Consumption as Resistance

Even though urban African Americans were able to enjoy popular pastimes through consumer culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many also found ways to use this consumer culture as resistance to racism.Overton's cosmetics For example, although many products marketed towards African Americans at this time attempted to assimilate them into a broader, white culture, inhabitants in Dallas's Freedman's Town chose to purchase and use a line of cosmetics designed to enhance natural beauty. Researchers in Freedman's Town discovered a cosmetic compact of the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company, a company founded by an African-American entrepreneur. This cosmetic compact suggests that African-American women in Freedman's Town were resisting pressure to emulate white conceptions of beauty (Davidson 2004, p. 103-104).

Additionally, archaeological excavations at the houses of African Americans in Annapolis, Maryland revealed data that suggests that they often chose to consume nationally-branded goods as opposed to those produced locally as a way to avoid the racism of local producers. Locally purchased goods were often measured and packaged in store, and racist vendors could manipulate prices, amounts, and quality of goods sold to African Americans or even contaminate the products. Buying brands ensured consistent quality of goods, fair and consistent prices, and uncontaminated product that were often difficult to acquire in the local market (Mullins 1999).

This pattern of brand consumption was not limited to a certain class or economic group. Homes in working-class and middle-class neighborhoods in Annapolis, such as from the Maynard-Burgess House, contained many nationally produced bottles, cans, and jars. These houses also had a shortage of preservation jars in the archaeological record, likely because of the racialized caricatures of African Americans in public discourse at the time associated with these items. Even in a post-emancipation time, many African Americans still worked as cooks or housekeepers in white homes, and preserving food (among other acts) was seen as a symbol of subservient ideas still in the public discourse.This resistance to racism by consuming nationally-branded food rather than home-preserving food was shared between members of different classes in Annapolis (Mullins 1999).

Local Consumption in Freedman's Town

Evidence at Freedman's Town paints a slightly different picture than at Annapolis, Maryland. The Fourth Ward was a hub for African American businesses and culture in Houston, and findings from archaeologists Rachel Feit and B. M. Jones, along with written documents and oral histories, show that members of the Fourth Ward community likely relied on many goods produced locally. However, excavations done by Rice University have also discovered numerous bottles, jars, and other containers with ties to brand consumption. Research done in Freedman's Town suggest more complicated patterns of resistance and consumption than those in Annapolis. Inhabitants of Freedman's Town likely purchased many of their goods in local businesses but still consumed branded products.

Mason jar
A preservation jar found at the Wilson-Victor site

Like in Annapolis, archaeological excavations in Freedman's Town revealed few Mason jars and other preserving jars used in home processing. This may suggest that families relied on local markets to buy everyday goods. However, a few Mason jars were unearthed at some of the sites in Freedman's Town, including at the Wilson-Victor site, showing that families occasionally participated in preserving their own foods. Other goods, though, were likely purchased from local stores, such as the one that once stood at the corner of Wilson and Victor Streets. Because it was located just across the street from the Gregory School, it is easy to imagine children visiting the store after school to buy some ice cream or a cold soda. 

Although there were a number of different businesses in Freedman's Town, some consumer needs were not as well-met as others. There does not appear to have been a local pharmacist in Freedman's Town, as few prescription bottles were discovered in excavations. Inhabitants likely self-medicated, evidenced by the remains of a medicine bottle containing a syrup for stomach discomfort found at the Wilson-Victor site. These medicines were not purchased through a pharmacist, but is likely that they were still purchased within Freedman's Town, perhaps at the store on the corner of Wilson and Victor Streets.

Glass medicine bottle
Inhabitants of Freedman's Town had bottles like these
containing medications they self-prescribed

Brand Consumption and Outside Markets

The archaeological record at Freedman's Town included some well-known national brands as well. The Yates family, at one point, seasoned their food with Heinz ketchup and enjoyed an ice cold bottle of Coca-Cola. Similarly, the occupants at 1312 Ruthven had a jar of Vaseline at their home that could be used for many purposes. Other sites contained remains of candy wrappers, but it is difficult to tell whether inhabitants of Freedman's Town participated in brand consumption for the same reasons as African Americans in Annapolis. As Freedman's Town was the main center of African-American business at the time, consumers likely did not experience as much racism in their local market as African Americans in Annapolis did. Still, inhabitants enjoyed branded goods, perhaps as a supplement for items that could not be purchased locally or as a cheaper alternative for locally packaged items.

Heinz Ketchup bottle fragment
The bottom of a Heinz condiment bottle

Many of the inhabitants of Freedman's Town were part of multiple markets outside their local one. Ceramics found at the Rutherford B. H. Yates house were discovered to have come from great distances away from Freedman's Town, showing that the Yates family participated in wide ranging economic spheres. J. Vance Gebhardt
            Chili Powder bottleLewis and his family were able to acquire goods from outside of Houston, too. A bottle of Gebhardt Eagle Sauce, made by the Gebhardt Chili Powder Company in New Braunsfels, Texas, was unearthed at the J. Vance Lewis site. It is unclear whether the Lewis family acquired this well-known sauce in a local store of from the source, but this sauce and the Yates's ceramics, along with the evidence for local and nationally-branded goods, suggest that inhabitants of Freedman's Town consumed products on a local, state, and national level.


Local Consumption in Freedman's Town

Brand Consumption and Outside Markets