Like hundreds of other shopping districts, Sacramento’s Florin Square had to shut its doors during the pandemic.
The space in California’s state capital is part cultural center and incubator and has been home to Black entrepreneurs since 2003. At the mercy of Covid-19 closures, evolving guidelines and elusive government aid, many similar operations failed to recover, with an estimated 200,000 more small businesses shuttering in 2020 than in the average year.
But, amazingly, out of more than 60 mostly Black-owned businesses in Florin Square, only one had to close for good. The hub’s owner, Tom Donaldson, says this feat is due to its unique approach to entrepreneurship, which has earned Florin Square the title of Sacramento’s Black Wall Street.
Donaldson and his marketing manager, Aaron Boyce, say their goal was always to balance “tough love” and high expectations with a grace and guidance rarely afforded to Black business owners.
“The systems in this country create roadblocks to success but not only did our tenants survive the pandemic, they also found a way to thrive and prosper,” said Donaldson.
One of the first things Donaldson did was waive his penalties for late rent payments and look for grants to help struggling businesses. Boyce also helped people increase their online presences.
“We get entrepreneurs coming to us with all kinds of stories about why things in their business aren’t working out, but if they’re not able to serve the community we have to give them some tough love,” Boyce said. “But it’s all a part of the incubation process.’’
Florin Square is just one of dozens of such districts in the US – from Denver, Colorado, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana – established to support Black entrepreneurs and develop commercial and cultural corridors for Black businesses.
Last summer’s reckoning with racism and inequality has put many of the central issues Black Wall Streets seek to address at the center of the national conversation. Black-owned banks have seen huge investment and can now “leverage that into $1.5bn to serve minority communities”, Robert E James II, chair of the National Bankers Association, told CNN Business recently. Elsewhere, as the #BuyBlack hashtag circulated on social media, US states added directories of Black businesses to their tourism websites and banks promised to address decades of economic racism.
All of this comes in the 100th anniversary year of the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood community, home to the best-known Black Wall Street. Greenwood, and the dozens of other Black Wall Streets that were born during the early 20th century, have long served as aspirational examples of cooperative economics among Black people, who have been shut out of US financial institutions for generations.
“There is a lack of capital in the Black community largely because of discrimination because investors don’t see the value in black businesses,” said Dr Andre Perry, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. “Ownership for Black people is more than just gaining financial freedom. This is about developing power.”
Perry says that a host of factors such as housing discrimination, consistently being denied home and business loans, and exclusion from government contracts continue to thwart the growth of Black business and wealth. These factors are also driving the push for Black-owned business corridors and banks where the community can get loans at fair interest rates.
He worries about commitments from large banks and corporations to support Black businesses once national attention wanes.
“I’m a little skeptical of companies that want to give charity but don’t do any internal work in hiring and investing,” Perry added. “When you invest in Black businesses, you’re growing the economy. But it’s not seen that way; Black businesses are the underappreciated assets.”
In California, home to many high-profile Black Wall Streets, business leaders hope that the money that pours into these enterprises will lead to permanent cultural districts akin to Chinatowns and Latino business corridors throughout the state.
“Demographics have changed. Black populations have shrunk a great deal and with that you have the loss of enterprise and growth among Black businesses,” said Michael Carter Sr, founder of Black Wall Street USA (BWUSA), an organization that has been helping Black entrepreneurs since 1998. “But now is the time to raise our game and have a real positive impact economically. We can come back and own things.”
While Carter was attending college in the early 1990s, he visited Tulsa and learned about the history of the city’s Black Wall Street. After graduation, he returned to Oakland and began rallying local entrepreneurs along International Boulevard on the city’s east side. Since then BWUSA has helped establish at least 48 other corridors throughout the US and is building a network of entrepreneurs who can share advice and resources.
Sacramento’s Florin Square is one of the most successful BWUSA affiliates. There are many other Black Wall Streets, both under the BWUSA umbrella and not, across states at various stages of growth.
“Our modern Black Wall Streets aren’t always about the businesses. They’re about connecting with the spirit of our ancestry,” Carter added.
Going beyond retail
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the organizers of two new Black Wall Streets are hoping to go beyond retail. They want to foster healing among their communities, prevent gun violence, and support Black residents amid rapid gentrification and displacement.
Demnlus Johnson, 28, a fourth-generation Richmond, California, native, said he had grown up hearing stories about bustling Black-owned jazz clubs, grocery stores and pharmacies throughout the city. These businesses were the cornerstones of communities and staples of local nightlife during the mid-20th century, when Black southerners flocked to port cities like Richmond to work in shipyards. By the time Johnson was born, these crown jewels were distant memories, replaced by new businesses, few of which are owned by Black people.
“By the time I came of age, all of the businesses were boarded up,” Johnson said. He also bore witness to the gradual depletion of the city’s Black population as rents across the region surged. Richmond’s Black population went from 36% in 2000 to 25% in 2010. It now stands at just 20%, according to the most recent census data.
When he found out that a local violence prevention organizer was establishing a Black Wall Street in Richmond, Johnson knew he needed to support the effort.
“I was motivated by the gentrification and seeing Black people being pushed away,” said Bendrick Foster, Richmond Black Wall Street’s founder. “Doing this will allow us to bring unity and empower us and further my mission to help stop gun violence.”
Foster, who is also a Richmond native, began his youth development non-profit, New Life Movement, with a “safe passage” program in a park sandwiched between a high school and middle school. He would get to the playground to clean up needles, alcohol bottles and other paraphernalia so kids would have a clean space to walk through. During the day, he mentored students who were suspended from school, and after school he remained in the park to defuse fights.
After the Covid-19 pandemic shut down city schools, Foster rented a space in Downtown Richmond and turned it into a hub where students who were struggling with digital learning had access to the internet, laptops and meals that would typically be provided on campuses. Then, early this year, he became a for-profit business owner by opening a cafe and sandwich shop downstairs from his learning hub. Now, he wants to transform the area surrounding his non-profit and cafe into a “center of Black movement”.
“If everyone puts their special gift together – whether it’s selling houses or clothes – it’s gonna be amazing,” Foster said. “We just have to get people to work together, which is unheard of in certain places, especially Richmond, where things can be territorial. Maybe this can be a part of a healing process.”
Foster hopes that with the help and guidance of older Black business “legends”, Richmond Black Wall Street leadership can buy vacant properties downtown and fill them with Black enterprises. He hopes the area eventually grows to mirror Richmond’s 23rd street, a thoroughfare lined with Latino-owned businesses ranging from auto repair shops to dressmakers. However, one major challenge continues to be a lack of property ownership among Black business owners, leaving many vulnerable to surprise rent increases and being pushed out when surrounding areas begin to gentrify.
“The city is selling Richmond to everyone but us, so at this point we’re not asking the city, we’re demanding: let us have a piece of Richmond that we can call our own,” Foster said.
Across the Golden Gate Bridge a group of San Francisco natives, similarly frustrated by the droves of Black residents being pushed out of the city, have created SF Black Wallstreet to reclaim spaces throughout the city. Like Richmond, in the mid-1900s, San Francisco had a strong Black presence, the city’s Fillmore District was dubbed “Harlem of the West” because of its lively jazz scene. But after decades of disinvestment, the tech boom, and soaring housing prices, the city’s Black community has shrunk from about 11% in 1990 to about 5%, according to census data.
SF Black Wallstreet was established last summer and is headquartered on “Black Millionaire mile” in the city’s historically Black Bayview district. The organization’s first event was a festival on Juneteenth and since then it has shared information about business programs and regular meet-ups in local parks.
“Black Wallstreet began organically. We didn’t have the intention of starting an organization. We were in defense mode,” said Tinisch Hollins, co-founder of SF Black Wallstreet. “Now, we’re focused on building a network and reclaiming all neighborhoods in the city to attract Black businesses.”
“We want equity and wealth distribution. It’s about long term sustainability.”