He Stood Up To Businesses Who Wouldn't Hire Black People

congressman adam clayton powell during a press conference
Via U.S. National Archives & DVIDS
Ricky Riley
April 26, 2023

Congressman Adam Powell, a Civil Rights champion, proved early on he was ready to stand up for his people. But what faced him now wasn’t politics – it was business.

In the 1930s, many of Harlem’s white-owned businesses wouldn’t hire Black workers – but were fine profiting from Black customers! 

Outraged, Powell brought the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign to Harlem, encouraging Harlem residents to boycott stores, utility companies, and city buses refusing to hire Black employees. He knew “Black dollars” mattered and was prepared to run businesses dry.

Throughout the campaign, Powell organized multiple picket lines, boycotting the New York World’s Fair, Transit Authority, and drugstores. Their demand: hire Black laborers or don’t expect a penny from us! 

As sales drastically declined, white business owners gave in and hired over 700 Black employees, transforming Harlem’s labor demographic. This campaign predated the Civil Rights Movement, providing future Civil Rights leaders with an example to reference as they planned their resistance.

Today, “Black dollars” still hold power. Capitalism is built on white supremacy – and if a company practices anti-Blackness, Black consumers have the power to boycott until they meet our demands.

Powell understood the politics of money, turning Black dollars into a Black agenda. Like Powell, we must be intentional in how we spend our money.

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