History of Black Owned Businesses in Muskegon Highlights ‘Entrepreneurial Gene’
MUSKEGON, MI – From family-owned convenience stores to radio stations, black-owned businesses have thrived in Muskegon for decades.
Black business ownership in the community began in the 1950s, and Kirk Bunke, site director at the Heritage Museum, said its persistence over decades reflects Muskegon’s “entrepreneurial gene”.
Stories of black-owned businesses over the decades help tell the story of the Muskegon community.
Pamela Smith, a business professor at Muskegon Community College, has spearheaded efforts to shine a light on this story with a new exhibit at the Muskegon Heritage Museum titled “It Runs in the Family: 50 Years of Black Entrepreneurs”.
“This tells the story of the important role African American business owners played in this growth of the city of Muskegon and Muskegon Heights,” Smith said.
Black-owned businesses were economic engines in the 1950s
Black communities in Muskegon flourished during the Second Great Migration from 1916 to 1970, when about 6 million southerners moved to cities in the northern United States.
Those who settled in Muskegon saw a path to “economic success” through business ownership, Bunke said.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, convenience stores, dry cleaners, drugstores, laundromats, funeral homes, restaurants, black-owned electricians and plumbers all sprang up to provide supplies. goods and services in isolated Muskegon communities.
“Your businesses have been totally supported by your neighbors and friends in your community because that’s what the Jim Crow Law required,” Smith said.
A dry cleaner started in 1955, a convenience store in 1958, and four doctors opened practices from 1957 to 1960. These family-owned neighborhood stores, though relegated to black neighborhoods, were the “economic engine” of their communities, depending on the museum.
Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Muskegon saw a greater emergence of black-owned businesses, as barriers were removed for entrepreneurs to integrate into downtown business districts. city.
In 1968, Smith’s parents opened Smitty’s Furniture & Carpeting, the first black-owned store in the downtown Muskegon Heights business district. And Hi-Style opened in 1978, becoming the first black-owned retailer in downtown Muskegon.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, there was “an enthusiasm for entrepreneurship,” Smith said. Nearly 30 businesses opened around this time and operated for more than a decade, according to museum records.
Smith attributes this influx of black-owned businesses to a strong economy, financial backing, and support from church, NAACP, and Urban League leaders.
In the 1970s, the steady growth of black entrepreneurs hit a roadblock when the recession hit.
“It not only impacted the business community as a whole, but it probably had a bigger impact on businesses owned by Muskegon and Muskegon Heights Black because it was a community of the working class, ”Smith said.
Through the economic decline and its fallout, many black-owned businesses persevered.
The Smitty furniture store remained open until 2003. And Patterson’s Drug Store, which opened in 1976 under the ownership of Muskegon’s first black pharmacist Carolyn Patterson, celebrated its 45th birthday last year before close its doors.
A “continuum” of black entrepreneurship in Muskegon
Smith says much of the community is unaware of the boom in black-owned businesses 50 years ago, but “the entrepreneurial spirit is still alive.”
She referred to Urban Apparel, a clothing store that opened in 2003, and the founding of 103.7 The Beat, Muskegon’s first black-owned radio station, in 1994.
“The second and third generations are now opening businesses and thriving on the hard work and challenges their grandparents faced,” Bunke said.
In Muskegon County, there are approximately 11,500 businesses, of which 2,000 are owned by minorities, according to the latest 2012 census data. They show the “continuum of entrepreneurship across the community,” Bunke said.
In April 2019, an organization called Black Wall Street Muskegon was formed to provide networking resources and opportunities for black-owned businesses. Its name is taken from the thriving black business community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was destroyed by a mob of white residents in 1921.
Lashae Simmons II, the founder of Black Wall Street Muskegon, said black entrepreneurship in the region was “in the making.” However, she says black-owned businesses still face hurdles getting started.
“One of the biggest issues I think black-owned businesses face today – and I’m sure I am then – is capital and understanding how to create a self-sustaining ecosystem within. a community, ”Simmons said.
Black entrepreneurs face disparities in start-up financing and raising external capital, and they seek loans less often than white entrepreneurs, according to research from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Despite the challenges, Simmons said black-owned businesses in Muskegon “are starting to thrive” with more than 100 people involved in Black Wall Street Muskegon.
The black of the Muskegon Heritage Museum the entrepreneurship exhibition will debut on February 24 in a Zoom presentation hosted by Smith and Andrew Sims of Michigan Minority Supplier Development.
Museum visitors can also view the permanent exhibit by appointment until the start of the museum’s regular season in May. To make an appointment, visit the museum website here for a contact form or call 231-722-1363.
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