The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began Dec. 1955 propelled the boycott’s leader, 26-year old Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., into the national spotlight and sparked the American civil rights movement.
However, more than 20 years earlier Baltimore’s Black community organized protests to begin the eradication of one of the city’s main pillars of segregation in one of America’s most segregated cities.
Kiowa Costonie, a flamboyant and charismatic “faith healer,” led the, “Buy Where You Can Work” campaign in 1933, which eradicated some elements of Jim Crow in Baltimore. (Photo credit: AFRO Archives)
In the first half of the 20th century, Black Baltimoreans endured the indignities of Jim Crow, including not being permitted to try on clothes and shoes prior to purchasing them at the city’s main downtown retailers, including popular department stores like, Hutzler’s, Hecht’s, Hochschild Kohn and Stewart’s. Some of the smaller stores barred Blacks completely. Only on Pennsylvania Ave., the main hub of the Black community were Black people allowed to try on the clothes and shoes they wanted to purchase. But, Blacks were barred from working in those same stores where they spent their money.
In 1933, Kiowa Costonie, a man virtually unknown to Baltimore’s Black community, organized a movement known as the, “Buy Where You Can Work,” campaign.
Costonie, a tall charismatic figure, was known in Washington, D.C. as a faith healer and a prophet.
“A suave, handsome, and well-dressed man who sometimes wore a turban, Costonie delivered lectures to all-female crowds about how best to preserve a marriage. Costonie came to Baltimore from Washington, D.C., where he had married a beautiful young socialite. They divorced four years later,” wrote Larry S. Gibson in his book, “Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice.” Before he launched the Buy Where You Can Work protests, Costonie first reached out to three influential groups (all led by women). The Citywide Young People’s Forum, was led by Baltimore civil rights icons, Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson and her daughters, Virginia and Juanita (all three made the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP into one of the most important chapters in America); the Opportunity Makers Club, led by Vivian “Buster” Marshall, the first wife of Thurgood Marshall and the Housewives League, led by Elvira Bond, wife of the prominent divorce lawyer Roy S. Bond.
Once Costonie secured the support of these three powerful groups, as well as Marshall, the young attorney (Costonie was Marshall’s first documented client in his fabled career), the movement proved to be formidable almost immediately. Costonie’s first targets were the A&P stores, a national grocery chain and the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, another national retail chain.
“After a concentrated drive with the aid of a committee of three, Prophet K. Costonie announced the success of his attempt to gain openings for our young people by stating that two of the largest chain stores had definitely agreed to raise the color bar before October 15 and appoint a number of colored clerks,” wrote the AFRO in 1933.
Costonie never actually dispatched any picketers to A&P, or the Tea Company, he simply informed the management of each of the establishments that 60,000 people were prepared to wage a, “quiet but firm” boycott of all stores. They quickly acquiesced.
Once stores were actually picketed, much of the activity was focused in the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Ave. in Dec. of 1933, and Marshall was present overseeing almost all of the activity. Protesters picketed stores in four, three hour shifts between 9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. for about two weeks.
Subsequently, Costonie and his supporters organized successful boycotts of several stores on Pennsylvania Ave., one of them, the Tommy Tucker Five and Ten Cent store lost 60 percent of its business during the boycott, according to the AFRO.
Over the course of about 90 days, the protests ultimately yielded almost 100 jobs for Blacks on Pennsylvania Ave., where there had been virtually no Black employees.
Just as he had appeared in Baltimore, seemingly out of nowhere, Costonie disappeared, leaving Baltimore under dubious circumstances not long after the completion of the Buy Where You Can Work campaign.
“The short-lived Buy Where You Can Work campaign changed the mindset of Black Baltimore,” wrote Gibson. “The AFRO American recognized the campaign’s clout (AFRO article, “Lesson in Economics,” May 5, 1934), and suggested that if such activism could deprive two boycotted stores of 60 percent of their business in a few days, surely African American in Baltimore could win more jobs in stores if they organized again.”