Charlene Brown (left) has lunch with her mother, Barbara Sprewer, both from Milwaukee, at Coffee Makes You Black on April 8. The women say the community should support positive black-owned businesses with their dollars.
Buying black: Too much money flows out of the black community
Aundre Cross is a letter carrier on Milwaukee’s north side who knows how pivotal businesses are for a neighborhood’s success.
He called Diane Stowers’ BP service station one of those crucial businesses. Stowers’ station is believed to be the only black-owned gas station in the city and has been a beacon for the north side for decades.
I couldn’t agree more with Cross, and that’s why over the past two weeks I have made most of my purchases at black-owned establishments. In order for many of these businesses to stick around, they need community support. Without it, we risk losing them like we lost WMCS-AM (1290) earlier this year.
That would be a tough blow, especially in the neighborhoods that are already struggling.
“Ms. Diane is a mother to many in this community. I call her the backbone of the north side, because when you talk about role models all you have to do is stop in here,” Cross told me recently.
Stowers, 57, commands respect.
Before youths walk into her service station store, cursing, disrespect and sagging pants stop.
“It’s an unwritten respect that they have for her as a businesswoman,” Cross said.
Stowers, who leased the BP Amoco station for nearly two decades before buying it outright in 2007, said being a black business owner in the petroleum industry is difficult. She said it has been hard to get a loan because bankers typically classify gas stations as high risk.
She said a loan would allow her to expand her food service, install new tanks and open a carwash in the back of the station. If she doesn’t get a loan, she said, the best way to earn the financial capital needed to make improvements is by having more customers.
Easier said than done. When gas prices rise, people cut back on driving, thus hurting her business. But those who shopped at her location last week have been loyal customers.
One older customer joked, “You looking good, old lady. What’s your secret?”
“I don’t need a secret,” was Stowers’ comeback, causing them both to laugh.
At a community forum for the now departed 1290 last month, hundreds voiced their displeasure with the station moving from an urban talk format to playing Elvis and oldies from the 1960s.
The crowd’s pain was evident, but community activist Earl Ingram Jr. told them that if they didn’t want to see other black-owned establishments in the city suffer the same fate, they needed to spend their dollars at other black-owned businesses.
“We can’t be mad over what happened. What we need to do is support the businesses that are still left that employ our people and invest in our community,” Ingram said.
In a 2010 article titled “Buying Black – the Ebony Experiment,” author James Clingman Jr. wrote that $850 billion moves through black consumers’ hands each year, but 90% of that amount goes to businesses owned or controlled by nonblacks.
I’m not saying that blacks should patronize only black businesses – that’s unrealistic – but imagine what inner cities like Milwaukee could gain if even half of that money stayed within the community.
Bradley Thurman, 63, who owns the Coffee Makes You Black restaurant, at 2803 N. Teutonia Ave., with his wife Laurie, 49, said one of the components that many people overlook when supporting a minority-owned business is employment.
“We provide jobs to people in the community at a time when a job is hard to find,” said Thurman, who has 13 employees.
With more than half of the black men in the city either unemployed or underemployed, the Thurmans are doing their part to help people make a living, but they can’t do it alone.
The restaurant – which offers a meeting place for people to enjoy great food or surf the web while listening to smooth jazz – is an ideal spot for churchgoers to come to and support after Sunday service. The restaurant also offers office space for businesses to lease and provides the community with a space for book or poetry readings and community forums and gatherings.
While the Thurmans’ business is located near a number of black churches, he said, his Sunday dinner section has only been half full.
“I’m going to be honest; we don’t support each other like we should. When you go to the buffet locations around town on Sunday, they are full of church folks,” he said. “Old Country Buffet and Cracker Barrel are full.”
Considering that Coffee Makes You Black is located in one of the economically challenged areas of the city, support from local churches can ensure that it remains open.
Bradley Thurman acknowledged that things have been lean. In March, he said it was hard to make payroll.
Lena’s Food Market, which has been a staple in the black community for decades, said its locations not only provide quality food in areas that would otherwise be food deserts, it also provides jobs.
DeWayne May, store manager of the 4030 N. Teutonia Ave. location, said unlike the other large grocery store chains in the city, Lena’s provides one of the largest selections of African-American cuisine in the city.
“We specialize in ethnic foods, smoke meats, greens, yams and other things that are the cornerstone of many meals,” said May, whose store employs 94, including many young people who are in management positions right out of high school. Lena’s employs about 300 people at its three locations.
“We provide the skills that many young people can use here and elsewhere in their careers,” May said.
When customers purchase more than $75 worth of groceries, Lena’s also has a van give doorstep service for the customers, a benefit to those who don’t have a vehicle. The store also houses a Guaranty Bank.
May said when Lena’s fills up its vans, it buys gas from Ms. Diane’s BP station.
“She supports us, and we support her. It all kind of goes around,” May said.
In the black community, every dollar counts. Just investing some of those dollars into black-owned businesses not only keeps valuable service going, it also provides jobs and gives the surrounding community something to believe in.
Businesses and homeownership help to instill pride and esteem in neighborhoods, and when the owners look like the people in the neighborhood, it goes a long way toward building community.
Now that’s something worth investing in.
James E. Causey is a Journal Sentinel editorial writer, columnist and blogger. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: jecausey