A display about food hucksters at Washington, DC’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The tradition of huckstering in the black community is as much of a part of the authentic Southern experience as a meal of shrimp and grits with a glass of sweet tea. For much of our country’s history, African Americans carved an economic foundation for themselves through street vending, or “huckstering.” Often described as street vending, hucksters frequented streets and markets, buying unsold or second-rate food from farmers and selling it at a markup, carving an economic foundation for themselves in the process.
In many communities, the majority of all street vendors were black. In some northern cities as early as the 18th century, free black hucksters were successful enough to establish brick and mortar businesses on their own. Nevertheless, known for their distinctive cries and entertaining ways to make a sale, some hucksters were thought of as a public nuisance.
In Philadelphia, according to city council records in 1823, hucksters were described as “unsettled and unknown”, due to building networks without regard to social and cultural positions, and operating at all times of day and night to corner arriving farmers for the best deals. If this wasn’t enough hucksters had a tendency to street corners, oyster dens, or wharves into temporary marketplaces. In other words, they were vilified for building an informal economy that existed outside the system controlled by the “establishment” during the Segregation. However, for poorer consumers, they were a vital part of the distribution of food and goods.
In lowcountry coastal cities, black hucksters peddled fresh vegetables, baked goods, and handicraft items on streets of towns between farms and plantations. Many walked through neighborhoods with distinctive voices, calling out their wares in Gullah-Geechee dialect. Along streets and back roads, they sold vegetables, seafood, baked sweets, and legumes. In major cities like Jacksonville, they worked on schooners as hired captains, operators, and crew; hogged or gathered oysters along the shore; and planted, harvested, and shucked them for oyster companies. In addition, they peddled oysters on city streets, serving them raw, fried, or stewed during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Jacksonville’s Charles Harry Anderson was so successful, he became known as one of the largest black seafood dealers in the country. His Anderson Fish and Oyster Company’s motto was to “sell goods that won’t come back, to customers that will”. As a testament to the power of an informal economy outside of the control of Jim Crow, as a form of quiet resistance, Anderson established one of the region’s first black owned banks, Anderson & Company, in 1914 to provide financing to black owned businesses.
While millennials, craft breweries, food halls and stories about luxury loft apartments dominate urban revitalization topics, the art of husktering is still alive and while in the black community. In fact, as illustrated in the following photographs from FAMU’s recent homecoming weekend, huskering is just as much of a HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) college football experience as marching bands. As native to our cities as parks and schools, it’s also something worthy of incorporating into continued discussions around solutions to making our communities more economically inclusive and accepting of multicultural traditions.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of Metro Jacksonville.com and ModernCities.com — two websites dedicated to promoting fiscally sustainable communities — and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org