The Dallas Housewives Leagues was a group of African American housewives who pledged to support African American-owned businesses and increase job opportunities for African American youth. The housewives league movement began during the Progressive Era, but it was not until the 1930s that African American women formally embraced the movement as a way to address inequalities in United States society.
The first African American Dallas Housewives League was organized by the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce (now Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce) in the late 1930s. The Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce (DNCC), which struggled for survival in its early years, began to thrive under the aggressive, energetic, and successful leadership of business man and civic activist Antonio Maceo (A. M.) Smith in the early 1930s. Emboldened by his success in securing federal funds to build the Hall of Negro Life at the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, Smith envisioned an ambitious program for the young chamber. Meetings to reorganize and revitalize the DNCC included some of the most prominent and successful African American business and professional men in Dallas, but they did not include women. Smith, however, had undoubtedly heard of the great success enjoyed by African American business leagues and chambers in other cities that were connected with housewives leagues. The largest and most successful was the Detroit Housewives League formed in 1933 to assist the local Booker T. Washington Trade Association. The league went on to organize the National Housewives League (NHL) in 1935, which became an integral part of the National Negro Business League (NNBL) until the 1960s.
When A. M. Smith organized the Dallas Housewives League (DHL) in 1938, initial members were drawn from fourteen local women’s clubs and the wives of DNCC members, officers, and board members. The league divided its members into small units centered in African American neighborhoods throughout the city. Each unit launched its own community-focused programs. The wives of many prominent Dallas-area businessmen and professionals participated in the DHL such as Viola Shaw Pinkston, wife of Dallas physician Lee Gresham Pinkston and president of the Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club; activist Minnie Flanagan; and Hortense Howell, wife of Benjamin Everett Howell, another prominent Dallas physician.
For more than a decade, Howell served as president of the DHL and, in addition to her local duties, was also active in the national organization. In the 1940s she served as regional manager of the Mid-West South Region, which included Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. She also chaired the NHL’s Consumer Education Committee and was the NHL Historian and sometimes presented at the annual meeting. Mrs. A. L. Hickman served as president in the late 1950s through her death in 1971.
A.M. Smith’s first big campaign for the DHL was to support the Merchant Prince of Dallas campaign held every year for two weeks in August. The goal was to encourage African American consumers to spend as much as they could with African American businesses, particularly those located along Hall Street, a hub of civic, social, and religious activity for African Americans in Dallas since the 1930s. Smith believed the DHL would not only support but ensure the success of the campaign since African American women usually controlled the family budget and made most of the family purchases. The event was a huge success, in large part because of the inclusion of women—both in the newly-formed housewives league and as the focus of merchants’ sales efforts.
The growth and vitality of African American business figured prominently on the housewives’ list of priorities because these women believed that a strong African American business base would provide good jobs for women and their families and also provide a wide variety of services to the community. In addition, African American consumer dollars spent with white businesses could be leveraged for African Americans’ benefit. Economic pressure could be brought to bear on white retailers whose livelihoods rested largely or in part on African Americans to hire African Americans, provide a wider variety of goods and services, and improve treatment of African American consumers. Education and research were also essential pillars of the DHL.
After the success of the Merchant Prince campaign, the DHL began meeting once a month at the DNCC offices in conjunction with the Dallas Negro Retail Merchants Association (DNRMA). In addition to supporting the Merchant Prince and Bronze Mayor campaigns in conjunction with the DNRMA and DNCC, other Housewives League’s activities included fundraising events such as teas, scrapbooking contests, and Brown Baby contests. Unit 17, headquartered in a neighborhood near present-day Love Field Airport, undertook a major fundraising campaign in the late 1940s to raise money for a station wagon to transport handicapped children to a local Dallas clinic for treatment.
However, women in the DHL took on a more active role in developing the organization. Their goals and mission were similar to those of the national organization, whose constitution and by-laws stated that its mission was “to conduct an economic crusade on behalf of the employment of our children, and to promote the progress of our race.”
In 1942 the NHL’s national organizer Lucy Winslett of Oklahoma City visited Dallas and organized five new units. The infusion of new blood galvanized the DHL. During World War II, housewives leagues focused on consumer education, particularly conservation, price watching, and rationing. The DHL actively participated in the Office of Price Administration (OPA). The OPA panels were segregated so African American and white women canvassed their own neighborhoods and local businesses. But the issues targeted by the OPA, such as consumer abuses like high rent and prices, resonated with the DHL’s mission. With the assistance of the OPA, the DHL succeeded in setting standard prices at local cafes, and, in Fort Worth, the DHL convinced the OPA to step in to prevent a war worker’s eviction. The DHL also raised more than $100,000 through war bond drives.
When the war ended, so did the OPA. By 1946 the DHL sought new initiatives to maintain its momentum. During a DNCC meeting in 1946, Smith challenged the DHL to improve business conditions in the city. In an April 1946 letter discussing the “economic emancipation of the Negro,” Smith had written a colleague in the NNBL that the “development and promotion of Negro business enterprises are best served through the establishment of a community collective mind.” The DHL certainly embodied his sentiment. The DHL discussed opening a cooperative grocery store, and, with the assistance of some members of the DNRMA, chartered the Dallas Cooperative Grocers Association in 1946. The DHL also undertook a detailed survey of white-owned businesses to identify areas where African American merchants and service providers could improve to compete more effectively.
In the postwar period, the DHL partnered with other local Dallas groups, such as the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, to support new DHL initiatives, such as an annual Negro Merchants Day and consumer spending drives. It also sponsored Negro History Week programs. The DHL also shifted more attention to the second part of the national’s mission to help youth. The organization attempted to create more and better job opportunities for youth and returning veterans. The DHL promoted brands that hired African Americans. Like leagues in other cities, members probably volunteered to demonstrate products at no cost to store owners or manufacturers and endorsed specific brands and products. In 1946 the DHL lobbied grocery store owners to stock Royal baking powder and urged its members and the African American community to buy the product because the manufacturer Standard Brands had hired A. W. Brashear as a sales representative.
In the 1950s the DHL shifted its focus to housing and expanding the Negro business district. In the area of housing, the DHL helped the DNCC and other community groups secure funds for federal housing projects. The DHL also worked with the city and contracted builders to create single-family, middle-class residential subdivisions for middle-class African Americans. By the late 1960s, however, the influence of the DHL faded, and the organization met intermittently until the early 1980s. The national organization continued to remain active through at least the mid-1980s. As the previous generation of leaders passed on, a new generation of women found more options for activism in other civil and women’s rights groups.
As the historiography reconsiders local-level civil rights activism and the role of women in the movement, the importance of consumer issues, not usually considered a legitimate political issue, emerges as very important in the lives of African Americans, particularly African American women. Women did the majority of the shopping for their families. Treatment by employees and managers at stores, the cost and quality of goods, and access to a variety brands were important issues at the forefront of most women’s everyday experiences. Building on the small successes of the 1930s and 1940s, consumer activism provided African Americans legitimate access to make claims for equal citizenship. Indeed, as the civil rights movement progressed across the United States, more widespread and direct consumer pressure in the form of boycotts combined with multi-pronged attacks on legal, political, and social fronts culminated in the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and 1970s.