As America celebrates National Black Business Month, Pasadena leaders say Black business owners have not flourished due to a number of unresolved issues, including a lack of support, systemic racism and divisions in the Black community.
Black business owners account for nearly 10 percent of U.S. businesses and roughly a third of all minority-owned businesses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, that amounts to approximately two million companies owned by African Americans. Nearly 40 percent of Black-owned businesses are in the fields of health care and social assistance, repair and maintenance, and laundry services. Other categories include advertising firms, auto dealerships, consulting services, restaurants, barbershops and beauty salons.
“It is more difficult in most cases if you’re a minority entrepreneur to get your foot in the door or find financing, get through processes, and find the support you need to keep your business going,” said Paul Little, president and CEO of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce. “That’s a fact.”
According to Little, the issue is about more than just frequenting a restaurant around the corner that’s owned by an African-American entrepreneur. It’s also about making sure Black businesses get support as they continue to grow, especially when it comes to financing and advice.
However, there are other challenges that only Black business owners experience, and one of them can be an inability to maintain Black customers.
“Unfortunately, that becomes part of the challenge because Blacks are willing to take their business to other races because they feel those races are going to be more inclined to take care of their business better than the Black business owner,” said longtime Pasadena businessman Ishmael Trone, himself an African American. “And that has been a challenge in our community for a very, very long time.”
Trone, who is a member of the local chamber’s executive committee and previously served as the chair of the organization’s board of directors, stressed that the Black Lives Matter movement has left the world more socially conscious and more aware and concerned about the state of Black people and Black businesses.
Pasadena resident Danny Bakewell Jr., a local developer and owner of the LA Sentinel newspaper, cites his Renaissance Plaza project at North Fair Oaks Avenue and Orange Grove Boulevard as a prime example of what can be done when those in charge are African American and are committed to doing the right thing.
“We had probably one of the largest construction crews of African Americans. We had an African-American leasing agent. We had an African-American insurance company. We had African-American businesses in the center. We were in control and we were mindful of it. We had an African-American lending institution that was part of the team. When Starbucks opened up, it was a Magic Johnson Starbucks. So all of those things, but that is because you had an African-American development company at the top of the food chain, making sure that other African Americans had opportunities. It doesn’t happen very often,” Bakewell said.
“My family started out because we built a business,” Bakewell continued, “but we built this being very mindful of the fact that we were creating opportunities for African Americans and African-American communities. It wasn’t easy.”
“It’s been a struggle and a challenge, and it’s always been a struggle and a challenge,” said Perry Bennett, who runs Perry’s Joint on Lincoln Avenue, “I’ve been in business 27 years and I have grown every year and I have shown profitability every year, but I have not been able to build a relationship with a mainstream bank to help fund and finance and grow by company.”
Historically, Black business owners faced problems as urban renewal was initiated in cities around the country in the 1960s and ’70s. Under these programs, cities received federal funding to clean up their impoverished neighborhoods and invest in affordable housing, better infrastructure and other projects aimed at improving communities neighborhood by neighborhood.
However, many of these projects had devastating consequences, displacing more than a million people from their homes. African Americans came to call these “Negro removal projects.”
According to the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, in Pasadena urban renewal was used to spur economic growth after an surge in blight and a drop in business in the decades following World War II. The plan was to revitalize business districts on and around Colorado Boulevard and other major corridors, not to correct any specific problems regarding substandard housing.
“The planners dreamed of a boomtown filled with international business headquarters in high-rise office blocks together with a bustling downtown mall to attract shoppers,” according to the University of Richmond study.
According to City Councilmember John Kennedy, urban renewal led to the loss of thriving Black businesses.
“It wasn’t just Negro removal in residential areas. It was Negro removal all along Fair Oaks where African Americans had thriving businesses. No one wants to talk about that. And when you talk about it, the modern Pasadenans want to say, ‘What are you talking about?’”
According to Kennedy, African Americans lost their businesses on Colorado Boulevard, and then decisions were made to invest millions of dollars in rehabilitating Old Pasadena, which today is a bustling destination dining and entertainment spot that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
“When you try to build on a discriminatory platform, the platform is still discriminatory and you have to change the platform before you can build on something that’s sturdy,” Kennedy said.