When the department store chain Sears filed for bankruptcy earlier in the year, some reporters noted how special the business had been to African Americans. The company’s distribution of catalogs allowed for African Americans to buy merchandise by mail-order, and in doing so they avoided the humiliation of experiencing Jim Crow at the brick-and-mortar Sears buildings. This convenience endeared the business to African Americans. For example, Roebuck Staples, who led the Staples Singers gospel group, was named after A.C. Roebuck, who was a co-founder of the company with R. W. Sears.
Similarly, buying reels of films for home projection allowed African Americans to watch movies at home and, therefore, not have to endure walking a long flight of stairs to barely see a movie from a balcony. These films had long exited theatres by the time they became available for home projection, but African Americans who noticed them did not focus on the films’ ages as much as on their accessibility. African Americans patronized businesses like Castle Films, which brought old Hollywood cartoons to the home-viewing market.
In the April 20, 1951 issue of Little Rock, Arkansas’s African American-run newspaper Arkansas State Press, Daisy Bates announced the arrival of a “new” cartoon for home use—Walter Lantz’s The Dizzy Acrobat starring Woody Woodpecker. The film was actually eight years old by then and had already been through two theatrical releases, but what mattered was that African Americans could see the film on their own terms and without Jim Crow.
Occasionally, African American access to this market worked against Castle. I wrote in The Colored Cartoon about how in 1949 the NAACP objected to Castle Films’s home-viewer release of Ub Iwerks’s fifteen-year-old cartoon Little Black Sambo. The group complained that the African American images were harmful to children. In a response that defied logic, Castle agreed to withdraw the color prints from circulation but to keep the black-and-white version in stores because the company did not consider the black-and-white version of the same cartoon as objectionable. On the other hand, the department store chain Macy’s promised to pull the film from its shelves.
Despite this misstep Castle’s distribution of cartoons to the home-viewer market helped African American parents to entertain their children in comfort for years.