By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
It was an era governed by Jim Crow laws that were enforced violently with an iron fist clutching a noose in one hand and a gun in the other.
Blacks seeking escape from racial injustices in the South and new employment opportunities moved to Detroit and were received with similar segregation. The “Great Black Migration” caused the city’s population to grow from under 6,000 in 1910 to 120,000 in 1930.
“I was born in Detroit, and it was a segregated city, with a history of exclusion of African Americans from political and economic justice. My mother and Dad tell stories of being excluded from lunch counters, theaters, and other forms of de facto Jim Crow even in the North,” explains Otis Washington, of Durham,
As darkness spread among African Americans throughout thecountry, the spirit of entrepreneurship got brighter in black communities, especially in Detroit.
Black-owned businesses flourished on Hastings and St. Antoine streets on Detroit’s east side.
Others found delight in Paradise Valley, where the sweet sounds of blues and jazz welcomed visitors. Jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Count Basie regularly performed at local night clubs such as Club 666.
Mackinaw City and Idlewild, also known as the Black Eden,offered retreat from the big city, where black-owned hotels and motels welcomed vacationing visitors.
“A lot of black people visiting Mackinac Island would stay at black hotels,” says John Bingham, 80, whose mother, Julia Bingham, owned and operated the Bingham Motel. “It was a destination spot for black people from Detroit. My mother would run tours with churches in Detroit. Busloads of people would drive in, filling up the place. A lot of blacks purchased cabins on Carp Lake. It was a time where Blacks enjoyed life and patronized one another freely.”
Dreams of entrepreneurship were realized in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley from the 1930s to early 1960s, until they were shattered by “Urban Renewal” under the leadership of Mayor
“Black Bottom was deliberately destroyed by white people,” says Bingham. “Everywhere we had been dominate has been destroyed. Desegregation also destroyed the foundation of black businesses. Today, we have cars, so people don’t support black businesses nearby.”
Although the destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley triggered a decline in black business, it did not fully extinguish the entrepreneurial spirit.
Bingham’s family passed on their legacy of entrepreneurship, which has expanded to four generations today.
“We opened Momma’s Country Kitchen and then took over a health food store next door that we named Nature’s Very Best, about 30 years ago,” explains Bingham. “We hired almost every niece and nephew in our family. We realized how important it was for young people to have an avenue to get started. We gave them pointers on finance and marketing and even assisted other black-owned businesses to get off of the ground.”
Their family matriarch also encourages younger members to pursue entrepreneurship.
“We’ve done the groundwork, so that they can have a foundation for the future of the children,” adds Evelyn Bingham. “We want them to build on what we’ve left for them.”
With the solid foundation laid by the Bingham’s, their grandson, Ronald Harris, Jr. has expanded the family business. The health food store they once operated has grown and taken on a new name and mission as Loving Life.
“I’m growing the leaves from the roots they planted, and it’s sprouting up,” he says. “I took their experiences achieved through trial and error and built on their success. Now, I’m training my nephew to take over the business.”
While some inherit family businesses, others seek to build on their own dreams of entrepreneurship and have turned hobbies into career opportunities.
“I got started in web design, after freelancing for 10 years,” says Michele Stewart, owner of SongArt Designs, which offers web design, maintenance and marketing. “I wish we were like the days of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. It’s like we’re unhappy with one another’s success. There’s a sense of jealousy. Our own people look at us as if we’re expected to fail and our products aren’t as good as another culture’s. We stereotype each other. We’re not a community that sticks together. It’s almost as if we forgot where we came from.”
Gone are the days of Jim Crow laws, but the flames that ignited the spirit of entrepreneurship still burn today in the African American community.
And, in the words of Marcus Garvey, “Be black, buy black, think black, and all else will take care of itself!”