Black History to Build On

Published: Apr 9, 2007
Story and Photos by
Robin Roger
Web Writer

Tales of black business owners in the Jim Crow South inspired students and entrepreneurs alike when an audience gathered to listen to a panel of experts at in Plant Hall’s Music Room on April 5.

“If they did it in segregated times, why can’t we do it now?” asked Keisha Pickett, one of the organizers of “Entrepreneurs in the Segregated South,” a discussion held as part of the Florida Heritage Celebration.

Noted historians and local scholars discussed the challenges and peculiar advantages of black entrepreneurs during segregation and how they relate to challenges facing black entrepreneurs today. While there may be fewer racial barriers, panelists said the business world today can be more cutthroat for people of all races.

The panel consisted of Fred Hearns, author and expert on Tampa’s Central Avenue; Jacquie Small, board member at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum; Clifton Lewis, director of the L.B. Brown House in Bartow; and Dr. Cheryl Rodriguez, professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida. UT professor of management Dr. Dianne Welsh moderated the discussion.

The panelists discussed how black entrepreneurs filled a niche left by white business owners who would not cater to black customers.

“I do not believe L.B. saw segregation as an obstacle,” said Lewis of L.B. Brown. “I believe he saw it as an opportunity. If nothing else, it threw a lot of clients his way who could not otherwise be served.”

Brown was born into slavery, but by 1903, he was writing checks for hundreds of dollars.

Fellow historian Hearns listed a veritable who’s who of Tampa’s black entrepreneurs: Fortune Taylor—for whom Fortune Street was named—Lee Davis, Moses White and Kid Mason, the namesake of the Kid Mason Recreation Center on Jefferson Street.

Central Avenue in Tampa became a central location for black enterprise and culture. The proximity of so many black-owned businesses drew people to the area and allowed business owners to help each other. Moses White said that if a business ran out of bread, a neighboring business would send some over.

“Fewer African-Americans have that money that falls in their lap, that loan from an uncle, or that inheritance,” Hearns said. “Many of us had to start from scratch. Segregation forced us to help each other and shop at our businesses.”

Black business owners still have a long way to go, Hearns said. “We have some who have found the key,” he said. “We can’t be selfish with our successes. We need to pass along the secrets.”

The successes of black women entrepreneurs have been kept a secret for too long, said Rodriguez. She said the women who ran childcare centers, restaurants and boarding houses did more than just fatten their pocket books. They contributed to the community as a whole.

She talked about the impact of establishments like the Rodgers Dining Room, which served food with a sense of class.

“It spread throughout the African-American community to various other businesses, instilling them with pride,” she said. “They created a sense of the American dream, even in the midst of social darkness.”

Small agreed that these role models are important. Her own mother was an entrepreneur, working first as a housekeeper, then opening two cafés off the Central Avenue corridor.

“Our children need to be able to look toward someone with pride and say, ‘She did it, and so can I,’” Small said.

The panel provided insightful information that the audience can apply when starting or growing their own businesses, said Welsh, director of the Florida Entrepreneur & Family Business Center at UT.

“It would have been very easy for those entrepreneurs to say, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I can’t do that,’” Welsh said. “But for people like L.B. Brown, business was business, and he took advantage of that.”

The Florida Heritage Celebration continues through April 15, with events from living history performances to gallery opening to flapper movies. Visit www.heritagecelebration.org for more information.