BURLINGTON, N.C. (AP) - Lawrence Slade is defying a history that has denied some Black people the opportunity of owning a business.
Slade is the owner of L&M Barbershop on Rauhut Street in Burlington, North Carolina. When he opened in 1977, he did so in defiance of an effort to move Black businesses - for a second time - out of the city’s Black business district, called the Black Bottom.
The effort to redevelop Rauhut Street, like the effort to move the Black Bottom from its original home on Worth Street, was among countless examples in the 20th-century United States of government-sanctioned efforts to relocate Black-owned businesses or majority-Black housing districts in the name of improving communities.
Those actions have left a legacy that has lingered long into the 21st century.
Slade sees the success of his business as a battle in the fight against systemic racism, and a fight for business opportunities for all Black business owners in Burlington. He is hopeful that future Black entrepreneurs take the lessons learned from the Black Bottom to heart.
In nearby Graham, North Carolina, Dionne Liles owns a clothing store called The Muse. She says that it isn’t enough for Black business owners to simply conduct business. They also need a sense of what those who came before had to endure.
“Running a business, alone, is hard,” Liles said. “Running a business in Graham, it is what it is … business is thriving.”
Supporting Black-owned businesses is a way communities can fight a history that has put Black entrepreneurs on a very difficult hill to climb, she said.
“It should be at the top of our list, as far as fighting white supremacy in (Alamance County), supporting people of color that currently occupy space,” Liles said.
Liles is one of several activists working to change the racial landscape within Graham, Burlington and Alamance County. She was among a small group of residents who rose to national prominence in early November after police forcefully ended a march to the polls with pepper spray.
This incident was part of an ongoing effort to remove the county’s Confederate monument and the county’s current Sheriff Terry Johnson.
BLACK BOTTOM HAS SHARED HISTORY WITH OTHER BLACK BUSINESS DISTRICTS
Black business districts were once a relatively esoteric piece of American history, but they have become more widely understood thanks to recent depictions of Tulsa Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street in shows like The Watchmen and Lovecraft Country. Much more than just a collective of successful Black-owned businesses, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street has come to symbolize ingenuity in the face of deadly adversity and it’s far from the only one.
In neighborhoods throughout the country, Black-owned economic districts operated and thrived out of necessity thanks to Jim Crow and the entrenched racism that enabled it.
“There were certain restaurants that you couldn’t go into because they didn’t welcome Black people and if they did they had to go through the back door,” said Burlington resident and Director of Alamance County’s African American Cultural Arts and History Center Shineece Sellars. “For that reason, Black people had to create their own restaurants where they were welcome.”
While these economic districts didn’t all meet the same violent and abrupt end as Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, many of them no longer exist all the same. Factors ranging from the inordinate impact economic downturns have on Black American families and businesses to changing neighborhoods to Urban Renewal programs have tipped the precarious balance in these Black economic centers.
DISAPPEARANCE OF BLACK BOTTOM MADE OWNING A BUSINESS EVEN MORE IMPORTANT
In Burlington the dwindling status of the once-thriving hub has become a parable for the importance of owning space for a business rather than renting it. Few know this better than the remaining handful of people for whom the Black Bottom’s heyday is still within living memory.
“It was the move that killed it,” said Joseph Corbett, owner of Palace Barbershop and lifelong Black Bottom entrepreneur. “It was never the same after they started moving people out.”
At its height, the Black Bottom, located on and around Burlington’s Worth Street was a staple for Black life.
The history of Burlinton’s Black business district likely dates back as early as the 1800s when Wyatt Outlaw owned a business in the city’s downtown. References to the Black Bottom as a district date to the 1920s.
A former commissioner and law enforcement official, Wyatt Outlaw became a prominent and hyper-local civil rights figure following his murder by members of the Ku Klux Klan. As one of the earliest Black business owners in the area, Outlaw, along with his contemporaries, laid the Bottom’s foundation. Decades after Outlaw’s death, Black businesses congregated to Worth Street, the Black Bottom’s first home, according to Sellars.
REVITALIZATION WAS TOOL TO BREAK UP THE BUSINESS DISTRICT
But in the 1960s and 1970s, the city decided it wanted to redevelop the area.
Over the course of a decade, Burlington’s Black Bottom migrated, piecemeal, to Rauhut Street. To people like Slade, the owner of L&M Barbershop, the city’s effort to dismantle the Black Bottom signified the beginning of a slowly approaching end.
“Some businesses made the transition while others couldn’t,” Slade said, while reminiscing about the Black Bottom inside his shop.
A self portrait taken from his younger years, decorates his somewhat cluttered work station. Although older, echoes of his younger self still remain etched into his genial face.
“People tried to make the transition,” Slade said. “But a lot couldn’t.”
At its height on Worth Street the Black Bottom had around eight businesses. Those that could make the transition, did, Corbett said. But today all that remains are Slade’s and Corbett’s respective barbershops and a nearby food mart.
Slade credits his business’ survival to the fact he owns the building he operates in, a single story, two-roomed brick building with an eroded front sign. It’s an unassuming building but, most importantly, it’s his.
Faiger Blackwell Sr., a prominent local businessman, agrees with Slade’s sentiments about building ownership.
“You can’t build equity in what you have if you are leasing it,” Blackwell said. “The person that owns it builds the equity … and you can’t pass on what you don’t build.”
The founder of Blackwell funeral home, Blackwell said it’s up to existing Black business owners to encourage and equip the next generation of black entrepreneurship, particularly in the absence of communities like the Black Bottom and Black Wall Street.
“We need to look at how to build bridges,” Blackwell said. “I’ve always been a bridge builder. It’s important for companies to join hands to help elevate communities.”
Blackwell hopes to accomplish this via the Blackwell Institute, a means to reach out to young black people who hope to become entrepreneurs. Blackwell said it’s up to Black business owners to propagate the tradition of Black ownership.
“It’s important Black businesses support others,” Blackwell said. “If I don’t help others attain…how can they get to where they need to be. I do this for the cohesiveness.”
‘I WANTED TO MAKE SURE A PIECE OF THE BLACK BOTTOM ‘REMAINED”
Slade knows the importance of getting help from the older generation. When he first started he worked for another barbershop owner for more than a decade, learning the ins and outs of running his own shop.
“I worked at the barbershop from May 1964 until 1977,” Slade said. “Then, it was OK Barbershop.”
In 1977, Slade struck out on his own opening L&M Barbershop. At the time, Slade leased a space next to another business.”
This was immediately before town officials tried to move the Black Bottom for the second time. Information taken from a 1974 database show’s Burlington was one of several towns across the country that received urban renewal funding. In Burlington’s case, though it doesn’t specify if these funds were earmarked for the relocation and redevelopment of the Rauhut Black Bottom, the town did receive $298,372.”
At the time, Burlington was undergoing what Slade described as growing pains. He said the town wanted to further develop and, like Worth Street before it, Rauhut was an ideal location for new development.
Rauhut’s status as the new Black Bottom was in jeopardy. A second move would have been too much for many of the remaining businesses.
Slade said that while many outside the community felt a second move wouldn’t be as difficult as the first, the members of the new Black Bottom disagreed.
Developers at that time would find it difficult clearing out Rauhut in the same way they did Worth Street. Many of the business owners had taken to heart the importance of taking complete ownership of their businesses and in the years between the Black Bottom’s transition from Worth Street to Rauhut Street, they had done just that.
This time around, each of the business owners were offered cash buyouts. Some refused while others didn’t. Slade took the offered $5,000 and purchased his current location, on Rauhut Street. Though the cash offer was an incentive to move, Slade said he wanted to send a message, to those who believed black businesses were dispensable. He used that money to establish himself in the location he remains to this day.
“At the time, I thought it was a fair amount, since I didn’t own the building,” Slade said. “I wanted to make sure a piece of the Black Bottom (remained) on Rauhut Street. I can do that now that I own the building.”
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.