90 years ago, Blumstein’s department store, at 230 West 125th Street was the department store on 125th Street.
It was also a flashpoint in the civil rights movement, and one which Adam Clayton Powell Jr., managed to turn into a nationally recognized victory.
In 1885 Louis Blumstein arrived in the United States from Germany. He worked as a street peddler and in 1894 opened a store on Hudson Street. In 1898 he moved to West 125th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, already a major regional shopping center.
Blumstein died in 1920 and in 1921 his family demolished the store for a five-story building, the biggest thing on 125th Street after the Hotel Theresa, on Seventh Avenue.
The architects Robert D. Kohn and Charles Butler designed the $1 million store in an odd amalgam of late Art Nouveau and early Art Deco. It was completed in 1923.
When Blumstein’s opened, Black Harlem had expanded and now lived in a vast stretch of central Harlem, from 111th to 155th Street, from Madison to St. Nicholas Avenue. Despite the demographic shift in the neighborhood, Blumenstein’s hired only or mostly whites. Only in 1929 Blumstein’s did hire its first Black employees — as elevator operators and porters.
During the Depression, the Rev. John H. Johnson, vicar of the Protestant Episcopal St. Martin’s Church, began a “Buy-Where-You-Can-Work” campaign and Harlem’s New York Age noted that 75 percent of Blumstein’s sales were to Black residents but that it refused to hire Black clerks or cashiers. The New York Age called for a boycott of Harlem’s largest department store.
Picketing began twelve years before The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. started his long career as a Congressman. The Reverand, however, had numbers — preaching to 2,000 Harlemites at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
The New York Age published names and photographs of Black shoppers who crossed the picket line. On July 26, William Blumstein, head of the store capitulated, promising to hire 35 Black clerical workers and salespeople.
Reverand Powell then organized the Greater New York Coordinating Committee for Employment and in 1938 won an agreement from Woolworth’s, Kress, A. S. Beck and other major businesses not to discriminate against Black shoppers. Ann 1943 Blumstein’s had the first black Santa Claus, was the first to use black models and mannequins and successfully appealed to cosmetic manufacturers to produce make-up for non-white skin tones.
For years its mechanical black Santa Claus was a Christmas fixture on 125th Street.
The Blumstein building was sold by the family in 1976.