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Hecht’s

(Updated 12/23/2014) Once upon a Christmas in a time and place far far away there were four grand department stores Hutzler’s, Hecht’s, Hochschild’s and Stewart’s. For more than one hundred years these stores were for the loyal White shoppers of Ye ‘ole Baltimore.

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Hochschild’s

They were the crown jewels of an era of the great family-owned department stores on the Lexington and Howard streets in downtown Baltimore. Classy White ladies hurrying from store to store dressed in furs, hats and gloves carrying various size shopping bags labeled with the hallmark of Howard Street Stores.

Even though the stores’ had policies of segregation which was not unusual because race was an intensively contentious issue in Baltimore, it was segregated from cradle to grave. Hospitals were segregated, so were cemeteries. Mama (Elizabeth Murphy Oliver) and I would ride the streetcar from the Afro-American building on Eutaw Street down Howard Street to window shop. We could go in these magnificent dream lands, to look, admire and definitely not to touch. Needless to say we could buy but could not try on anything. If a purchase was made the receipt was stamped “final sale, no return”.

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Brager-Gutman Building (Epstein’s)

After leaving the exclusive Howard Street “fantasy” department stores, we would walk to Brager-Gutman located at Eutaw and Saratoga Streets just to ride the escalators. Brager-Gutman with the same discrimination policies was not one of the high-end, classy department stores.

As the Christmas season approached, every child in the city wanted to view the Department Store windows decorated for Christmas. Each Christmas the windows were more elaborate than the last. What didn’t change from year to year was the Laughing Santa Claus. He was a giant mechanized Santa who would lean forward in his chair, booming “Ho! Ho! Ho!” through speakers to shoppers on Howard Street. As a child, I was terrified of this big red man laughing in the window.

The Hochschild-Kohn Toytown Parade was an annual Baltimore event for years. The well-known Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York started in 1924, and Baltimore’s Toytown parade sponsored by Hochschild, Kohn & Co. began in November 1936.

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Toytown Parade 1959 – Posts by Paul McCardell- The Baltimore City Sun Darkroom.

The parade was made up of assorted floats, a jumble of balloons, bands and, of course, Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. The children, especially me, stood along the Thanksgiving Toytown parade route, and would bring letters to Santa Claus to be collected in giant mail boxes.

As I now look back to those early days, it seems profoundly absurd of me to have Black parents working day and night while thinking some White man would actually deliver toys to a Black house. But I did believe. I honestly deeply did believe.

The irony of irony was in the City of Baltimore with signs posted “No Jews, Blacks or Dogs allowed” The colossal nerve center of the Baltimore’s consumer culture was owned by four Jewish families. In a time when Jews were being victimized and persecuted all over the world, they nevertheless set the standard for segregation in all stores in Baltimore.

From 1930’s – 1960’s major protests against these policies were led by the NAACP, Lillie Mae Jackson and The Afro-American Newspapers. Lillie Mae Jackson created a slogan “Don’t buy where you can’t work”. In the 1940’s Madeline Murphy wrote a continuous string of letters to every Department Store owner and manager. Ella Baker, CORE and the Urban League as well as hundreds of other community members both Black and White joined the campaign to desegregate.

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Hutzler’s

My mother of course, was knee deep in the thick of the fight. She was one of those women who would take no prisoners. It helped to have her brother, John Oliver, Sr. and Uncle Carl Murphy and the Afro-American newspapers family also in the fight.

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The flagship Hutzler’s department store on Howard Street, as seen in the 1970s. (Courtesy of the Baltimore County Public Library Legacy Web.)

One Christmas season after having been harassed by Mama, as only she could, for more years than one can count, the Hub Store manager agreed to give in an inch. The Hub store which was owned by the Hecht Company had just opened a furniture store in an area away from Howard Street so his White patron would not know. Thinking he was doing something grand and at my mother’s insistence, he set up a Christmas party in the store. Christmas trees, decorations and goodies for all of the Black children in the neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore.

Dressed in my navy blue coat with white bunny fur collar and a white bunny fur muff, we boarded the streetcar to the party. I was so excited. I was going to see the real Santa Claus. The party was going well. The store manager, staff and Mama were happy. And then Santa Claus arrived. Just one look and my heart sank. In response to my reaction to seeing Santa Clause, Mama was mortified and the store manager was heartbroken. He had tried so hard to please. The store manager had hired a Black Man to be Santa. A NEVER BEFORE SEEN OR IMAGINED BLACK SANTA CLAUSE!!! . I cried and cried and cried, “He is not the real Santa Claus”. I told you, I believed.

Not until 1960 did Hochschild’s serve 120 student demonstrators in the downtown store restaurant, becoming the first of Baltimore’s department stores to integrate and eventually change their strict policies of not allowing African-Americans to either try on or return clothing.

Merry Christmas!