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Ethnic market provides produce and a history lesson

Ethnic market provides produce and a history lesson

By Sam Tranum
Staff Writer

January 31, 2004

February is an important month for Jerry Kritchman, son of a Polish immigrant. It's Black History Month.

Kritchman is white, but the plainspoken 60-year-old has found a niche running stores designed to attract mostly black customers.

In the 1970s, he ran a grocery store in New York that catered to Black Muslims. Today, his Oxtails market west of West Palm Beach draws largely Jamaican, African-American and Haitian customers.

In serving black customers, Kritchman said, he's just doing what he always has done. He started working in his family's butcher shop in Harlem when he was 11.

In his office at the back of Oxtails on Thursday, Kritchman ate vegetable soup and watched as customers sorted through bunches of greens, cans of ackee and cases of goat meat. Since most of his patrons are black, he's planning special events to mark Black History Month.

He said he has hired an African percussion band to play at the store for two Saturdays in February and will cut the price of the store's oxtail dinners during the performances. He said he also donated food to the Salvation Army.

"America has been molded in such a beautiful way by the contributions of the African people. It is in the month of February where we should all show our gratitude in some small way," he said in a statement announcing the events.

But Kritchman's biggest Black History Month offering already was on display. Before he even opened Oxtails in 1999, he started buying black historical items on eBay to show off in the store.

Having spent about $10,000 on the project, he says, he is pretty much done collecting. There's no room in the store to hang more relics. Photographs, documents and masks crowd the walls and hang over food displays, turning the market into a sort of museum.

"It's for the enjoyment of my customers," Kritchman said. "They come here and they look and they bring their kids."

A photograph of a group of black Civil War soldiers and a ballot from the 1994 South African election, which made Nelson Mandela president, hang near the meat cases.

Photos of black celebrities and leaders -- from Morgan Freeman to Malcolm X, Snoop Dogg to Mandela -- ring the store. Many are autographed.

Letters written by Haitian Presidents Louis Borno in 1929 and Saget Nissage in 1874 hang near the cash register. A few feet away are four pages from an article titled "Negro Life in Jamaica" and dated 1890.

"It's part of the cultural feel of the store," said West Palm Beach resident Ty Stewart, 25.

There are other relics, such as the poster over the meat case advertising an 1860 "Sale of Negroes" in Georgia and the assortment of dolls with coal-black skin in the fish market.

When Kritchman pointed out colorfully dressed dolls to a customer and asked what she thought, her eyes widened, her jaw dropped and she said nothing. Prodded, she observed that their skin tone was far too dark to be natural.

She seemed offended by the dolls, which played on stereotypes of the way black people look, Kritchman said later. But she was one of only three people who have been offended by his collection since the store opened, he said.

When the other two complained, "I told them it's part of your history, it's part of everybody's history, and it's real," he said.

That's the way most customers see his makeshift black history museum, he says. That the attitude 18-year old Royal Palm Beach resident Rarville Collins, whose family is from Jamaica, took about one of the slave-auction posters. "We can see where we come from," he said.

Sam Tranum can be reached at stranum@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6522

Copyright Ā 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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