Owning Our Businesses, Owning Our Culture: Building Black

Joey Nicotra on Unsplash

This article is part of our weekly series—Narratives to Build Collective Economic Power—which NPQ is publishing in partnership with the national racial and economic justice nonprofit, Common Future. In this series, the authors write about their economic justice work and how, in their work, they challenge conventional narratives and offer new ways of thinking about who can be owners in the economy and what community economic development means.


What does it mean to have a place of your own? For the Black Mississippians in the Delta community of Clarksdale (population 14,903) who are supported by Higher Purpose Co., the economic justice nonprofit that I direct, it means a whole lot.

The 14,000 square-foot commercial structure we purchased in 2019 will be opening next year. Our vision is to convert the structure—previously an old furniture store—into a center of a Black-led movement for Black prosperity.

What will be done with the structure? First and foremost, the goal is to create a hub for Black entrepreneurs, farmers, and artists. But that’s not all: the building will also serve as a multipurpose event space, food hall, business incubator, and art gallery, and it will host the first iteration of the North Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. As a space for building businesses and community, the building will be one of the few Black-owned, -operated, and -oriented cultural heritage and entrepreneurship spaces in the Mississippi Delta.

It has been a long journey getting to this point.

 

Business and Culture

Clarksdale has a rich cultural history. It was home to famed artists such as Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, and Sam Cooke, and to luminary civil rights activists and small business owners Aaron E. Henry and Vera Mae Pigee. Yet come to Clarksdale, as tens of thousands of tourists from around the world do every year, and you will be hard pressed to find a site of Black cultural representation that is conceived, owned, and operated by Black people. From the town’s folk-art galleries to its music venues and most of its lodgings and accommodation, Black people who live in Clarksdale are not at the helm of, nor do they own, those businesses. This is true even though, like much of the Mississippi Delta, Clarksdale is overwhelmingly Black. Indeed, according to the 2020 Census, 82.5 percent of Clarksdale residents are African American.

Nor is Clarksdale unique in being a place where the profits generated by Black culture largely line the pockets of people who are white. Most of the Mississippi Delta’s half-dozen, white-owned, multi-million-dollar museums and exhibition and event spaces feature music from the African American community. These museums range from the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, Mississippi; to the BB King Museum in Indianola; to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. Nonetheless, even as the region’s massive tourist industry celebrates the heritage of Black people—from the birth of blues music to the history of the civil rights movement—a pattern of Black cultural extraction for the benefit of white Americans persists.

The bottom line: there is plenty of wealth in Mississippi. But very little of the income and wealth generated—including income and wealth generated from Black cultural traditions—stays with Black Mississippians. As such, despite its cultural wealth, the Mississippi Delta is home to some of the highest poverty rates in the nation and boasts some of the lowest indicators of population wellbeing, from life expectancy to educational attainment. In most counties in the Delta, the poverty rate is between 30 and 40 percent. Clarksdale, which according to the 2020 census had a poverty rate of 38.7 percent—twice the statewide average of 18.7 percent—is no exception.

As for business ownership, in Mississippi, as in much of the United States, most larger businesses, banks, and essential services are run by corporations. This means that ownership in the Delta is concentrated among people who are not from the community—or among wealthier people in the community, who have historically been white.

Even after 50 years of economic development programs intended to “uplift” the region out of poverty, from President Lyndon Johnson’s so-called “war on poverty” to present-day philanthropy, there continue to be few Black institutions supporting Black businesses in the region. Our not-so-modest ambition is to change that situation.

 

Building the Impossible  

Clarksdale is special to me for several reasons. My great-grandparents had 10 children together there. Before moving from Chicago to Clarksdale when I was 10, I would visit my relatives during the summers. After moving, I went to Clarksdale’s junior high and high school. In college, I attended Mississippi Valley State University, a historically Black university located in the even smaller town of Itta Bena, 60 miles south of Clarksdale. I learned about the trails and triumphs of Black people in the Mississippi Delta. I moved away after college, becoming part of the region’s ongoing “brain drain,” but I returned to Clarksdale two years later in 2011. After learning about grants and fundraising while working for a community development financial institution (CDFI), I started to develop a nonprofit, Higher Purpose Co., to support local economic development by building up Black-owned businesses in Mississippi in a region where far too few of them existed. As the community came together to start Higher Purpose Co., we understood the assignment. Many told us it would be impossible.

Our nonprofit’s mission is to build community wealth by supporting Black business development, both through arranging loans to finance businesses and through the provision of educational workshops and technical assistance. All told, more than 450 Black business owners, including farmers and artisans, form a part of our membership. To date, businesses in the network have obtained over $1 million in the form of CDFI loans, grants, loan guarantees, and zero percent interest Kiva loans.

Our methodology is three-fold. We nurture business ownership. We advocate for resources to support Black ownership. And we seek to foster narrative change by telling impact stories focused on Black residents.

These stories include the stories of Black businesses, like the one established by Dr. Mary Williams, a nurse practitioner who wanted to set up a health clinic in Clarksdale, since the nearest hospital is a 45-minute drive away. Though Williams had raised seed money, no bank would give her a loan. Our nonprofit matched her monies with a CDFI. As a result, the Urgent & Primary Care Clinic of Clarksdale now exists, and it has played a critical role in serving our community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another local business, Trent Calvin Photography, was incubated during our Delta Creative Business Challenge in 2018. Calvin has since opened his own photography studio in downtown Clarksdale and secured contracts with schools and colleges, in addition to providing photography for Higher Purpose Co. Meanwhile, in Greenville, 72 miles from Clarksdale, Kenesha Lewis, a 30-year Black woman who started a smoothie business out of her home, was able with assistance from our nonprofit to get a loan to finance the acquisition of a storefront in 2020. Now Lewis and her husband, Jason, operate Kay’s Kute Fruit.

 

Visions of a Black Business Hub

Over six years, our nonprofit has achieved a lot, becoming the only Black, statewide, membership-based nonprofit of its kind. Our new building will help us deepen our work. Originally built in 1940 to serve as a Greyhound bus ancillary building that also housed stores, a restaurant, and a tire shop, the building—formerly known as the Delta Furniture store—is located in the heart of downtown Clarksdale.

It will now be dubbed Higher Purpose Hub. Our vision is for the historic building to serve as an entrepreneurial hub and co-working space—a vital community center for Black entrepreneurship and culture—providing space for community offices, bringing together lending institutions, business service providers, and Black start-ups, and offering business and technology resources to Black-owned businesses in our network. We intend to run creative ventures to help Black people care for their businesses and to equip Black business owners with the skills that they need to grow their operations over time.

Even more important than the act of service provision is who is doing the providing. As an institution that is rooted in the community and focused on empowering Black entrepreneurs, we offer an understanding of the community and a commitment to create real, lasting change in and beyond Clarksdale.

Of course, our nonprofit does not work alone. We are partnering with a network of lending institutions, including Communities Unlimited, a technical assistance provider, and two larger regional CDFIs, Hope Credit Union and Southern Bancorp Community Partners, to facilitate access to capital, and many philanthropic partners.

Black farmers are also essential to building a better community and addressing the region’s health disparities. Poverty continues in large part because Black communities in the Delta never have and still do not own the leading generators of wealth, namely, businesses and land. For instance, take the issue of Black land loss. After acquiring 15 million acres in the half century after the Civil War, Black land ownership steadily declined across the South. This did not happen because Black Americans were poor farmers or voluntarily gave up on being landowners. Rather, as Dañia Davy details, “whites implemented a variety of legal and illegal practices to effectively intimidate and drive Black Americans from their land.” Sometimes, this was done violently through lynchings. Other times, legal and quasi-legal means were employed, “including, but not limited to, race-based discrimination in access to credit, unscrupulous deed filings, eminent domain, and disproportionate property tax levies used to force tax foreclosure sales.”

The Young Family Farm is operated by a family of Black farmers in Mississippi who own 55 acres on which they cultivate food, make wine, and host events. The family has also tapped into agrotourism. We understand that empowering Black farmers is critical to healing our community both physically and mentally. As such, the Higher Purpose Hub will also serve as a food hall that hosts pop-up shops and food ventures, offering a space for work and for socializing. We hope people use the space to connect with colleagues and do their work; they will come for lunch or stay for an evening event in the food hall or at the event center, gathering as a community and engaging in cultural reflection.

The work of Black artists is very noticeable across the state. Black Mississippians’ creativity has propelled not only the region, but the United States. Too often, however, the cultural currency connected to Black artistry does not build wealth for Black creatives. We believe that supporting artists like Christina McField is a part of shifting the power of Black art and developing programs that build Black wealth. Essential to our strategy is elevating Black art as a tool with which to inform and in some cases unlearn. We cannot build the wealth of Black communities without Black artists. In the words of Melissa Kimble: “The world does not move without Black creativity.”

 

Imagining Our Brighter Future

Creating lasting change in the Delta, and really across the nation, means building durable community wealth. This means making business and land ownership available in a Black community where the right to own businesses, land, and culture has often been foreclosed or limited, as has historically been common practice in the Delta and the United States more generally. In our work, we envision a future that will be benefit everyone involved and will have lasting impact that reaches beyond what we imagine.

As the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis wrote in his 2017 memoir:

Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.

Today, the work of creating a more just society requires making space for Black people to own their own businesses and culture—to own their futures.

There is still a long road to travel. The old Delta Furniture store remains an empty warehouse. However, in those 14,000 square feet resides the potential to bring to life an alternative vision for Clarksdale, the Delta, Mississippi, and the United States—a vision of Black leadership for the betterment of the whole community.

 

The author wants to thank Gabe Schwartzman for assisting with the research for this article.

Wealth Building