining facilities across the South integrated their lunch counters.

Three decades later, in 1993, the Woolworth’s on 125th Street in Harlem incorporated soul food into its menus, serving barbecue ribs, collard greens, cornbread, and rice and beans with fried plantains, presumably to appeal to an influx of black shoppers. “What we are doing is responding to the needs of those we depend upon for business,” a spokeswoman for Woolworth’s told The New York Daily News that year.

Black spending power was on the rise in the 1990s. According to an article published in The Los Angeles Times in 1998, the black population was growing at a faster rate than the overall United States population; researchers studying consumer trends among minority groups found that a combination of a strong job market, national economic expansion, and education progress among black Americans was the cause for the increase. Stores responded to this demographic trend by developing marketing strategies that would appeal to black customers.

Woolworth’s had long ago gotten rid of its lunch counters by this time, but restaurants still operated within the department store chain and varied by location. The soul food restaurant, named Aunt Honey’s, was located inside of a food establishment already housed in Woolworth’s. Terry Keeling was the district manager who made the decision to begin adding more services to the 125th Street store in Harlem to serve the community — residents of the neighborhood could receive tuberculosis tests and measles shots, and an African boutique named Afrana had opened in Woolworth’s in February of the same year Aunt Honey’s opened. (Keeling also established a restaurant at a Woolworth’s in Washington Heights called Tia Consuela’s to appeal to that store’s Latino customer base.)

Black and white CORE demonstrators stand outside of the Harlem Woolworth’s store with signs to show solidarity with southern protesters in 1960.
CORE demonstrators outside of the Harlem Woolworth’s store to show solidarity with southern protesters in 1960.
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Keeling was no stranger to advocating for racial solidarity, having participated in protests against segregation at lunch counters 30 years before. “Hopefully, with some of these marketing plans, we can counteract much of that history,” he told The New York Daily News. “We’ve come a long way.”

As Keeling surely knew, using food and fashion as a means to ease racial tensions comes with loaded historic precedent. The codification of black traditions that renders cultural appropriation an ever-present topic in these industries requires a more complicated analysis into the racial politics that abound in retail.

Last fall, Neiman Marcus — which owns Bergdorf Goodman — included frozen collard greens for $66, yams for $64, and a baked bean medley for $80 among its many Thanksgiving offerings, which customers could purchase online. According to the website, the collard greens were “seasoned with just the right amount of spices and bacon,” and could feed eight to 10 people. The product was met with confusion and outrage, inspiring the Twitter hashtag #gentrifiedgreens and sparking conversation about the historical appropriation and colonization of black culture.

A plate of collard greens that Neiman Marcus sold last holiday season for $66.
The collard greens Neiman Marcus sold last holiday season for $66.
Photo: Neiman Marcus

Many of the people who chimed in mentioned that for $66, a person could purchase far more collard greens than the mere four 12-ounce trays that Neiman Marcus was selling. Young Plantations, for example, sells a Glory Foods six-pack of 27-ounce canned collard greens for $27.95 on its website year-round. Glory was launched in 1989 in Columbus, Ohio by a black soul food restaurateur named William F. “Bill” Williams who, according to his company’s website, saw a market for pre-seasoned canned vegetables. (Not to mention, individual cans of collard greens, mixed greens, candied yams, cabbage, and more can also be purchased at local grocery stores around the United States.)

It was not just the exorbitant price tag of Neiman Marcus’s collard greens that was alarming, but also that the luxury department store was selling an item so integral to a food genre aligned with slavery. (Neiman did not respond to request for comment.)

According to soul food scholar Adrian Miller, collard greens have long been connected to blackness. In his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, Miller dedicates an entire chapter to the vegetable, tracing it from ancient times when the Romans began introducing greens into their diets through its evolution in becoming a staple in the black American food tradition.

During chattel slavery, collard greens, Miller writes, became “uniformly associated with low status, meaning for slaves and poor whites.” Simultaneously, collard greens were considered a “vital part” of West African meals, as opposed to being regarded as filler food as they were among Europeans. Nevertheless, the popularity of greens among enslaved Africans and them being regarded as a staple in soul food is reflective of the ways in which black Americans have asserted autonomy by being self-sufficient and entrepreneurial.

Enslaved Africans often kept their own gardens, harvesting vegetables that they would use to prepare communal meals or sell to poor whites near plantations, though this was sometimes met with contempt by slave owners and farmers who sought to maintain the subjugation of those enslaved. Outside of its historical context, Neiman Marcus’s collard greens simply appear to be a typical holiday food offering; however, the positioning of soul food within the luxury retailer is one of many examples of how blackness has become both valued and devalued by dominant culture.

“It just shows how marginalized traditional African-American foods can be,” Miller says over the phone. “The only way Neiman Marcus can get away with that is because there are a lot of people that haven't been exposed to those foods. To me, it was a part of the trend of being able to charge a premium for a lack of understanding or knowledge of traditional foods of other cultures.”

An article published on Highsnobiety exploring the gentrification of soul food asks, “How could someone cook these kinds of food and have such disdain for black people?” Drawing on examples such as Paula Deen’s racist comments toward her employees and the serving of soul food in white-owned restaurants, the author outlines the Columbus-ing of food and how doing so erases the contributions of black cooks and chefs. In furthering the article’s inquiry, one could also raise this question: What does it mean for department stores to incorporate soul food into their offerings while still stumbling over how to deal with race relations?

In 2004, Carl Robinson Jr., a mortgage broker in Fort Lauderdale, Florida won $2.64 million in a case against Neiman Marcus. According to the Sun Sentinel, employees wrongfully accused Robinson of stealing the shoes he was wearing and detained him in the store. He left with only his socks and sued the company for racial discrimination; he was diagnosed with depression, a sleeping disorder, and acute anxiety as a result of the incident.

Nearly a decade later, in 2013, the New York City Commission on Human Rights and the Rev. Al Sharpton sent letters to 17 retailers — among them Century 21, Macy’s, Barneys, and Bergdorf Goodman — requesting their compliance involving an investigation into their store policies. According to NBC News, the stores were chosen based on race- and class-based discrimination complaints filed against them, as well as “the size and prominence of the stores.”

While several of the stores denied that their employees had specifically targeted shoppers based on their race, instead blaming the New York City police department, all of them were expected to post a customer bill of rights in December of that year. (Macy’s, Saks, and Barney’s still have the document posted on their websites.) The bill of rights, drafted by the Retail Council of New York State and the National Action Network, listed, among several mandates, that shoppers were to be free of “unreasonable searches” and employees were to “respect the basic civil and legal rights of any person suspected of shoplifting.”

Black Friday shoppers enter the Macy’s New York City flagship in 2015. The year prior, the store paid out a large racial discrimination settlement.
Black Friday shoppers at Macy’s New York City flagship in 2015. The year prior, the store paid out a large racial discrimination settlement.
Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

That same year, the Pew Research Center released a report stating that 44 percent of black people perceived that they were treated less fairly than whites in stores and restaurants. In 2014, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced agreements with Barneys and Macy’s regarding racial discrimination suits that had been filed against the retailers.

After customers alleged Barneys had falsely accused them of credit card fraud, the department store was ordered to retain an anti-profiling consultant, adopt new loss prevention policies and procedures, and provide anti-profiling training for its employees. Macy’s, investigated for complaints about profiling and false detentions, agreed to pay $650,000 in a settlement. Despite such efforts to combat racism within these department stores, a black couple sued Barneys in 2016 after alleging that they faced racial discrimination while returning items they had purchased.

There are also the racial disparities among retail employees to contend with. A report released in 2015 by Demos and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People found that “employment in the retail industry fails to meet the needs of the Black and Latino workforce and, as a result, perpetuates racial inequality.” Among other statistical findings, they concluded that black and Latino retail workers were underrepresented in supervisory roles, overrepresented in the lowest-paid positions, and that they are paid just 75 percent of the wages of white retail workers.

“Black designers have come a long way since Bergdorf Goodman presented a show called ‘Basic Black’ in May 1969, thereby opening many people’s eyes to the special achievements of and potential of the group,” Bernadine Morris wrote in The New York Times in 1980, reporting on the Harvey Bristol Cream awards, which honored black design talent. The evening featured designers like Stephen Burrows and Jon Haggins, who showed his work at the Basic Black show 11 years prior. As celebratory as the evening might have been, model Naomi Sims asserted: “We are going to have to fight harder for recognition in the next 10 years than we ever had to in the ’70s. There is still no great fashion house owned and run by a black designer.”

Sims’s sentiments still ring mostly true, as the only major fashion house helmed by a black designer is Balmain. In 1969, Andrew Goodman was quoted as saying he wanted to ensure that black designers were present on his sales floors. Among the few black designers carried at Bergdorf Goodman today are Carly Cushnie (Cushnie et Ochs), Virgil Abloh (Off-White), Maxwell Osborne (Public School), and celebrities Rihanna (Fenty Puma) and Kanye West (Yeezy). Bergdorf also carries Helmut Lang, which hired Shayne Oliver to design its spring 2018 collection. As you may imagine, regardless of the race of the design talent, the vast majority of brands carried by Bergdorf are white-owned. Bergdorf, and all department stores, remain places in which it is difficult for black people to profit.

Models in Stephen Burrows’s designs lift the designer above their heads in a 1977 issue of Vogue.
Models in Stephen Burrows’s designs lift the designer above their heads in a 1977 issue of Vogue.
Photo: Oliviero Toscano/Getty Images

The question of who benefits economically is an important one, with the answers reflective of where a given instance falls on the appropriation scale. The soul food at Basic Black did benefit some black entrepreneurs; in a New York magazine catering guide published in November 1971, a write-up for Lee Foods (the black-owned catering company hired for Basic Black) stated that the food was proven to be “an unqualified success” and so was the evening. And, of course, the evening’s proceeds went on to support a community center founded by and in support of black Harlem residents. Still, the insertion of soul food could be read as performative spectacle, existing somewhere between appropriation and inclusion by putting blackness on display for an evening so that the white elite could opt into a true black experience.

Far more inclusive were Terry Keeling’s marketing strategies at Woolworth’s that responded to the needs and interests of Harlem residents in the ’90s. The result was a dramatic increase in store sales, and also the supporting of an underserved neighborhood. While executed by a large corporation, this effort felt distinctly and authentically for the community.

And then there’s Neiman Marcus. There was little to no financial gain for black people last Thanksgiving, when the luxury store sold out of its “well-seasoned” and wholly appropriative collard greens. The profits went directly to the retailer, which did not use the opportunity to promote black chefs or restaurateurs and did not acknowledge the food item’s important place in black diasporic history.

“Before, these foods were despised and denigrated,” Miller says. “White people wouldn't make them for a white audience. I think I'm a minority opinion on this, but I think that it's okay for people of another culture to make another culture's food, as long as they are paying homage and duly respecting the food tradition. It probably would not take much space and time to say, ‘This is a traditional African-American food.' Just a quick line that roots it in culture and context.”

The situating and selling of soul food in these retail spaces shows the ways in which blackness so often becomes compartmentalized and detached from the experiences of black people. Food and style have acted not merely as fleeting emblems of identity for black Americans, but as means of connecting their collective pasts to their present selves. Collard greens will never just be collard greens and chitlins will never just be chitlins, even when they’re served with champagne at the country’s finest department store.

Rikki Byrd is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where she teaches courses on the intersection of fashion and race. She is also the co-editor of the Fashion and Race Syllabus.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Heather Schwedel


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