Sometimes I see random things and go down a rabbit hole. So, I decided to have a Tea Party, invite you along, and share my findings this time. I ran across a newspaper article about Piggly Wiggly, which lead me here. If you are from the south, then you know that Piggly Wiggly is a well-known supermarket chain founded by Clarence Saunders in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee. I expect that the name Piggly Wiggly is familiar even beyond the south. Saunders introduced the concept of the modern grocery store with the first self-service grocery store model. The store was organized by departments, there was transparency with price marking, and customers could browse the store freely and pick their items from shelves rather than having a clerk fetch items for them. This innovation revolutionized the retail grocery business.
Piggly Wiggly was very successful, paving the way for the supermarket model we see today, as other independent grocery stores and chains began to follow its model. The Dallas Morning News reports that by 1932, at its peak, Piggly Wiggly operated 2,660 stores. Over the years, Piggly Wiggly stores have evolved. Some are owned by individual franchisees, while others are part of larger corporate entities. Yet, it is not what it was in 1932. Now, despite being found in 18 states, Piggly Wiggly has significantly fewer locations, with approximately 500 stores. In Texas, there are two, one in Athens and the other in Paris.
Despite being a model for other retailers to follow, Piggly Wiggly has not always been a model to follow. The rabbit hole led me to 1987 when a class action racial discrimination suit was filed against Dixieland Food Stores, which encompassed 48 Piggly Wiggly stores in four states: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. This lawsuit resulted in a settlement of $9 million and was a pivotal legal battle addressing allegations of racial bias in employment practices within these stores. The settlement was to represent back pay and damages to be paid to about 1,000 African American employees, including those “who are or have been employed by, or who have sought to be employed by D.L. Food Stores at any time from Aug. 7, 1981, through May 20, 1990[.]” (See L.A. Time Archives, Apr. 26, 1993, “Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store Chain Settles Four-State Racial Bias Suit for $9 Million.”)
In addition to financial compensation for the victims of Piggly Wiggly’s discriminatory practices, the settlement, which received approval from U.S. District Judge Harold Albritton of Montgomery, Alabama on March 20, 1992, mandated a significant restructuring of the company’s hiring practices. It included a stringent order requiring the company to ensure that 30% to 33% of its management positions were filled by African American individuals within the following five years. This was necessary when testimony revealed that African American employees were not provided the same advancement opportunities. There was testimony that there was company policy that limited hiring opportunities for African Americans. A top management employee had been quoted making racially derogatory statements at management meetings such as: “(1) he would not hire another black until the government made him; (2) the store manager[s] should not hire blacks to handle money; and (3) the store manager[s] should not hire black cashiers because they steal. Mr. Neal also testified that Lee’s evaluation of the cause of inventory losses at the Marianna, Florida, store was that blacks were causing the white employees to steal.” (See Wynn v. Dixieland Food Stores, Inc., 125 F.R.D. 696 (M.D. Ala. 1989).
While the settlement’s financial compensation was substantial, the underlying emphasis on the imperative of diversity, inclusion, and fair employment practices resonated far beyond the monetary value. It marked a notable moment in the ongoing struggle for workplace equality, reminding corporations of the necessity to create environments that welcome and support individuals from all racial backgrounds.
What happened at these Piggly Wiggly stores in the 80s and before, is not unheard of today. Race discrimination in hiring, firing, and promotions, is a common and real occurrence. If you or someone you know is facing race discrimination, we have employment attorneys available for consultation.
Going down the rabbit hole can lead to interesting facts. This moment in history began with my reading an article predicting a comeback for the grocery retailer in the state of Texas. C&S Wholesale Grocers, the owner of the Piggly Wiggly brand, struck a deal to acquire more than 400 Kroger and Albertsons stores across the country. However, this acquisition is contingent upon the Federal Trade Commission’s approval of the pending $24.6 billion merger between Kroger and Albertsons. Of those 400 stores, 26 are reportedly in Texas. Will they be branded Piggly Wiggly? I don’t know. I really do not care. I am loyal to my current grocery chain, but it was fun looking at a little piece of history.