Nahaz Rogers, a 68-year-old south sider, never eats at fast-food franchises.
Well, almost never. “I took somebody to a Burger King once, but a McDonald’s–no, no way.”
Actually, that’s not quite right. “Let me add something. When my brother and I go downtown, we do go to the 50s McDonald’s for a cup of tea. That way, we can park for free.”
Rogers tries to spend all his money with black-owned businesses. It isn’t easy. He lives in Morgan Park, but when he buys groceries he travels some 40 blocks north and east to the Food Basket, Hopkins Foodmart, or Chatham Foods–all black-owned businesses in Chatham, as is Kham & Nate’s, where he buys clothes. He bought his car, a black 1984 Cadillac Eldorado, from Al Johnson Cadillac, his tires from a “black brother” on 75th Street. His life-insurance company is black-owned, as is the cab company he calls when he has to get to the airport (Abernathy’s Jiffy). His tailor, his barber, his attorney, and his doctor are all black, and so, of course, are the proprietors of the soul-food restaurants he prefers to McDonald’s and Burger King: Gladys’ Soul Food, Army and Lou’s, Izola’s.
“You might as well be back in slavery if you’re working to benefit white folks,” Rogers says. “You’re sharecropping if what you produce ends up with somebody else. And most blacks are sharecroppers. Blacks in Chicago go to Evergreen Plaza to shop. They go to Oak Brook. If they stay in the community, they buy from white stores. For groceries, they buy from Jewel or Dominick’s. For shoes, from Payless or Chandler’s or Chernin’s. But not me. I buy black, because that’s the only way we are going to become powerful.
“What I tell black folks is, if you want to do something for yourself, get rich. That way you can control your resources, the land, the institutions that affect your life. Then you are able to deal with the other races in an equal fashion. Otherwise, you’re a guest at the table. You’re just eating other people’s crumbs.”
Rogers gets offended if a waitress is rude to him in a black eatery because he thinks she’s giving her employer–and black owners in general–a bad name.
But Rogers bought health insurance from the American Association of Retired Persons because, he says, “as a senior citizen you get a tremendous break.” He is also occasionally forced to buy things at the Walgreens at 87th and California. But if black merchants can get him what he wants, he’ll buy from them. “I went to a black brother’s hardware store for a thing for my hot-water tank. The brother didn’t have the thing, and he suggested I go to a white hardware store to get it. I said to the brother, “I’m just going to wait until the thing comes in.”‘
At Christmas, he says, “When I gave my presents, I had the satisfaction to know that I’d spent exactly $10.95 in a nonblack facility.” He’d had to purchase a warming device for a pot for his brother and his wife at Sears, a fact that still pains him.
Rogers is a consultant to the president of the Black Economic Network, a group formed just last year to bring about economic self-sufficiency by fostering black entrepreneurship and encouraging blacks to buy from blacks. The goal of black economic power is an old one, but it has yet to catch fire. Buying black, says Consuelo Pope, president of the predominantly black Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce, “has always been problematic with us.” Hurley Green, editor and publisher of the Chicago Independent Bulletin, says, “We just haven’t been motivated to think much of ourselves businesswise.” To succeed, say proponents of black economic empowerment, African American consumers must overcome many ingrained biases. “We have to change the whole mind-set of black folks,” says Rogers. “But I think maybe, at last, we’re on our way.”
Hosea Rogers, Nahaz’s father, was born in 1896 in Athens, Alabama. He migrated to Chicago and became a jack-of-all-trades–a carpenter, building contractor, grocery-store owner, and publisher of a Morgan Park newspaper. In the 40s and 50s he organized a Morgan Park summer festival that drew blacks from around the midwest.
As a young man, Hosea Rogers was an eager follower of Marcus Garvey, the regal Jamaican-born founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
The Harlem-based UNIA, which flourished in the early 1920s, had as its mission the uniting of “all the Negro peoples of the world into one great body to establish a country and government distinctly of its own.” The UNIA’s battle cry–“One Aim! One God! One Destiny!”–spoke of racial pride and self-sufficiency. “Let us not waste time in breathless appeals to the strong while we are weak,” Garvey said, “but lend our time, energy, and effort to the accumulation of strength among ourselves, by which we will voluntarily attract the attention of others.” Garvey set up UNIA branches around the country, encouraged black emigration to Liberia, and organized various businesses, among them a chain of grocery stores, a restaurant, a laundry, and the Black Star Line, which at one time had 35 steamers. The UNIA had its own religious denomination, the African Orthodox Church, which pictured Christ and the Madonna as black. Membership in the UNIA cost 35 cents a month; at its height, in 1923, the organization claimed six million members.
“My father believed in Garvey’s message,” says Rogers, who was given an African tribal name to mark his father’s devotion to the movement. “My father said constantly that we as Negroes had to be about the business of uplifting our own people if we were ever to be equal.” Hosea spread that message in talks he gave around Chicago under the UNIA banner; he remained devoted to Garvey’s memory until he died 22 years ago.
Garvey, who died in 1940, was disgraced after he was convicted of mail fraud in conjunction with the financial collapse of the Black Star Line. But his dream of economic nationalism was echoed in the views of other black leaders. In his final speech–delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, in support of a sanitation workers’ strike–Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” Then he hinted that he might not live long. Had he survived, the speech might well be known for another passage, which called for black economic empowerment. King advised his listeners that if the city’s white power structure refused to deal fairly with the garbage workers, blacks should withhold their dollars from white-run companies. Don’t buy Coca-Cola in Memphis, he said. Don’t buy Wonder Bread. “As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now only the garbage men have been feeling the pain. Now we must redistribute the pain.” Put your money in the black-owned Tri-State Bank, he said. “You have six or seven black insurance companies in Memphis. Take your insurance there. We have to have an ‘insurance-in.’
“Now these are some practical things we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.”
Other leaders had a similar message, notably the Black Muslim leaders Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan. In its first years in Chicago, Operation Breadbasket used to promote “Black Christmas” and “Black Easter,” calling on blacks to do their holiday shopping in the neighborhoods, not downtown.
The message of black empowerment was imbedded in Nahaz Rogers’s soul. He made periodic trips to Africa and operated a printing firm in Gary, Indiana, during the tenure of Mayor Richard Hatcher, the city’s first black mayor. He beams at the memory of having been a Gary entrepreneur in the years after his good friend took power.
While many African American leaders continued to pay lip service to the necessity of “buying black,” the real support for it waned with the 1970s. Operation PUSH, Breadbasket’s successor, continued to tout black businesses, yet it made its focus affirmative-action agreements, or covenants as they were later called, with white companies. Thirteen such covenants are now in effect, according to the Reverend George Riddick, the venerable Operation PUSH vice president who helped negotiate most of them. The covenants apply to corporations such as Chrysler, Ford, Miller Brewing, Coca-Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and WBBM TV, and have benefited blacks and their firms by $2.8 billion, Riddick says.
Yet black consumer patterns remained the same. In 1989 blacks earned $260 billion in income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But black-owned businesses posted only $21.6 billion in receipts–a mere 8.6 percent of total black income–according to the consulting firm Brimmer & Company, which is based in Washington, D.C. Common estimates are that 90 percent or more of African American income flows out of the community and away from black merchants. George Riddick likes to say that the average dollar spent by an African American goes around less than once before bouncing out of the black community, though a dollar will circulate 17 times in a tight-knit Asian neighborhood before exiting.
Ironically, before the civil rights movement blacks tended to be unwelcome outside their own neighborhoods and shopped on segregated strips. Integration changed that. “With civil rights the white folks said, ‘OK, you are free now, Negroes, so bring us your dollars,'” says Earnestine Rice, director of organizational development at the Black Economic Network. “So we ran to the white guys’ stores, forgetting our brothers’ places.”
Now the malls beckon. “Blacks drive west to the suburban malls as fast as they can,” says Hurley Green, whose office on West 95th Street affords him a view of the shoppers coursing away from the south side to Evergreen Plaza. “The malls are nice, the people are nice, and there’s more selection and less crime.” Because the large chains do volume business, the prices at the malls tend to be lower than those at independent black establishments. “We also rely more on credit,” says Consuelo Pope, “and the tendency is to shop where you can use plastic.” Small black businesses, she says, can’t afford to pay the service fees for credit cards. The large chains can also tolerate losses a small operator can’t. “A Sears or a K mart can deal readily with disputes,” says Nate Parker, co-owner of Kham & Nate’s. “If you buy an item from Sears, six months later you can bring it back, no questions asked. For a small community retailer, to have to accept something after six months is the kiss of death.”
Activists also say many African Americans have been taught to shop white. “Negroes have been trained by the schools they go to, by the TV they watch, by the radio they listen to–that it’s better to spend their money in white institutions,” says Rogers. “In a deeper sense, they have been taught to despise anything that’s black. See, everything that is white is portrayed as better, and black folks believe it. They think if they put their money in a black bank, it will disappear. That the produce at a black grocery is ill kept, and that the staff there won’t treat them nice. They think that ice bought from a white vendor is colder than ice bought from the black guy.”
The “ice is colder” metaphor is frequently used to explain African American shopping patterns. “From slavery we have been taught to be servants,” says Webb Evans, president of the United American Progress Association, a Chicago-based group that has been trying to foster black consumerism for 30 years. “We were taught to obey white people. Our churches taught us not to get involved in business. When we did, whites directed us toward cooking chitlins and running beauty- and barbershops. Hurley Green cracks, “We specialize in the three Bs–barbershops, beauty shops, and barbecue places.” (There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., with revenues of more than $200 million annually, is the second most profitable black business in the nation, according to Black Enterprise magazine. Seaway National Bank, with $150 million in assets, ranks as the top black financial institution in the nation; Independence Bank is fourth.)
Black businesspeople gripe that they suffer unfairly for the sins of their peers, a phenomenon unknown to the white merchant. “What happens is a person will shop with me and have a bad experience,” says Chris Dukes, president of R.L. Dukes Oldsmobile. “After they have the bad experience, they will swear off all black car dealers. Now is that right? If they have a bad experience at Toys “R” Us, they don’t swear off all white toy stores or even all Toys “R” Us stores–only the particular one that treated them lousy.”
Dukes’s business has certainly been hurt because blacks haven’t sought him out. R.L. Dukes is the only black Olds agency in the Chicago area. It was founded by Dukes’s father Rufus in 1971, and sits on the edge of the Dan Ryan Expressway at 78th Street. After Rufus died a couple of years ago, Chris Dukes noted the declining sales and considered relocating to the suburbs. He decided against it. “My family had built this business here, and I felt we should stay,” he says. Stay he has, but the agency’s bottom line has continued to take a beating. At one time in the 70s, annual revenues in sales, parts, and service hit $17 million; now they are down to $7 million, and for the last three years the agency has lost money.
Dukes believes the losses are due to a number of factors, notably heightened competition, the slowdown in Chicago steel production–and a bias black buyers have against coming to R.L. Dukes. According to Dukes, 3.3 percent of the 23,600 Oldsmobiles sold in the Chicago area and Peoria in the first half of 1988 were purchased by blacks. That amounts to about 780 cars. “But I sold 100 cars over that time, and 99 percent of my customers were black. If I could have gotten 30 percent of the black market, I’d be doing fine. I’d be able to donate more of my earnings and income to causes that help blacks. I’d be able to hire more blacks in management. At this point, I can’t. Too many people run off to the suburbs.”
Dukes says African Americans often pull into his lot to solicit a charitable donation–driving an Oldsmobile bearing the sticker of another dealership. When the person approaches him with hopes of getting a gift, Dukes explains, “I’ll have to check my list and see if you’re a customer, because I make it a practice to do business with people who do business with me.” The solicitor invariably grows sheepish, says Dukes, “but he doesn’t offer any explanation as to why he isn’t shopping with me.”
In October 1987 a group of 50 black activists went on a one-day retreat. Those who attended were a mix of community organizers, Muslims, socialists, and Jews, but not mainstream politicians. They discussed politics, racism, religion, family, and economics. “We all went out on a bus together and spent the whole day, from eight to eight, talking,” says Ellis May, an attorney. “The one conclusion that came out of the retreat was that the issue of economics had to be addressed.”
Shortly after the retreat Harold Washington died, and the subsequent quarrel between the Evans and Sawyer factions of the black political movement took attention away from an economic agenda. But discussions of that issue continued in restaurants, living rooms, and over the phone throughout 1988. “We had put all those politicians into office, and our economic condition hadn’t improved,” says Anne Terrell-Harper, now president of the Black Economic Network. In the spring of 1989 BEN was incorporated.
The organization’s kickoff event occurred at the Public Library Cultural Center on June 19, known to African Americans as “Juneteenth,” the day in 1863 that word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached slaves in Texas. Nearly 300 people attended. In her keynote address Terrell-Harper spoke of the need for African Americans to bring about “economic emancipation.”
BEN members came up with an action plan whose ten tenets all spoke to building economic power. They would publish a directory of black businesses, organize “buy-ins,” operate quarterly open-air markets, cooperate to get bank loans, and run seminars and joint advertising programs.
Some people have suggested that BEN’s strategies were separatist. “It’s not separatist when Jews or Poles keep their money in their own communities,” responds Lewis Meyers, a civil rights lawyer who has been active with Operation PUSH and the Nation of Islam. “The Irish have always helped their own brothers and sisters. Only when we talk about this does the subject of race lurk in the background, like a hawk with its tongue out.”
BEN’s first public effort was a campaign to convince consumers to buy black. Chris Dukes sponsored the campaign, which began last September 17 at his R.L. Dukes dealership. The showroom was filled with supporters, and there was food and entertainment. Dukes pledged that anyone who presented him with $200 in receipts from black merchants before the campaign ended on December 17 would be paid a rebate of $50 by BEN.
The buy-black campaign was touted on black radio stations, although the drive suffered from having no paid advertising except for some T-shirts and buttons that were distributed. Buy-black meetings also occurred in churches and halls. “We didn’t talk about where people shouldn’t shop, ’cause we weren’t being racist,” says Terrell-Harper. “We talked about where they should shop. Go to the black beauty shop, we’d suggest. Go to the black car dealership.”
Yet in three months only four people materialized at R.L. Dukes to claim a rebate. “We expected more,” admits Dukes. Terrell-Harper was disappointed too, but she insists the consciousness of people was raised. “Now there was conversation. The emphasis on buying black picked up across the board.” Even Dukes picked up a few sales.
BEN also started hosting Saturday-morning meetings at Kennedy-King College to encourage entrepreneurs to help one another and to stir the ambitions of students. The meetings led to the Holiday Harambee Trade Fair–harambee is the Swahili word for “coming together”–over a weekend in mid-December. Scores of merchants–clothiers, furniture dealers, craftsmen, and greeting-card distributors–came to show their wares. Louis Farrakhan and Tony Brown, of Tony Brown’s Journal on PBS, spoke.
Seamstress Johnnie M. Moore exhibited at the fair and so impressed a group of BEN members that 30 of them have agreed to buy from her. Moore has had a fabric store on the same corner in Grand Crossing for eight years, and until now she has been limping along. “When blacks think of a fabric store, they get in their cars and head for the suburbs,” she says. Now she dreams of a time when her designs–dresses piped in gold and silver, and dashikis trimmed in leather–will be worn all over the city.
BEN recently elected a new chairman–George Johnson, a large, amiable man of 42 who manufactures croutons. To many, he exemplifies the new drive for economic parity. But ironically, his fortunes are wedded to the fortunes of the fast-food restaurants Nahaz Rogers makes it a point to avoid.
“In August of 1986 I was working for the Miller Brewing Company,” says Johnson. “The company had moved me six times in nine years. I was regional sales manager for the northern Pacific region. I was six months away from being fully vested in the company retirement program, but I had always had this itch to do something on my own. And somebody suddenly scratched the itch.”
The McDonald’s purchasing department was then searching for minority contractors to fulfill its affirmative-action goals; Johnson estimates some 20 percent of the chain’s domestic sales are to blacks. McDonald’s officials, Johnson, and an associate of his, David Moore, who was in market development for Miller in Los Angeles, agreed that McDonald’s would launch Johnson and Moore as manufacturers of croutons for new salads the chain was phasing in.
“Here McDonald’s took two guys, me and David, with no track record in manufacturing, no interest in croutons–I disliked them myself–and they made us into subcontractors. And the whole thing was done with a handshake. McDonald’s has this incredible relationship with its suppliers. Some say it’s like with the Mafia–once you’re inside the family, everything is taken care of.”
When it came to financing, Johnson says, the American National Bank approached them. Moore and Johnson had determined that they would need $1.4 million to launch the venture and that they could contribute $200,000 of that. “We had a half-hour meeting,” marvels Johnson, “and out of the blue the bank offered us a million six.”
A 37,000-square-foot building in Bridgeport, a former pork-processing plant, became the headquarters for Quality Croutons, Inc. Now the space is devoted to the oiling, spicing, and double baking of half-inch cubes of bread. The company’s six packaging machines can pump out 900 packages of McDonald’s-style croutons a minute. (McDonald’s croutons are made from a dense bread that yields a harder-than-normal crunch.)
McDonald’s projected that Quality Croutons would furnish half the chain’s crouton requirements, but its portion has grown to 85 percent. Quality Croutons also sells its baked bits of bread to United Airlines, Pizza Hut, Houston’s restaurants, and a handful of supermarket chains, including Jewel. Johnson and Moore had hoped for sales of $15 million after five years; after three years their revenues stand at $6 million, but Johnson says the company is profitable.
Last year Earnestine Rice, a chemist for a company that supplies spices to Quality Croutons, drafted Johnson into BEN. Johnson is pleased to say he’s already doing as much as he can at Quality Croutons to fulfill BEN’s mandates. Fifty people work there, and all but two of them are black. “We wanted to be a minority company in every sense of the word,” he explains. “Putting money into the black community means giving jobs to the black community.” One line worker is Hispanic, and the general manager, Rex Higdon, is white. Johnson jokes, “Once we had a power failure. Naturally, Rex became the leader, because he was the only person we all could see.” The only other whites in the plant are imported on a daily basis from temporary-help services such as Manpower and Handy Andy.
Quality Croutons pays the average worker $9.50 an hour. That’s a tad lower than the union average, but the firm also offers a benefit package that includes health, life, and dental insurance, plus pension and profit-sharing plans and Christmas bonuses. People can take six sick days a year or a bonus for those days not taken. Everyone is also entitled to two “mental health” days annually and can stay home without citing a reason.
“Nobody calls me mister,” says Johnson. “I am George to everybody. I want people to put ideas in the suggestion box, but they don’t have to worry about offending anybody in management but me, ’cause I hold the key to the box. People here feel a closeness to me and Dave–we are a family.”
Quality Croutons is the first and only minority-operated plant in Bridgeport. When operations began, the police provided round-the-clock protection. Still, two employees were beaten up in the company parking lot, and a young basketball player roughed up a worker with a hockey stick. The violence has since stopped.
Johnson has moved to multiply the effect of his success through minority contracting. “We seek out other businesses like ourselves,” he says. “They have to make a good product for us to deal with them, but they don’t necessarily have to beat a price.” Three trucking companies that Quality Croutons uses are black owned. Best Foam Fabricators, a black company, provides corrugated sheeting and boxes. Some containers come from a Hispanic firm, some spices from a Chinese one. Other black contractors Johnson uses include marketing, office-supply, temporary-help, and coffee-service firms, as well as a travel agency.
Johnson has been encouraging some black entrepreneurs he met at the Harambee trade fair. Sandra Cleveland, for instance, is a southwest-side woman whose husband and son got so fired up over her spaghetti-sauce recipe she figured she’d go into business selling it. “More than Italians eat pasta,” she says. Johnson tasted her sauce at the trade fair and offered to help her with her fledgling company, which she called Sandy’s Ghetti Pasta and Such.
Cleveland needed help. “Just calling her up was terrible, because she runs things from her house and there’s only one phone,” explains Johnson. “She was always on it–and if she wasn’t, her mother was.” Since then Cleveland has installed call-waiting and has started marching into restaurants and pitching the owners. “They only have to taste my sauce once, and they love it,” she says. Her sauce now graces noodles at Catfish Digby’s and a Bonanza steak house. She is now fiddling with a recipe for lasagna.
Lola B. Randall, a cosmetologist, has a line of shampoo, conditioner, rinse, and scalp oil designed to benefit the woman who is balding or plagued with itchy scalp or clogged pores. She says her items are now being well received, in part because each has a distinctive scent designed to resemble the smell of her favorite sherbet. Johnson has been pressuring Randall to change her packaging–plastic bottles with dull black-and-white lettering–and Randall seems agreeable. Of her mentor, she says, “He’s the only person who has supported me with deep concern.”
“I also hear from crazies,” says Johnson. “People who have heard me over the radio and call up to say they have invented the perpetual-motion machine. Yet I always take the calls. Somebody–McDonald’s–opened the door and let me in. If they hadn’t, I’d still be sitting downtown sucking wind. Now that I’m in, I’m going to hold the door open and let other people in.”
He’s committed to the message of black empowerment. “The way I feel is this: People can hear the message from Tony Brown, Jesse Jackson, or Louis Farrakhan. But not until someone they know and trust says it will it be believed. The message must be more important than the messenger. This movement must happen from the bottom up, not the top down–that’s the lesson of the Italians, the Jews, and the Chinese, and now Koreans and Arabs. Everybody must be moving toward the same goal.”
Talk to some of the businesses Nahaz Rogers patronizes, and you do get the sense that more attention is being paid to the buy-black doctrine. “There is a pride in my place being black owned, because there are so few grocery stores like this,” says Leonard Harris, the owner of Chatham Foods. “My customers feel that this is their place.”
Harris, a 45-year-old accountant, bought his supermarket five years ago from Ernest Collins, founder of Seaway National Bank and owner of the Food Basket, a nearby grocery. Chatham Foods has prospered under Harris’s stewardship, so much so that he has just taken over a second supermarket five blocks away that is four times the size of Chatham Foods. Harris estimates the black groceries in Chatham still get only 30 percent of the food business there, most of the rest going to Dominick’s and a Jewel. But he thinks the marketplace is changing. “I’m a merchant, not a crusader,” he says. “But you get a feeling in Chatham now that our neighborhood is going to set an example for the rest of the city. The residents here are sensitized to the need to support their own businesses.”
For 16 years Kham & Nate’s, which boasts revenues of more than $1 million annually, has anchored the corner at 89th and Cottage Grove in Chatham. The store, mirrored and plushly carpeted, contains photographs of the fabled who have shopped there: Reggie Theus, Jesse Jackson, Harold Washington, Mom Staples, and Cardiss Collins. During the 1980s Kham & Nate’s opened three stores in the Loop, but they foundered, unable to attract a nonneighborhood audience. Now Nate Parker believes the community-based black store is the future. “We have 13 employees, coming from seven families, and the community is aware of that,” he says. “We’re entwined with the neighborhood. People take as much pride in this store as we do. They shop here, and then they come back asking for favors for their church or group. It’s a two-way street, and it’s one we walk.”
Yet consumer habits are hard to break, even for the converted. Nahaz Rogers, a fundamentalist when it comes to buying black, is in a class by himself. Others still find it difficult to always buy black.
Leonard Harris buys his cars from black dealers and calls black subcontractors to repair his store, but he lives in Flossmoor, holds a mortgage with the Sears bank, and shops at River Oaks. “I’m guilty,” he sighs. “I sin.”
George Johnson says, “I spend a lot of time in the black community, but I eat downtown and I shop downtown. I live in Burr Ridge, and there is no black grocery. My clothes come from a mail-order catalog.”
When Tony Brown came to town to speak at the Harambee fair, the BEN leadership put him up at the plush Fairmont Hotel downtown. “Where were we going to put him?” says Earnestine Rice. “The Zanzibar? The Roberts? But I agree that using the Fairmont was a total contradiction.”
Yet she’s willing to knock Operation PUSH for continuing to engineer covenants with Fortune 500 companies. “I’m sick of black folks begging white folks for work,” she says. And Nahaz Rogers sees affirmative-action pacts this way: “If you want to be equal, you have to have been equal to start with. You can put good slippers on me, send me to Harvard, and seat me in a Rolls-Royce, but I’m just slaving if the ultimate beneficiary of my labor is white folks. We have to develop our own jobs, instead of depending on peckerwoods from outside to do it.”
George Riddick of Operation PUSH counters, “Our viewpoint is that the charge of sharecropping isn’t valid. At this time in history we do live off the larger economy–that’s reality. In this interim period, until blacks can become self-sufficient, it’s important for us to establish a beachhead. What we do spend in the larger economy is often the margin of profit for big companies–and so what we’re saying is that we want reciprocity in terms of jobs and contracts. Once we get reciprocity, we will have the leverage to take the next step, which is to become economically viable.
“But for now a buy-black campaign is not sustainable. We don’t have enough goods and services to push forward. Blacks don’t provide enough volume among themselves to make possible even a department store.”
Riddick would like to see African Americans waging battle on two fronts: cementing affirmative-action deals and building their economic base. Within five years, he says, blacks should set a goal of buying between 20 and 30 percent of their purchases from black-owned concerns.
But to do that, leaders caution, consumers must accept certain realities, prime among them higher prices. Lewis Meyers says, “A black will say, ‘Why do I have to pay $15 for this tie, when I can get it for $10 downtown?’ I answer back that the $5 differential is a responsibility we have to pay to the black merchant, to help him out. Because in the long term that black merchant will care about us, whereas Neiman Marcus doesn’t give a damn about the black community.”
BEN is holding a second trade fair in June, again at Kennedy-King. Terrell-Harper says the organization has collected a data base on 1,750 of an estimated 8,000 black-owned businesses in the Chicago area and is going to publish a directory. This time there is fire to the drive for black capitalism, she insists.
Leonard Harris agrees. “You know, the civil rights movement started with a few black kids sitting at a lunch counter and a woman on a bus refusing to rise. This thing is going to happen, and not just ’cause it’s going to benefit me–but ’cause everyone will thrive.”
Nahaz Rogers says, “We just have to do for ourselves. We have to go about reclaiming the land on which we stand. We’re interested in an equitable ownership of all goods and services. There is a new consciousness in every community from coast to coast, to start businesses and get involved in the expansion of existing businesses. We are going to do what every other people on the face of the earth has done–to work on our economic base to enable us to become a factor in society.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.