By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It had something for everyone and it was located downtown. No it wasn’t Marshall Fields or one of those department stores on State Street where Black shoppers were treated like second class citizens. During segregation and hard times, this one had spunk and a lot of soul. It was called the South Center Department Store. When the Black multimillionaire S.B. Fuller added the store to his business empire decades after it was founded, the store became the nation’s largest Black-owned department store.
For decades it stood at the corner of 47th Street and South King Drive. Bronzeville had its own bustling downtown that was stacked with three times the number of businesses that exist today. Located at the intersection of 47th Street and South King Drive, it had a national reputation as Black America’s busiest business district, one that rivaled Harlem’s 125th Street with its exclusive shops and upscale restaurants. While the famous New York neighborhood had Blumstein’s Department Store, Bronzeville had the South Center Department Store. For more than forty years, the store made headlines because of its merchandise and services, but South Center was often in the spotlight because it was the only department store in the city that catered specifically to Blacks. Shoppers didn’t have to travel to the Loop to get the best money could buy.
Founded in 1928, South Center was connected to Neisner Brothers five-cent-to-a-dollar chain, Golde Clothes Shop and a Walk Over Shoe Company. It was started by two ambitious Jewish brothers, Harry and Louis Englestein. The building also housed two other prominent institutions that the Englesteins also founded, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom. When it opened on March 17, 1928, the three-story 100,000 sq. ft. South Center had 50 departments that sold everything from jewelry, hats, shoes and handbags to paint, washing machines and canary birds. One entire floor became the training ground for Madame C.J. Walker, whose school became a fixture in the community. In 1935, the prominent Black scholar W. E. B. Dubois wrote a letter to the accounts payable department to clear up whereabouts of a lost check.
South Center quickly gained a reputation as a store that treated Blacks with respect. Before he died in 1906, Marshall Field was known for his disdain for Black shoppers and refused to put employees of color in visible positions that required interaction with the store’s predominately white, affluent clientele. Years later, his and other department stores in the Loop did not like Blacks trying on their clothes and hired people of color in the lowest-paid positions as janitors and elevator operators. South Center broke racial barriers and hired Blacks in all store positions, hoping to win over Bronzeville’s predominately Black population. Of the store’s 150 employees, more than 150 were Black, according to the Chicago Defender.
Perhaps the most prominent Black employee was Richard “Dick Jones,” who became a celebrity at South Center. He was hired as the assistant superintendent, but his personality and leadership style gained instant praise. In 1930, the store had a special ‘Dick Jones Day’ that includes discount prices and glowing tributes in a special section of the Defender. Jones was promoted and eventually became vice president of South Center.
While the South Center Department Store was big, the building that housed it was even bigger. The South Center building at 250,000 sq. ft. also had many offices for Black professionals. America’s first 12 Black certified public accountants had offices in the building. A free employment service was also in the building along with the Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce.
South Center made history in 1963 when it became the nation’s largest Black-owned department store. S.B. Fuller, then believed to be the nation’s wealthiest Black businessman, purchased South Center for $1,157,000 after a union strike shut down the store for 42 days. South Center clerks demanded a weekly raise of $4.20, but according to Jet magazine, South Center offered just $2.00, “plus an additional 50 cents a week in six months. Along with Fuller, Defender publisher John H. Sengstacke owned a stake in South Center Department store.
For Fuller, the South Center Department store would add to his collection of 13 flourishing business enterprises that made him worth $10 million or $82 million by today’s standards. In addition to owning the Black newspapers, The Pittsburg Courier, the defunct Chicago Courier and New York Age, Fuller owned the cosmetics giant Boyer International Laboratories and scores of beauty product company lines that made him a fortune. In his lifetime, Fuller mentored two other giants in Black history: Ebony and Jet founder John H. Johnson and George E. Johnson, founder of Johnson Products. Under Fuller’s leadership, South Center flourished. According to the book, “Building a Black Metropolis,” South Center by 1964 had 76 departments and 110 employees. He later purchased the Regal Theater and the Savoy Ballroom.
By 1966, the South Center Department Store and Fuller’s fortunes began dwindling after several bad business decisions. Southern whites, who made up 60 percent of Fuller’s customers from his cosmetic products, boycotted his cosmetics line after learning that Boyer International Laboratories was Black-owned. Black leaders called for a boycott after Fuller said at a national convention that lack of action rather than racial barriers keeps the Black man from succeeding. A deal to sell his Jean Nadal cosmetic line for $1 million to a white-owned firm fell through and business at the Regal Theater and Savoy Ballroom continued declining with changing tastes in Bronzeville.
To keep the South Center Department Store afloat, Fuller reportedly lowered the quality of merchandise to cater to customers on a budget. Fuller gave customers on welfare the opportunity to charge $100 worth of goods for only $30. The practice was illegal and when social administrators learned of it, they did not honor the purchases. Fuller was left with over $1 million in unpaid bills. He filed bankruptcy in 1968 and remerged with a plan to pay back the store’s creditors. It was an uphill battle that Fuller lost. The bank, Talman Federal Savings and Loan foreclosed on the property. In 1970, the South Center Department Store and the grand building that housed it, was demolished.