General stores in the South were mercantiles, lenders, post offices and gathering places

Claudia Stack

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Matthis Sharpless and George Buckner Daniel Parker, III at the GDB Parker Store in Chinquapin, NC. Mr. Sharpless sharecropped for the Parker family, then left the area to serve in the military and work for General Motors. Mr. Parker’s grandfather, GBD Parker, Sr., established the store c. 1890 and had a reputation for being blunt, but fair. Picture by Claudia Stack

From the American Revolution to the years just before the Civil War, American planters whose main crop was cotton grown by enslaved people sold most of that cotton to European “factors.” These were financiers who loaned money to the planting class, accepted their cotton when it arrived in Europe, and then sent payment and goods requested from Europe. (Beckert) However, this arrangement changed dramatically after the Civil War, as Beckert notes in Empire of Cotton (pp.317-319)

Where factors had typically advanced capital to planters, sold their crops, and provided them with supplies, now they were displaced by merchants… As transportation and communication across the southern hinterlands improved dramatically in the wake of the Civil War...growers sold their cotton directly to merchants or mills agents... At the same time, the railroads increasingly brought a panoply of goods to small rural stores, further undermining the former role of the factor as supplier of plantations.

After the Civil War, southern “furnishing merchants” evolved to meet multiple needs. These merchants allowed farmers to buy seed, fertilizer and goods on credit, purchased cotton and tobacco for resale, and often served as a center of the community. In some places the post office and even the local court might operate in a general store.

Stores could act as a hub for related businesses for merchants who also owned cotton gins, farmland, livestock yards and other businesses. Such was the case for the G.B.D. Parker Store in Chinquapin, NC, one of the oldest general stores still standing in North Carolina. Established by George Buckner Daniel Parker, Sr. about 1900, it operated into the 1980s. During the 1920s it had a cotton gin, livery stable, buggy shop, and grain storage bins. Parker also owned many farms in the area.

A National Register nomination that included a survey of Duplin County’s historic and architectural resources also noted that:

Chinquapin merchant G.B.D. Parker, one of the county's most prominent business men during the period, operated a successful store in the community where he ran a busy turpentine distillery. ..The G.B.D. Parker Store built around 1890 in Chinquapin is a one-story, frame store with a remarkably well-preserved interior which features original shelving adorned with decorative scrolled brackets and tongue and groove interior sheathing.

Parker was an astute businessman who was legendary for his work ethic. He walked from his home to the store at 4 AM each day. Parker was also very tough, as evidenced by the fact that he survived a shooting that occurred in December, 1917. Parker was walking to work in the early morning, as was his habit, and a man shot him three times before turning the gun on himself. On December 29, 1917, the Wilmington Morning Star reported:

SHOT THREE TIMES G. B. D. Parker, of Duplin County, May Die of Wounds Received Yesterday Morning HIS ASSAILANT SUICIDES Walter Cottle, a Sailor - at Home on Furlough, Renewed Old Grudge, Shot Mr. Parker and Then Killed Himself...the shooting took place at Mr. Parker’s home… and, it is stated, was the outcome of a grudge that Cottle had against Parker who had indicted him two years ago for hunting on his posted land and killing tame squirrels.

Although this quarrel seems to have been over hunting, others in Chinquapin, NC may have resented that Parker had to foreclose on their farms or auction their livestock for debts. However, bad debt put Parker himself in a bind, particularly during the Great Depression. His grandson said that Parker’s own creditors forced him to act, even when he did not wish to seize customers’ assets for unpaid debt.

The mechanism that allowed Parker and other merchants to operate by extending credit for seed, fertilizer, groceries, and many other goods was the crop lien system. In 1867, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a crop lien law, meaning creditors could record a liens on a future harvest. With no assurance of weather or market prices, however, small farmers ran the risk of losing everything.

As a 1993 National Register of Historic Places Property Documentation of Historic and Architectural Resources of Duplin County states:

Soon blacks and whites alike became entrapped by this system that consumed most of the small producer’s profits when settlement time came in the fall...small landowners sometimes lost their property when they could not pay creditors or tax collectors. Tenants [and sharecroppers] often fell into a condition of quasi-enslavement when their landlord was also their creditor.

However, in the years before the Depression at least, good crop years in Duplin County outnumbered the bad. Parker ran a robust business and, as Matthis Sharpless says in the documentary Sharecrop (available on Amazon Prime Video), “Most folks around here… farmed in some kind of connection with Mr. Parker. He kept a lot of people eating and working.” Sharpless also recalled that, in his boyhood, on Saturday afternoons the yard of the store would be filled with wagons as people socialized and bought supplies.

Sharpless' life, diverged onto its own historic arc: He served in the military, then joined in the "Great Migration" to the north, working for General Motors. His father had died young, so before joining the military Sharpless had to quit school in order to help his family in the fields. They owned a few acres and a house, but their livelihood came from sharecropping for the Parker family. While Sharpless says that the Parkers treated them fairly, his family's situation reflects the systemic racism that made it difficult for African Americans to obtain and keep land. The promise of "40 acres and a mule" for emancipated African Americans was never fulfilled. As a 2020 article from North Carolina State University reports:

At their peak in 1910, African American farmers made up around 14% of all U.S. farmers, owning 16 to 19 million acres of land. By 2012, black Americans represented just 1.6% of the farming community, owning 3.6 million acres of land. Another study shows a 98% decline in black farmers between 1920, and 1997. This contrasts sharply with an increase in acres owned by white farmers over the same period.

As one of the few places to obtain supplies and credit, the Parker store would have had a virtual monopoly in the area. Parker’s grandson explained in the documentary Sharecrop that the store sold everything “from cradle to the grave.” Clothing, shoes, and groceries lined the shelves. Counters heldtreats such as candies and cakes. A table in the rear of the store held a large round cheese, the iconic southern “hoop cheese,” from which customers could purchase slices. Farming implements and fertilizer were a major portion of the business, and Parker’s cotton gin processed the “white gold” for his customers.

Another aspect of general stores' operation was that account books were not accessible to customers, especially African American customers. The ledger books were kept by the merchant, and debt was carried over from year to year. Some merchants, like Parker, had a reputation for fairness. However, some merchants took advantage of their clientele through dishonest accounting. And, as Carrie Mae Sharpless Newkirk says in the documentary Carrie Mae: An American Life (available on Amazon Prime Video), “You didn’t question...the Klu Klux might get you.”

The Great Depression and subsequent New Deal programs spelled the beginning of the end of sharecropping and the furnishing merchant’s central role in southern farm operations. Christine Whaley Williams, who grew up in a sharecropping family in Duplin County, wrote in her 1999 memoir Chrysthine: Portrait of a Unique North Carolina Girl Up from the Sharecrop Fields that:

There came a time when Mr. Parker could not pay his own fertilizer accounts and his debts to other suppliers, because his customers could not pay him. Because of low prices, he could not make any profit from crop sales on the lands he had acquired by foreclosures. He amassed a debt… and had to go into receivership.

The stress of the situation led to a decline in GBD Parker’s health, and he passed away at age 69 in 1932. However, his son and grandson continued to operate the store for decades. The Parker store is still remembered in Duplin County as the place where one could get anything needed for farm life, and the place where anyone who was willing to work hard could get credit and a chance.

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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