SPECIAL REPORT: Who Will Help Black Businesses Amidst COVID-19?

By Doni Glover, Publisher
Unapologetically Black: Doni Glover Autobiography
Thursdays at Midnight on WEAA 88.9 FM

(WASHINGTON – October 2, 2020) – “Printing has been in our family for several generations … it’s in our blood,” says Time Printers‘ President, Al Maddox Jr. His grandfather, Gabriel B. Maddox Sr., under the guidance of Booker T. Washington, was the first instructor in printing and established the first printing shop at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. He then came to Baltimore from Augusta, Georgia. In 1907, he opened a small family-owned print shop that quickly became a cornerstone in Baltimore’s business community.

Today, Maddox – like every other business owner in America – has too found his Black family-owned business faced with otherwise unforeseeable difficulties. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, conducting business has been a challenge for many entrepreneurs and business owners across America. In the Black business community, it has been particularly difficult for a number of reasons.

One major complaint is that Black businesses did not reap relief opportunities at the same level as their white counterparts in terms of government aid; some argue that by the time Black businesses got to the banks, the stimulus money was all gone. Other Black businesses simply did not want any loans nor any funding with strings attached, strings often buried in the fine print. Still, there were other Black business owners who did not have their tax records straight; therefore, they were not able to take advantage of available opportunities. And then, there were those businesses that simply closed, including those that primarily targeted indoor events.

Maddox personally believes that Black businesses are 10 times more disaffected.

In a recent Philadelphia Tribune article, “U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. president says Philadelphia Black-owned businesses need help” by Ayonna Jones, the national Black Chambers chief was quoted.

“Historically when we’ve talked about challenges for Black businesses and Black communities, the solutions have always been about minority and inclusion diversity programs,” U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. (USBC) President and CEO Ron Busby said during a webinar held on Tuesday by the Center City District.

“You can’t say that all boats are going to rise when you’re painting a broad brush because when you include diversity programs, it’s not hitting the businesses in the communities that have been hit the hardest. Black businesses were hit twice as hard as any other ethnic community in America so at this particular point in time, it has to be intentional. It can’t be about minority. It’s got to be about Black.”

On the other hand, there were indeed some Black businesses that haven’t skipped a beat. Some even benefitted from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

So, there are mixed responses.

“As the saying goes, when White America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia,” said Kenny Brown. Brown publishes a Black-owned newspaper in Northwest Baltimore County called The Northwest Voice.

Reaching some 15,000 readers in normal times, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly disrupted his regular flow. He said that he’s been forced to cut-back on how many copies he prints, but that he’s optimistic he’ll soon be back in stride.

This is not to minimize the damage the pandemic has wreaked. Many businesses, Black and white, have had to close their doors. Yet, there is this general consensus nationally that while relief efforts have helped white businesses, Black businesses have not been so fortunate.

Both Maddox and Brown say that they have had to turn-on-the-dime and readjust their businesses’ strategies to focus on what works in the here and now.

Regina Smith, Executive Director of the Harlem Business Alliance and a co-founder the Black Business Empowerment Commission, completely understands their plight. A straight-shooter born and raised in Harlem who never fails to tell it like it is, Smith’s been fighting for Black businesses for quite some time and certainly has a thought or two on the topic. She believes that the onus is on the entire Black community to help remedy the harm caused to Black businesses by COVID.

When asked for immediate solutions, Smith said, “PHD!” She stated, “We need to purchase Black, hire Black, and deposit Black.”

For the past several months, she and other members of the Black Business Empowerment Commission have hosted several national Zoom calls to bring issues facing Black businesses to light.

She added, “Our Black elected officials must also be held accountable for promoting policies around economic justice for Black people. And it’s up to Black people to hold them accountable. You see, there can be no social justice without economic justice. Mind you, improving our economic well-being can positively impact every other issue we’re faced with on a daily basis, including racist policing in our communities.”

Long story short, Smith believes that “we have to help ourselves.”

And that’s exactly what Terence Dickson, owner of Terra Café Bmore (101 E. 25th St., Baltimore), has done. As his restaurant had to transition to more carry-outs and deliveries versus full indoor seating, Dickson has not only concreted his back patio for future business, but he has also started a new business and a new non-profit business as well. One of his key aims is to help Black businesses. One major step he is taking is building a business incubator.

Another Baltimore restaurateur, Naijha Brown (Land of Kush), has also had to shift her focus. In addition to her vegan restaurant expansion, she and another partner (Brenda) usually put on their annual Vegan Soul Fest. Thanks to COVID, that didn’t happen. She has since shifted her extra time to developing the Black Vegetarian Society of Maryland.

Like many entrepreneurs, Brown is a serial entrepreneur and has made it her business to stay focused on multiple streams of income. Brown, along with the other Black business owners mentioned, have this incredible super human inner-strength that refuses to be destroyed by COVID or anything else for that matter.

Their collective plea, though, is that things could be easier if we all pull together. If Black businesses are to survive these trying times, it is going to take all parties involved to do their part. Black elected officials have a critical role to play. Black consumers (of all ages) have a role, as well. And so does the US government. History confirms, however, that Black business owners better not wait on the cavalry because the Black community is typically the last stop it makes – if it makes it there at all.

When asked who is helping Black businesses in Maryland, restaurateur Casey Jenkins’ initial response was “Nobody!” Then, he said, “A good example is Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.”

Lt. Gov. Rutherford has been a long-time advocate for Black businesses – including during his days as administrator of the enterprise development office at the US General Services Administration under Pres. George Bush, Jr.

“I’m trying to help Black businesses,” said Rutherford. He said that this has always been important to him because “people in the community are more likely to hire the people who look like them.”