The Black Citizens Brigade is where history coincides with fashion.
BCB houses a selection of early 20th century keepsakes, consisting of vintage clothing, ephemera, records, and a collection of educational resources and historical literature authored by individuals from marginalized groups.
This Sunday, shop owner and curator Cjala Surratt is holding the official opening from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 140 Bank Alley University Building in downtown Syracuse.
Claiming space downtown, in a once thriving hub for black businesses is a historical milestone in Surratt’s entrepreneurial journey.
According to the April 2022 Downtown Retail Demographic Survey, 12% of downtown businesses in Syracuse are owned by black people, while 76% are white-owned. Downtown business owners who identify as women of color witnessed a spike of 12% between 2020 and 2021.
On average, black and brown businesses are recorded as having a two-year lifespan, Surratt said. Surratt’s goal is to escape that statistic.
When guests enter the shop, they are immediately transported to the early 20th century. The charming yet rustic aesthetic of a wooden floor and tables, exposed pipelines, white walls, and each wall decorated with clothing racks neatly resting parallel or a table of historic books and records displaying prominent Black people.
“People often talk about vintage, like this brand new wave of doing and for any marginalized community that didn’t have the same kind of socioeconomic access,” Surratt said. “Upcycling, recycling has always been a part of our background because we didn’t have access. So we were always passing on.”
At Black Citizens Brigade, the establishment year is set to 1936, as depicted on the store’s exterior signage. The specific time marker denotes the publication year of the Negro Motorist’s Guide, also known as the Greenbook, by American postal worker and writer Victor Hugo Green.
The Greenbook served as a guide for safe establishments where Black people could patronize without fear of discrimination. It outlines local businesses accessible for black citizens traveling throughout the nation, including hotels, restaurants and gas stations, just to list a few of the businesses and services where Black people were permitted to go.
The BCB’s exterior signage is an homage to the legacy of black businesses in Syracuse and to Green’s literary contribution highlighting Black entrepreneurs throughout the nation.
The meaning behind the shop name
The official name of the shop, Black Citizens Brigade, features three stand-alone words that combine to form its multi-layered significance. Surratt breaks down the meaning of each word:
“Black, because I am Black. Even still in our current times, there are people who whisper and they say it in a way that is derogatory or dismissive. Whenever you come here, you have to say the word, Black. Black helps affirm the word and the history that is attached to it.
“Citizens because that’s how we’ve gotten things done. Collectively, we’ve always moved forward.
“Brigade is because there’s always a bit of force behind it. There’s the ask and then there’s the other element, right? Of really kind of demanding and taking up space unapologetically.”
The store’s interior is a reimagined version of the shopper’s experience of the early 20th century. During that time, not only fashion began to change, but also individuals’ political and social views, which were on full display through their style.
“I enjoy the politics in the clothes,” Surratt said.
The display of textile hanging on the racks ranges in hues from neutral tones to vibrant colors, original blue denim, patterned dresses in varying lengths and sophisticated cardigans.
“You see the politics of a generation saying ‘no’ in the wide collars, a wide lapel and the bold patterns, a departure from a particular way of thinking,” Surratt said.
The process of selecting clothing and other materials
While other women in Surratt’s family were gifted with “sewing hands,” Surratt admits her intermediate sewing skills afforded her with a different talent: the ability to identify “good quality construction,” which she learned from her family’s generation of seamstresses.
“I can tell by fabric, I can tell by silhouette and I can most definitively tell by touch, that which is fast fashion and that which is vintage,” Surratt said.
Surratt’s great-grandmother, Luzetta Ashburne, was a seamstress for a Black preacher with a flamboyant style named Daddy Grace. Ashburne created custom-made suits for Daddy Grace.
“There were times in my mother’s memory in which she would leave and she would be on the road traveling and making suits for him,” Surratt said.
For Surratt, vintage shopping and discovering good quality items allows people to feel good whether they are wearing it to school or to work.
The items that are displayed in BCB are selected through Surratt’s personal visits to thrift stores or consignment shops, libraries, estate sales and, since establishing the brick-and-mortar of BCB, residents have donated items to the shop.
Additional requirements Surratt looks for within vintage garments are of quality or derived from higher-end retailers and brands of those eras.
Prices for collectible items and garments range anywhere between $15 to $3,000.
The Black Citizens Brigade is a space for people within the community to learn about not only Black history, but the history of Black citizens’ effects on the legacy of modern-day Syracuse, not only through fashion but historical moments that are recorded and archived in the pages of literary works and music featured in the shop.
“I think I am positioned, I am niche in that I am using the garments, using the space to speak specifically to Black history, culture, Black movements, Black arts,” Surratt said. “ And that the space, ultimately, I want to feel like you’re walking into a Black family photo.”
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