Thriving Black-owned businesses 'righting the wrongs of the past' in rural Mississippi

Dec 3, 2021
Originally published on December 7, 2021 8:25 am

In Greenville, Miss., pop. 27,000, a modern, brightly lit juice bar stands out in the small downtown lined with mostly mom and pop businesses and a few taverns near the town's riverbank casino.

The chorus of friendly, neighborly hellos is a customer favorite, but what's really turning heads is the owner of Kay's Kute Fruit, 30 year-old Kenesha Lewis.

"I'm really excited for the young people to walk in, and they say, who's the owner, and they're like, what? I had somebody do that to me," Lewis says laughing.

Growing up here, she can't recall any prominent Black-owned businesses like hers (today the town is about 81% Black). She and her husband Jason Lewis opened up this brick and mortar last Spring after a few years of making edible fruit arrangements and smoothies and selling them out of their home on the side of their regular jobs.

"Being a young woman here in the Delta, it's not a lot of health options," Kenesha says. "It's not a lot of places you can go and get a healthy wrap and then you can go in the same place and have nice service."

Indeed, the Delta is known the world over for its delicious comfort food, but fresh produce and even regular grocery stores are few and far between. At Kay's the blenders appear to always be running, churning up pineapple or mango smoothies with the popular add-ons of chia seeds or turmeric.

"Acai bowls and pitaya bowls, nobody sells that around here," she says.

Lewis got the idea to start a business after her husband kept getting on her case for eating too much sugar.

"I lost two teeth and he said, 'wait a minute now, you're too young to be losing these teeth,'" she recalls, laughing. "[he said] 'Let's figure this out.' So we created smoothies together and I said, okay, this is good for me."

And it turns out, it was also good for business. Lewis exceeded her projected annual sales in her first month after opening. Growing up, she says people in her community were good entrepreneurs but they usually worked out of their homes. Her mom is a stylist and her dad ran a house painting business.

So, as a Black woman now with a storefront downtown, she sees herself as a role model.

"Our Black people are waking up, they know that they can do this," Lewis says. "I think that we have helped them to understand that they can do this, they can succeed in this era."

In this isolated corner of the country, the odds are still stacked against Black women particularly. The mostly rural Mississippi Delta has long been synonymous with racial and economic inequality. Yet today there are a growing number of small, economic bright spots, due in part to a grassroots effort that's trying to right some of the wrongs of the past.

Hundreds of new Black-owned businesses like Lewis's are starting to spring up in this region long seen as being dismissed or "forgotten" by outsiders.

The racial and economic disparity goes back decades

Drive south of Memphis, near the massive river levees, and a lot of small town store fronts are boarded up. Some buildings and old homes are condemned or abandoned. Much of this seemingly never-ending, flat expanse of land and its cotton fields is still controlled by white business interests. So when Tim Lampkin, 35, moved back to his hometown of Clarksdale after college and a stint working in corporate America, he had an idea.

In downtown Clarksdale, Tim Lampkin and Higher Purpose recently bought a building for its new headquarters and event space next to the old Greyhound station, where Black residents historically couldn't board busses.
Kirk Siegler/NPR

"When I came back I noticed that a majority of the businesses in Coahoma County, and particularly where we're looking at in downtown Clarksdale, are white owned," Lampkin says. Like in nearby Greenville, more than 80% of Clarksdale's 15,000 residents are African American.

In 2016, Lampkin started what he calls an economic justice non-profit. Higher Purpose Co. helped Kenesha Lewis in Greenville from start to finish, applying for a loan, prepping her for meetings with bankers. And they follow up frequently with her today, all things Lampkin says would probably be a given for aspiring white business owners in the area.

"If we're going to make special exceptions for entrepreneurs because, you know, they're a white farmer and we know their family, why can't a Black entrepreneur get the same level of access and understanding and patience when it comes to getting access to capital?" Lampkin asks.

A mentorship program Higher Purpose started in late 2019 is now helping some 300 Black entrepreneurs across Mississippi take their business acumen to the next level. The non-profit helps them do things like find grants to cover closing costs or tap into donations and seed money for renting or buying spaces and storefronts.

"Part of this is just evening the playing field for everybody," Lampkin says.

The disparity here goes back decades. At Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., Rolando Herts, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, says the region is a microcosm for the country's broader racial and economic inequality.

"In the consciousness of America, this is considered to be one of, if not the most, racist states in the union," Herts says. "Everybody's able to look at Mississippi and say, at least we're not Mississippi."

The mostly rural and agrarian Mississippi Delta has long struggled economically.
Kirk Siegler/NPR

Ever since the Delta was plowed up into plantations mostly after the Civil War, Herts says there's been a permanent Black underclass. Many don't trust the banks, for good reason, he says, and in turn many banks traditionally haven't done business in the still segregated Black communities.

"And then you have a white elite class here that are descendants of the planter class and much of the wealth of the region still remains in those families," he says.

For Herts, it will take hundreds more groups like Higher Purpose to really right the wrongs of the past. But he does see momentum behind their work, which is driven by mostly young, energetic and social media savvy people.

And the businesses they're supporting are filling a need.

How getting a hard 'no' lit a fire for one entrepreneur

One of Higher Purpose's biggest success stories is Dr. Mary Williams in Clarksdale. She opened what was then the town's first urgent and primary care facility about three years ago. Before then, she says, working people had to drive 45 miles or go to the local ER just to get routine care after hours.

She soon discovered there were many untreated cases of hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity in her community.

Dr. Mary Williams was initially told no after no when she applied for loans to open her town's first urgent care facility.
Kirk Siegler/NPR

"A lot of them, honestly, was going without and a lot of them was going undiagnosed, they didn't know their blood pressure was up, they didn't know they were diabetic," Williams says.

But getting to where she is today, weathering the pandemic with a clinic that now serves some 3,000 patients, wasn't easy.

While working as a nurse practitioner at the local hospital, Williams got no after no from banks when she applied for loans to start her business. One told her she may be a good health care provider, but that didn't mean she was a good business owner. Another said there was no business like hers in Clarksdale to base her proposal on, so she'd have to put up her house as collateral.

"I mean, the whole idea for this loan was for community development," Williams says. "Here I am bringing in a clinic to develop the community and improve our health care and I got a hard no unless I give them my house."

That lit a fire in her, she was going to help her underserved community if it took everything she had. Williams couldn't turn to her family for financial help, only emotional support. She was a single mom starting at age 15 and was mostly raised by her brother and sister in the small town of Marks, outside Clarksdale.

After putting herself through grad school and a doctoral program at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, she could only tap what was left of her modest savings to try to open the clinic. Around the same time though, she heard about Higher Purpose, who soon after helped her land a $15,000 federal loan meant to support rural communities.

Today, she'll care for up to several dozen patients in a single day - black and white, including, she says, some of the people who once doubted she'd be able to run a successful business.

"We shouldn't have to be motivated by a no, we should be motivated by a yes because we're providing care for the community," Williams says. "I hope it doesn't happen to anybody else."

But most people here think it still will.

Rural Black entrepreneurs "have to think big"

Bill Bynum has done business development in the Mississippi Delta since the 1990s, when he founded a credit union and business lending firm aimed at getting more African Americans access to capital. He's also served as a White House economic advisor for several Republican and Democratic administrations, most recently during President Biden's transition team.

"The Delta has long been associated with, quite honestly, either exploitation or extraction, it was built on unpaid labor," he says.

Reached at his office in Jackson, Bynum cautioned that the country needs to be paying attention to what's going on in the majority-Black Delta.

"People of color are an emerging majority and if we leave the emerging majority of Americans on the outside of the economy, then we are really in for trouble," he said.

For Bynum, rural Black entrepreneurs and leaders need to think big.

Murals in historic downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi which is often billed as the birthplace of the blues.
Kirk Siegler/NPR

That's exactly what Higher Purpose's Tim Lampkin is doing in downtown Clarksdale.

Higher Purpose recently bought a large old furniture store which is set to be transformed into a new company headquarters as well as an art gallery and events space. Its location is symbolic: right across the street from the town's old Greyhound Bus station - its art deco facade still preserved - where Black residents were once not allowed to board busses.

"For us to own this property and also reclaim some of that history and to rewrite the narrative it's really significant to us," Lampkin says.

They've raised about a third of the $3 million needed for their new hub, which is slated to open in 2023. The non-profit did see donations climb after the death of George Floyd last year. But Lampkin says supporting Black-owned businesses is the right thing to do and shouldn't just be trendy.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hundreds of new Black-owned businesses are beginning to spring up in Mississippi. The vast, rural Mississippi Delta had been synonymous with racial and economic inequality. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on a grassroots effort that is trying to right some of the wrongs of the past.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In Greenville, Miss. - population 27,000 - a modern and brightly lit juice bar called Kay's Kute Fruit stands out in the small downtown.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Hello.

KENESHA LEWIS: How you doing? Hey.

SIEGLER: Not because of the friendly chorus of hellos, though customers love that, but because of who owns it - 30-year-old Kenesha Lewis.

LEWIS: I'm really excited, you know, for the young people to walk in, and they see - you know, who's the owner? Here y'all go. They like, what? You know, I had somebody to - do that to me.

SIEGLER: Growing up in Greenville, Lewis can't remember any Black-owned businesses downtown, but she and her husband opened this past spring after years of making edible fruit arrangements and smoothies and selling them out of their home.

LEWIS: Being a young woman, you know, and being here in the Delta, it's not a lot of health options. It's not a lot of places you can go and get a healthy wrap and then you can go in the same place and have nice service.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDER WHIRRING)

SIEGLER: Blenders churn up peach and pineapple smoothies with added chia seeds or turmeric. Lewis got the idea to start this business after her husband was always getting on her case for eating too much sugar.

LEWIS: I lost two teeth, and he said, wait a minute now. You're too young to be losing these teeth out your mouth. Look, you got to get this together. Let's figure this out. So we created the smoothies together, and, you know, I said, OK, this is good for me.

SIEGLER: And for business - Lewis exceeded her projected annual sales in her first month. Now, growing up, she says people in Greenville were good entrepreneurs, but they usually worked out of their homes, like her mom, who's a stylist. So as a Black woman opening up a storefront downtown, she sees herself as a role model.

LEWIS: Our Black people are waking up. You know, they know that they can do this. And I think that we have helped them to understand that they can do this. They can succeed in this era. And, you know, we can make it, too.

SIEGLER: In the Delta, if you're a Black woman especially, the odds are still stacked against you in this isolated corner of the country often, quote, "forgotten" by outsiders.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

SIEGLER: We drive south of Memphis near the massive river levees, and you see a lot of small-town storefronts boarded up. Much of this flat expanse of land is still controlled by white business interests. So when 35-year-old Tim Lampkin moved back to nearby Clarksdale after working in corporate America, he got an idea.

TIM LAMPKIN: So when I came back, I noticed that majority of the businesses in Coahoma County, particularly as we're looking at downtown Clarksdale, are white owned.

SIEGLER: Even as African Americans comprise three-quarters of this county's population - so Lampkin started what he calls an economic justice non-profit. Higher Purpose helped Kenesha Lewis down in Greenville from start to finish - applying for a loan, prepping her for meetings with bankers and still checking in on her today; all things Lampkin says might be a given for aspiring white business owners here.

LAMPKIN: If we're going to make special exceptions for entrepreneurs because, you know, they're a white farmer and we know their family, why can't a Black entrepreneur get the same level of access and understanding and patience when it comes to getting access to capital?

SIEGLER: A mentorship program Higher Purpose recently started has helped some 300 new businesses open and many since the pandemic. They get help finding grants to cover closing costs and tap into donations to buy or rent spaces.

LAMPKIN: Part of this is just evening the playing field for everybody.

ROLANDO HERTS: In the consciousness of America, you know, this is considered to be one of, if not the most racist state in the Union.

SIEGLER: Rolando Herts directs the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University.

HERTS: Everybody is able to look at Mississippi and say, well, at least we're not in Mississippi (laughter), so.

SIEGLER: Ever since the Delta was plowed up into plantations, mostly after the Civil War, Herts says there's been a permanent Black underclass.

HERTS: And then you have a white elite class here that are descendants of the planter class. And much of the wealth of the region still remains in those families.

SIEGLER: Herts says it will take hundreds more groups like Higher Purpose to really right the wrongs of the past, but he sees momentum behind their work. It's driven by young, energetic and social media-savvy people. And the new businesses are filling needs.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SIEGLER: One of Higher Purpose's biggest success stories is Dr. Mary Williams in Clarksdale.

MARY WILLIAMS: And I'll tell Pam when I see her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK.

WILLIAMS: All right. You take care.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: All right.

SIEGLER: She opened Clarksdale's first urgent and primary care facility about three years ago so people wouldn't have to go to the ER after hours for routine care.

WILLIAMS: I found a lot of undiagnosed hypertension - which is high blood pressure - undiagnosed diabetes, obesity.

SIEGLER: But getting here wasn't easy. While working as a nurse practitioner at the local hospital, she got no after no from banks. One told her she may be a good health care provider, but that doesn't mean she's a good business owner. Another said there was no business like hers in Clarksdale to base their proposal on, so she'd have to put up her house as collateral.

WILLIAMS: I mean, the whole idea for this loan was for community development. Here I am bringing in a clinic to develop the community and give us - improve our health care, and I got a hard no unless I give them my house.

SIEGLER: That lit a fire in her. She couldn't turn to her family for financial help. She was a single mom starting at 15 who was mostly raised by her brother and sister.

WILLIAMS: We didn't talk in our house about college, higher education, sororities. Those conversations didn't come up. Our conversation was about survival - paying the bills, going to work.

SIEGLER: After putting herself through grad school, she had to dip into what was left of her savings to open the clinic. And around that time, she heard about Higher Purpose, who helped her secure a $15,000 federal loan meant to support rural communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SQUEAKING)

WILLIAMS: Ms. Friska (ph)? Come on in.

SIEGLER: Today, she's seeing dozens of patients a day - Black and white - some of whom have been going without health care.

WILLIAMS: We shouldn't have to be motivated by a no. We should be motivated by yes because we're providing care for the community. And I hope it doesn't happen to anybody else.

SIEGLER: But most people here think it still will. Bill Bynum has done business development in the Delta since the '90s and also served as a White House economic adviser for several presidents. He says the country should pay attention to what's happening here.

BILL BYNUM: People of color are an emerging majority, and if we leave the emerging majority of Americans on the outside of the economy, then we're really in for trouble.

SIEGLER: So Bynum says rural Black entrepreneurs and leaders need to think big, which is exactly what Higher Purpose's Tim Lampkin is doing. In downtown Clarksdale, he just bought a large old furniture store. It will be the group's new headquarters, also an art gallery and event space. And its location is symbolic

LAMPKIN: Right across the street you see the historic Greyhound bus station.

SIEGLER: Where, he notes, African Americans here once couldn't enter.

LAMPKIN: For us to own this property and also reclaim some of that history and to rewrite the narrative, it's really significant to us.

SIEGLER: Lampkin did see donations climb after the death of George Floyd, but he says supporting Black-owned businesses is the right thing to do. It shouldn't just be trendy.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Clarksdale, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS IS A PROCESS OF A STILL LIFE'S "ALL MY BLESSINGS ARE A CURSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.