This article chronicles the pursuits of two African American families who shared the same visions. Yet, their tales occur(ed) in two different cities and in two different centuries only crossing paths in this Examiner’s depictions of Black History Month, 2013.
What’s for sell?
Morris Smith was an African American born around 1880. After marrying and having three children he opened up a general store in his hometown of Bessemer, Alabama. He rented farm land from a Klan member by the name of Mr. Easter. Mr. Easter would bring fruit to Smith’s children at harvest time because Mr. Easter felt that a colored man could not grow fruit good enough for human consumption.
Smith was known as Morris around the community. He raised chickens, pigs, and cows. He planted every fruit and vegetable that the earth in Bessemer would yield. However, he could not sell anything that he grew or raised in his store—the United States’ government food handling standards made selling one’s own goods illegal.
To the contrary, white merchants would sell their products in their stores—but there were two laws in the south: The law for whites was loosely defined; the one for coloreds was severely enforced.
Still, Morris made a very decent living from his business. His store was at a cross road for persons traveling in and out of different townships. He would cover many miles in his horse drawn buggy for his purchases. He bought rice, wheat, flour, meats, candy, fabrics, and other dry goods to stock his shelves.
Morris always started out before sunrise in order to get the best selections. His two younger children (one being my mother) would constantly beg to go with him. And in his usual manner, he would say, “Go ask your ma-ma.” And in her usual manner their mother would say, “Go ask your father.”
As Morris pulled off in his wagon, headed for Birmingham, my mother and my uncle were stowed away in the back of the wagon giggling. The children loved the clamor, bartering, and busyness of the market place. The white merchants would give the children balloons and whistles. They would blow the balloons up and attach the whistles to the balloons and the whistles seem to blow without ceasing.
What’s not for sell?
At the market place blacks were not too plentiful; however, Mr. Moss was a black store owner and frequent visitor of the market place. He was very dark complexioned, tall, always wore a navy blue bow tie, and sported a hard straw hat. Mr. Moss had taken Morris under his wing, guiding him in the finer points of running a business.
Blacks were forbidden to sell books or any type of written materials in their stores. White storekeepers could sell books, newspapers, and magazines.
Mr. Moss was always looking for ways to increase his profit margin, as well as keeping abreast of his competitors’ strategies. He wanted to sell newspapers in his store too. Subsequently, he made his intentions well known. Not too long after his very bold declaration, Mr. Moss was visited by a gun toting Klan member who told him that, “Niggers cain’t even read.” To everyone’s surprise, a fist fight ensued.
My mother said that after the altercation, Mr. Moss was very angry because his hat got “mussed up,” and the Klansman lay in a pool of blood; never discharging his rifle.
My mother brags about learning how to read from the newspapers that my grandfather kept in his store.
A new day
Stef.n.ty has blossomed in the 21st Century as a refined and sophisticated black retailer of hats and other chic apparel. Stef and Ty are a husband and wife business team. Ty gives much credit to his African American ancestors who endured the racism that paved the way for him to make and sell his own product. Still, a small private enterprise consisting of African Americans, they can exist without the stigma of overt racism.
Their store is not morphed by the Jim Crow South and their merchandise is creative, artsy, and free-willed. Their freedom of expression is a celebration of Black History Month in America; in the City of Detroit.
Stef said that she learned to sew as a small child, and sewing became her passion. Stef’s grandmother passed the tradition of sewing down the family line. Ty manages the business arrangements as well as overseeing the day to day operations while Stef’s magic fingers create one-of-a-kind hats on the upper level.
The couple first started their initiative in 1992, and established a store in Detroit in 2012. Their retail history has taken them to Manhattan, Harlem, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, and Philly.
The cozy atmosphere of the garret stone-wall boutique is colorfully decorated with natural fabric hats and other urban swanky attire. The store is a pleasant retreat from the big impersonal shopping malls that have become a suburban hallmark. Soft jazz, light refreshments, and a hospitable host and hostess welcome the shoppers.
Ty openly discussed the role that racism has played in the lives of black business owners. Being a black entrepreneur he too has felt the sting of intolerance in certain parts of the country; but their Detroit based boutique is flourishing. Ty expresses his deep concern for his younger African American brothers and hopes that his entrepreneurship might be an inspiration for others.
The Black History continuum
Comparing the political dynamics in the 1900s’ rural south with the freedom of expression in Stef and Ty’s business establishes a continuum of Black History. Understanding that African Americans were once forbidden to sell books in their own stores, marks a point on the continuum that bemoans a bitter struggle for persons living in America with African descendants.
Those of us residing in America, having African ancestry, did not crowd the shores of North America in droves seeking religious freedom, or a better way of life. Our history discloses one of servitude, subordination, and suppression. Entrapment and force were the apparatuses that bought us to America. Thereby, being denied the right to read was an overt negation of our success, upward mobility, and sovereignty.
“To separate [some children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone” Chief Justice Warren (1954).