I was talking to a friend who owns a funeral home business recently about a little bit of gossip he’d heard about a rival mortuary. The story was unfounded, but it got me thinking.
The only local institution more racially segregated than funeral homes are churches. And when it comes to funeral homes, there are more than a dozen black-owned mortuaries in the area, while you can probably count the number of white-owned funeral homes on one hand. The market’s oversaturated, and I’d be willing to bet that many of them are losing money. I asked an owner of one of the community’s black-owned funeral homes if he agrees, and he does.
Charleston’s black community just isn’t big enough to support that many funeral homes, he said, adding that two new black-owned funeral homes likely will open in the near future.
Our discussion was incidental. I’d come to the guy to talk about the possibility of reestablishing a local black business owners association. But our discussion of the local funeral home business accentuated the need for such an organization.
It’s been my concern over the past almost 20 years that there isn’t a real black business association in the Charleston area, and consequently there seems to be no organized business agenda in the black community.
The now defunct Charleston Business and Professional Association attempted to serve that purpose before it failed in the late 1980s — just as economic development in the area began to boom.
The association had its beginnings in the late 1950s with a small group of black business owners meeting over breakfast at the old Ladson House Restaurant. It lasted just about 30 years. Ultimately it became one of the premier black business organizations locally, but degenerated back into a social gathering. Eventually, folks just stopped attending meetings. I covered the organization during those waning years and had the unpleasant job of watching it die.
In the years since the demise of the Charleston Business and Professional Association, the area has become a hub for business activity. Since the last association meeting, North Charleston has become one of the state’s leading communities in retail sales. Economic development in Charleston has been equally stellar as the city expanded as far east as Daniel Island and as far west as Johns Island. And while the economic potential in those two cities alone has been immeasurable, the level of black business participation has been almost insignificant.
I’d be remiss to say there has been no effort to coordinate black business participation in the local economy. The City of Charleston took the lead among local governments by establishing its Minority Business Enterprise office in the ’80s. To the best of my knowledge, no other local government has followed suit, though several have set minority business participation goals for specific projects.
Watching as billions of dollars in economic development take shape while black business folks sit on the sidelines has been unpleasant for me as well.
I often read the columns of economist James Clingman, author of Blackonomics: The Way to Psychological and Economic Freedom for African Americans. For years Clingman has encouraged black folks across America to use the resources at their disposal, both financial and intellectual, to create and maintain jobs for their children by forming investment and loan pools and collective banking groups that can demand reciprocity from financial institutions. He encourages African Americans to break the cycle of seeking jobs from others rather than creating jobs for themselves.
The initiative to establish a local black business owners association is a step in the right direction. And it’s one that should have been taken a long time ago.