By Ray Gronberg | Photography by Beth Mann
At the start of the 20th century, Durham’s Black Wall Street, an African-American business sector with few peers, commanded the attention of no less a personage than civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois. Looking around, Du Bois saw about 200 enterprises, everything from groceries and shoe stores to banks and insurance companies, all doing business with one another.
More than 100 years later, desegregation and recession have wilted a Black Wall Street once synonymous with thriving spaces like Parrish Street and Hayti, and the city’s vibrant revival has failed to spread proportionally to minority-owned businesses. According to “Business Diversity in Downtown Durham,” a recent report by Downtown Durham Inc. (DDI), African-Americans make up 33% of Durham residents, but only 3.5% of downtown businesses are owned by African-Americans.
“We at DDI are dismayed and alarmed at those figures,” Nicole Thompson, the organization’s president, wrote in the report, which laid out initiatives to address them.
But some prominent entrepreneurs have already been working to ensure that black residents gain a larger share of the city’s prosperity. It is critical, they say, to establish “Black Wall Street”
as a state of mind, one that re-creates and expands the social and business ties that supported the original black- owned businesses here, like the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Mechanics & Farmers Bank.
“There are resources and relationships that people need in order to be successful,” said Doug Speight, formerly of American Underground (AU), which merged in January with the Triangle networking company Big Top. (Speight announced in early March he was moving on to start a new venture with another AU founder.)
“Those two lanes, if you will, can either constrict or aid growth. Particularly, the relationship side of the equation is undervalued.”
Speight, a Durham native and serial entrepreneur, terms AU an “industry agnostic” business incubator that’s nurturing more than 220 startups in Durham and Raleigh.
He said that 82% of them generate revenue – as opposed to living off venture capital as they perfect their business model – and that 54% are cash-flow positive.
But, just as important, he said, is that women head 31% of the startups and that people of color run 32%.
That’s a departure from the early days of American Underground, when such percentages “were in the low single digits,” Speight said.
He credited his predecessor Adam Klein and Klein’s top aides for seeking to make AU “the world’s most diverse tech hub.” As of September, AU accounted for 81 of the 152 minority-owned businesses that operate in Durham, Nicole Thompson said.
As a centerpiece of its effort, American Underground has teamed with the Google for Entrepreneurs program the last three years to host weeklong “Black Founders Exchange” seminars, pairing black startup owners with local mentors and potential investors. So far, 30 startups have attended the seminars and about half have secured some funding.
The exchange was scheduled to coincide with the annual Black Wall Street: Homecoming, a major networking initiative orchestrated in part by Tobias Rose, the founder and creative director of Parrish Street’s Kompleks Creative graphic design and web development agency.
The collaboration, Speight said, creates “this huge magnet for black entrepreneurs to come to Durham, in a way neither program individually could do.”
Black Wall Street: Homecoming, which debuted in 2015, is “meant to plant seeds,” Rose said, not only by highlighting Jim Crow’s residual effects on the business sector, but also by helping participants develop the connections that best fit their companies. Because venture capitalists and bankers in the Bay Area and in New York are well aware of Durham’s growth, Rose said, the area is primed for developing a sustainable network.
Farad Ali, former president of The Institute, says he is eager see what sort of community and business-sector leadership emerges from these collaborations during the next stage of the city’s growth.
In downtown, “things were always happening because people were planning, aligning their piece of the puzzle, so when you looked at the puzzle as a whole, you’re like, ‘That’s pretty,’” Ali said. “Currently, we have different puzzle pieces that may or may not be mature, that may or may not be engaged in the same space.
“It’s almost like a new marketplace for economic development.”
But, as important as networking is, Rose and other leaders say, it isn’t enough.
Gloria Shealey, president and CEO of The Daniele Company, a construction management company that has worked on projects for Duke University, UNC and the City of Durham, says that black business owners need to own the buildings in their communities as well.
In the physical space, Shealey said, “the owner dictates,” and can be a huge driver of diversity. “If you’ve got an owner who has a mindset and a commitment and an initiative around an inclusive approach,” she added, then “that’s going to be built into the contractual document, it’s going to be part of the deal. Then it’s going to be up to the owner to make sure it’s not just words on paper.”
Dorian Bolden is one of these owners.
Bolden opened the popular Beyu Caffe in 2009, but six years later, he said in a telephone interview, rapidly rising rents threatened survival.
So he bought a nearby building in Five Points and moved his business there.
Owning the building, he said, allowed him to grow his mission to maintain Durham’s “cultural vibrancy” and to create “the ultimate community gathering place,” his own version of the social network so vital to Black Wall Street.
It also freed him from many of the financial distractions that can consume a small business owner under lease.
“When you’re stressed about the financial side of it,” he said, “you don’t always get to make the best business decisions that can be good for the community.”
But, perhaps more importantly, he said, property ownership means controlling who moves into that building when it’s time to sell, imbuing the diversity ideal into the physical space itself and through to the next generation. It “provides a sense of legacy,” he said.
So, then, as a small business owner who owns his building downtown and who has a full commitment to diversity and to the Black Wall Street state of mind, does he think the city is making progress?
Bolden sighed on the phone, a busy cafe bustling in the background.
“Time will tell,” he said after a moment. “Time will tell.”