By Barney Blakeney
Right now everybody’s focus is on Covid, but I couldn’t help noticing the other day as I rode into Charleston on I-26 how much construction is ongoing. On the peninsula east of the interstate high rise buildings lie adjacent to it. For old school natives like me, the sight is awesome.
New construction and redevelopment is reshaping the city. In 2016, some 15,000 construction permits were issued just for single and multi-family residential housing construction in the city. Mixed use developments such as WestEdge in the Ashley River represent billions of dollars. My question is how are Black people getting involved in all that business activity? Answer – they’re not!
That hasn’t always been the case. For centuries, Charleston has been home to a vibrant Black business community. Some of Charleston’s most prestigious neighborhoods once were centers for Black business. As a first generation Charlestonian, I don’t really know the local history of Black business – a friend recently told me the late Dr. Hoffman, one of the more prominent Black physicians of my era, had his office at Vanderhorst and Smith streets some 50 years ago. Bernard Martin hired me to wash pots a few blocks north at Brooks Restaurant on Morris Street when I first came home from college in 1976. That whole Morris Street block was lined with Black owned businesses.
My search for some of that history took me to a 2016 Association for Enterprise Opportunity report. It said, “A strong entrepreneurial spirit among Black Americans has spurred the creation of untold numbers of Black owned businesses going back centuries and, at certain times in history, has resulted in thriving communities of enterprise such as the ‘Black Wall Street’ of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the bustling Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. However, today, Black-owned businesses on the whole lag behind the average U.S. firm in terms of size and revenue. Ownership rates trail those of non-minority groups, and the failure rate is high.”
As I watch Charleston bustle and grow through new development, a haunting question asks what happened to that former vitality. I’m convinced Black folks must begin to have dialogues about business development. And that requires organization.
When I first started this newspaper gig, the Charleston Business and Professional Association was among the premier local Black business organizations. My editor Jim French was a member and had me write numerous stories about its activities. For some reason, the organization just dissipated.
My search also led me to a column I wrote in 2008 on this same subject. Here’s some of what I wrote: “The association had its beginnings in the late 1950s with a small group of black business owners meeting over breakfast at the old Ladson House Restaurant. It lasted just about 30 years. Ultimately it became one of the premier black business organizations locally, but degenerated back into a social gathering.
“In the years since the demise of the Charleston Business and Professional Association, the area has become a hub for business activity. Since the last association meeting, North Charleston has become one of the state’s leading communities in retail sales. Economic development in Charleston has been equally stellar as the city expanded as far east as Daniel Island and as far west as Johns Island. And while the economic potential in those two cities alone has been immeasurable, the level of black business participation has been almost insignificant.
“I often read the columns of economist James Clingman, author of Blackonomics: The Way to Psychological and Economic Freedom for African Americans. For years Clingman has encouraged black folks across America to use the resources at their disposal, both financial and intellectual, to create and maintain jobs for their children by forming investment and loan pools and collective banking groups that can demand reciprocity from financial institutions. He encourages African Americans to break the cycle of seeking jobs from others rather than creating jobs for themselves. The initiative to establish a local black business owners association is a step in the right direction. And it’s one that should have been taken a long time ago.”
I wrote that 12 years ago. It could have been written yesterday. I wonder if it still will be as relevant in 12 more years.