Trends of growth and feelings of optimism amid a changing cityscape
By Orlando Watson | Photography by John Michael Simpson
There’s an exhibit at the entrance to the Tower at Mutual Plaza, a historic landmark and once the tallest building in Durham, that refuses to be ignored. A multimedia display chronicles Durham’s Black business community – one that developed and sustained both the nation’s largest and oldest Black-owned insurance company, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance as well as the second-oldest Black-owned bank, Mechanics and Farmers Bank.
Those two institutions set Durham apart from other cities with economic centers known as Black Wall Street and earned praise from both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. When Du Bois visited in 1912, he noted that the Black community’s “social and economic development [was] perhaps more striking than that of any similar group in the nation.” There are other well-known Black Wall Streets – Tulsa, Oklahoma, comes to mind. But Durham has the unique distinction of its largest businesses – NC Mutual and M&F Bank – still present in the city nearly a century later. The credit belongs to ongoing community support for Black businesses coupled with the optimism and resilience of Durham’s striving Black entrepreneurs who would not be deterred despite the hostility of racism and tragedy of urban renewal projects in the 1960s, like N.C. Hwy. 147, which displaced more than 4,000 households and 500 businesses.
I also toured Provident1898 – a coworking community and self-described “reimagination of one of Durham’s most historic landmark buildings, located beneath the corporate lobby of the Tower. My guide was Justin Minott, founder of Nolia Coffee, now Nolia Market. “Alone, you can go fast; together, we go far,” he said while reflecting on the legacy of Black Wall Street.
“We have not quite tapped back into the power of togetherness, the power of proximity and the power of collisions that happen when we’re in similar spaces,” Minott said. “This place, especially here in the historic North Carolina Mutual building, has the potential to be that for people.”
Provident1898 hosts an event series to build community among the multiracial alliance of businesses and business-support organizations operating within its doors. Memorabilia and signage of businesses from a bygone era are sprinkled throughout the coworking hub and serve as portals to Durham’s past. An art exhibit featuring Claire Alexandre’s “Of Soil and Sky,” co-organized by Provident1898 and 21c Museum Hotel, graces the walls, wrapping passersby in an embrace. Provident1898, like the Tower lobby exhibit, shares the stories of Black businesses in Durham – both past and present – and invites people to contribute to its next chapter.
That next chapter could be titled, “City on the Rise.” Ranked alongside Raleigh as the No. 2 best place to live in the country by U.S. News & World Report – moving up nine spots from last year – Durham is experiencing rapid population growth, driven largely by tech companies opening offices here. These changes present both opportunity and a challenge for the future of Black business in Durham.
When Dorian Bolden opened the doors to Beyu Caffé in 2009, he was determined to provide an atmosphere that attracted a diverse community in need. “Some folks were really into coffee and some really into jazz and spoken word, so we were able to bring the two together, and it became this melting pot,” he said. Dorian had some seed capital from investors, including a local Black angel investor network, but primarily funded the restaurant through debt finance and had “no choice but to hit the ground running,” he said.
In 2015, Dorian purchased a building downtown on West Main Street and raised an additional round of funding in 2019 led by Resilient Ventures, which is focused on investing in Black and brown entrepreneurs.
Today, Dorian’s business has expanded into meal delivery with the Beyu Food Project. His team now consists of more than 60 members who have served 300,000-plus meals to families facing food insecurity as well as front-line health care workers. He opened two retail locations in 2021, one near Duke Law School and the other in Research Triangle Park at Boxyard RTP. Dorian’s positive community impact and ambitious expansion across the area builds upon the legacy of Durham’s Black Wall Street.
Ellis D. Jones & Sons is a family-owned and -operated funeral business that was founded in 1935 during Durham’s Black Wall Street era. It remains open today, managed by Nina Jones Mason. Her great-grandfather left Georgia for Durham “because of its thriving Black business community in the South,” she said.
As Durham’s landscape changed over the years, Jones Mason’s family business adapted. “We had to grow and be a business that was accessible to people who moved here from other places.”
Aside from Ellis D. Jones & Sons, now run by the fourth generation of the family, the last of the legacy businesses from the Black Wall Street era in existence today include NC Mutual, M&F Bank and Scarborough & Hargett Celebration of Life Center. According to a national report from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, 40% of Black businesses shut their doors in 2020, like The Carolina Times, a Black-owned newspaper, which ceased publication after nearly a century in business. But this statistic perhaps doesn’t tell the entire story.
“Black entrepreneurs are a community of people who adjust and will make it work,” Jones Mason said. “Many of those people probably started doing something else.”
One such person who adjusted and expanded her business was Dr. C. Nicole Swiner, co-owner of Durham Family Medicine, which celebrated its 11th year in operation. “I blame Durham for pushing me to do something I wouldn’t have, which is to go into business and become an entrepreneur.”
Dr. Swiner balances family life along with multiple businesses – including her medical practice, a mobile wellness service launched in 2020 and a publishing company; the latter has seen tremendous growth with more people turning to writing during quarantine.
When asked what makes Durham different from some of its counterpart cities, she explained, “There’s a shared understanding of the importance of supporting its people. Black Lives Matter and Black Wall Street seem to be citywide and not just for Black folks.”
The diverse range of Black businesses in Durham – from banks and insurance companies to funeral homes, medical practices, coffee shops and restaurants – maintain the legacy of Black Wall Street and contribute to Durham’s rich cultural heritage. In recent years, the emergent tech sector has also begun to write itself into this history.
Startup hub and coworking space American Underground hosts the Black Founders Exchange, an accelerator program in partnership with Google for Startups. Designed to help close the funding gap for Black-led tech startups, BFE selects promising founders and, prior to COVID-19, brought them together in Durham to connect them to resources, capital and community.
Now in its sixth year, the Black Founders Exchange has demonstrated a track record of success. According to AU Director Adam Klein, BFE alumni have raised more than $750,000 in funding, and revenue growth for their businesses skyrocketed 38 times over the past 12 months alone. Both of these measures – funding and revenue – are often viewed as barometers of health for tech companies.
For alumna Naya Powell, founder of Utopia Spa & Global Wellness and recent recipient of a $100,000 investment from the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund, success was not possible without the hardships she fought and overcame.
Powell faced a decision about the future of her company during the height of the pandemic. “At that moment, it took pressing ‘pause’ for a minute and being in prayer, [and] reaching out to my advisory board and founder network,” she recalls.
Powell pivoted her business from delivering spa services at corporate events to offering an in-home, on-demand holistic living product – think Peloton for wellness. “As Black entrepreneurs, we’re survivors, but [we] want to be in a place where we’re thrivers,” Powell said. “We’ve scaled to become a global company during the pandemic, now servicing clients on four continents.”
The City of Durham, much like Powell, still achieved growth despite a devastating year. In downtown Durham alone, 240,000 square feet of office space and 800 residential units were developed, 27 restaurants and shops opened their doors, and more than $200 million of private and public investment poured in during 2020. According to the State of Durham report released by Downtown Durham Inc. in April 2021, this growth trend is expected to continue.
How Durham responds to the opportunity and challenge of building upon the legacy of Black Wall Street amid a wave of change is its most crucial test. The people who live here can honor Durham’s culture through interest and understanding of its Black businesses, both past and present, along with active participation in its future.
When I asked Dorian, who spoke to me from his downtown cafe, “What does the future of Durham look like for Black business?” he paused, leaned forward in his chair and replied, “It’s up to us.”