In the days of segregation, African-Americans owned a network of businesses on Gainesville’s south side to serve the needs of minority residents who were often barred from entering pharmacies, grocery stores and other establishments across the city that only served white residents.
“Before integration, there were certain services and other things you couldn’t avail yourself of downtown,” said Linda Hutchins, a retired teacher who graduated in 1966 from E.E. Butler High School, which served Gainesville’s black students before desegregation. She was the first African-American graduate of Gainesville College in June 1968.
But with integration, the landscape of black-owned businesses in Gainesville began to slowly change.
“What happened was people were able to use other facilities or other businesses for patronage and took advantage,” Hutchins said, adding that some black businesses struggled to compete in a market that widely expanded within a few years.
In the ensuing decades, residential neighborhoods across Gainesville experienced generational and some demographic turnover.
Athens Street has been a historical hub of activity in the local black community “because of the concentration of residential housing on the south side,” said Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, a six-decades-old civil rights organization rooted in Gainesville’s African-American community.
But now, “as housing patterns continue to change, families whose children grew up in this community now live in different parts of the county,” she added.
As for small businesses, there are barriers, such as affordable building space to purchase or lease, that have pushed some black-owned startups to other corners of Gainesville and Hall County, Johnson said, “which means keeping track of minority businesses is more difficult.”
A growing black entrepreneurial class, however, is sparking talk of a re-emergent African-American business community in Gainesville and Hall County.
For example, members of the Newtown club have been working over the last year to identify and catalogue black-owned businesses through its Strengthening Community Capacity program.
They have discovered that a dozen or more black-owned businesses have been operating, and thriving, for two decades or more, including Monique’s salon, Walter Rucker Attorney at Law, Young’s Funeral Home, A-1 Beauty Supply, Norman Brothers Transportation and Roy Johnson & Son Landscaping.
The club has documented over a 100 black-owned local businesses in all, including “caterers, contractors, cleaning services, insurance agents, money managers, published authors, restaurants owners, churches, nonprofits and independent product distributors,” Johnson said.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that businesses owned by African-Americans nationwide increased to 9.4 percent of U.S. companies in 2012 from 7.1 percent in 2007.
“Over the course of time, we have come to realize that this new emergence of black entrepreneurs creates an excellent opportunity for the establishment of a Black Chamber of Commerce once they are connected to each other,” Johnson said. “We look forward to publishing the Black Business and Community Resource Directory within the next few months.”
Legacy carried forth
For Gainesville’s African-Americans, the first half of the 20th century was spent in tight support of each other.
Textile production replaced cotton mills as the leading industry in Gainesville at the dawn of the 1900s, and from Newtown to New Holland to Chicopee, the city’s neighborhoods began to grow.
During World War II, Jesse Jewell introduced poultry processing to the area, forever altering the city’s image.
But all along, black-owned businesses met the needs of minorities cut off from many public services and private businesses.
“This energy has historically been concentrated along Athens Street, where black-owned businesses have thrived for decades, nurturing a richness in the community that meant more than finances,” Johnson said.
From the bank to the barber to the butcher to the baker, black residents tapped the resources available to them and made do.
According to information from the Beulah Rucker Museum and Education Center in Gainesville, black-owned businesses in the early to latter half of the 1900s were numerous and robust. The museum itself is named after a pioneering black woman who founded The Industrial School in Gainesville in 1914 to “provide opportunities to the region’s black youth at a time when such opportunities were rare or non-existent.”
Business owners included those like Walter Chamblee, who owned Chamblee Drug Store along the Athens Street corridor.
The impact black business owners had on the community was not relegated to just minority neighborhoods, however. According to the Rucker Museum, in the 1920s, “when the city of Gainesville was in dire financial need, George Stephens, an African-American businessman, loaned the city of Gainesville $10,000 to help in their financial crisis. Mr. Stephens was a successful tailor and owner of a dry cleaner.”
By the 1950s, a chamber of commerce representing minority businesses on Gainesville’s south side was reaching its peak, Hutchins said.
Even today, Athens Street remains an important corridor for black professionals, small business owners, patrons and residents of Gainesville’s south side.
But things change, too.
“I think you had more black-owned businesses back then because you had that need,” said Davon Ivey, a local barber who works at the shop on Athens Street, referring not just to the number of black-owned businesses in Gainesville during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, but also the impact and legacy they continue to have on the city. “It was more relevant because we had to have it.”
Martha Randolph has worked in a variety of trades for the past four decades, but the Gainesville resident points to opening her own hair salon in the mid-1980s as the turning point in her life.
In addition to now operating a catering service, Randolph also owns a commercial building on Athens Street, leasing space to other minority-owned businesses.
“It’s trying to come back,” she said of black entrepreneurship. “I’ve talked with a lot of people that want to start a business.”
Randolph said anyone looking to start their own business needs a mentor, someone who can show them how to turn their passion into a financial success. And don’t expect to turn a profit for two to three years, she added.
This new era of entrepreneurial activity in the black community looks promising to those African-Americans who have witnessed much history and change in Gainesville.
“There’s still work to be done,” Hutchins said. “But there is an awakening for the need to come in and establish one’s own.”
The future is born
Ivey came to a barber’s life quite naturally.
From a young age, “I felt like that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
And so he did.
“If you got something you love to do,” he said, “don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams. Don’t be afraid to fail. And don’t allow pride to hold you back.”
That’s good advice for someone like Marcquel Woodard, 21, a 2014 Gainesville High graduate now studying business management at Fort Valley State University in Middle Georgia.
Woodard, who is living and working this summer in Gainesville, said he has several business ideas he’s working on while finishing his college degree.
They include such things as purchasing and supplying ATMs for various businesses, and investing in real estate to support affordable housing development.
Woodard believes it’s important that businesses give back to the communities who sustain them. It’s about words, action and money, he said.
“For sure, I want to stay active in the community I was raised in,” he said, but added he wants to “create black businesses ... from Gainesville to Atlanta to cities across the United States.”
The challenges that await Woodard are many.
Some are like those faced by minority business owners before him.
“Young African-American adults have established businesses at an incredible pace,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, the challenges that continue to hinder their efforts are the inability to secure bank loans, the lack of available, accessible resources like investment capital and other services to support movement from startup to sustainability.”
Others will mark a sign of the times, though they will be no less difficult to navigate.
“Personally, I think that one of the hardest things to do now as a young person, in general, is to stay focused,” Woodard said, adding that distractions are everywhere.
So how does he plan to stay on task so he can achieve his goals and dreams in business? By saving money and developing relationships.
“The more I work toward it, the more likely it will come to fruition,” Woodard said.
Woodard is the kind of evidence that Johnson points to as a “new reality that the black business community has reformed itself.”
“This rebirth has given rise to a new identity, with dynamic entrepreneurs determined to remain self-employed regardless of the obstacles they face,” she added.