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Durham's Black-Led Entrepreneurship: Black Wall Street to Today

Estimated Read Time:
4 minutes

Durham is no stranger to African American-led innovation.

Posted By Ashley Strahm on Feb 06, 2019

Don't be a stranger to Durham's burgeoning resurgence of black business.

The Roots of Black-led Entrepreneurship in Durham

Main Street trolley tracks, c. 1910. (Durham County Library)

Durham has a strong history of diversity and entrepreneurial prowess. Black Wall Street became a moniker for Durham's West Parrish Street, a hub of black-owned business that blossomed during the early 1900s.

What you may not have read in your school textbooks was the thrilling historical narrative of Durham's unapologetic position as successful urban epicenter at the turn of the century. Thriving among the likes of Tulsa, OK and Richmond, VA, Durham's tireless communities of color bolstered the construction of early Durham. Black-owned brick and black-owned banks rose despite the searing systemic wounds of Jim Crow America.

Don't sleep on this history.

The very first African American bank and second-oldest minority-owned bank in the United States (Mechanics and Farmers Bank) was founded here. Durham was also home to North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, which to this day remains the largest and oldest African American life insurance company. African Americans created the Hayti neighborhood and it developed into a thriving business and residential district that received national acclaim, including written praise from W. E. B. du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Around the same time, the desire to provide educational opportunities for blacks resulted in the founding of Dr. James E. Shepard's National Religious Training School and Chautauqua, which later became North Carolina Central University (NCCU).


Future Fruit

This is the fertile soil from which startups like Loanable grew: a platform founded by Bernard Worthy that helps users create loan agreements among friends and family, as well as disrupt student loan debt. Then there's RewardStock — the website that shows you how to travel on credit card reward points without completely blowing your budget — founded by Jonathan Hayes, a former investment banker. What's more, Durham-based platform SpokeHub aims to bring back the art of conversation, and has secured significant capital from a majority of black investors. In another venture born out of personal experience, NC Central alum Ithiopia Meekeda founded Blush Essentials Natural Body Products after trying to find products for her sensitive skin. Also, in what has turned into a green, fertile venture on Parrish Street, the Zen Succulent has sprung to life.

The spirit spreads to philanthropic ventures from the tiniest of Durhamites, too — as evidenced by the work of bold, determined Ava Lewis and her mother Maggie. Driven by her desire to "help babies," Ava sold her family's age-old lemonade recipe (originated by her grandmother!) in order to raise money to buy diapers for infants in need. Though the lemonade stand has been outside of Maggie's salon for 11 years, national news coverage propelled sales, and the pair has donated massive amounts of baby wipes and boxes of diapers to the Good Samaritan Inn, operated by the Durham Rescue Mission.

Thought Leaders

Black Bull City entrepreneurs were future thinkers before the future arrived. NC Central alum and co-founder of Kompleks Creative Tobias Rose is a testament to forward-thinking design. The self-proclaimed 'dope' creative agency takes its talents nationwide, and has proudly bolstered the brands of local partners since 2001. They're also responsible for the logo and brand behind the City of Durham's sesquicentennial, as well as durham150.org.

Sustainable practices abound at Jeddash' Tea — just steps from the Kompleks office and across CCB plaza. Owner Morgan Seigel has created an oasis of peace for the people here, in this sunlit corner teahouse where loose leaf teas from Brazil, Egypt, and Senegal mingle beautifully with spices and milks for hot or cold-brewed delights. "A dream come true," Siegel remarks of her beautiful brick and mortar, steps from where previous generations of black business owners first began. Here, passion in the present has come full circle.

Dorian Bolden, owner of Beyù Caffè and Beyu Blue, graduated from Duke in 2002. Right after receiving his diploma, he left the Bull City for the Big Apple to begin work as a Wall Street stockbroker, but eventually opened Beyù Caffè in the heart of Downtown Durham after returning home in 2005.

“I am a firm believer that what has always separated Durham from any other place, and the reason that we call it Dirty Durham, is diversity,” Bolden said in 2017. “... I am hoping new companies coming to Durham like it for its authenticity and its grit, and work to maintain diversity in the workforce.”

Bolden announced plans to expand his inclusive restaurant and event space to Duke University's West Campus with Beyù Blue – offering folks of all hues the opportunity to bask in the beautiful ambiance he's cultivated over a number of years.

Crystal Taylor is the founder of Black August in the Park and the Beats N Bars festival. These annual events draw locals and visitors alike, serving as robust gatherings for communities of color to explore career and professional resources, as well as creative, holistic space to celebrate and commemorate heritage and identity.

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Cicely E. Mitchell, Dr.PH. is the CEO of So When Do I Clap? and co-founder of the Art of Cool Project. She's also the Artistic Director of SummerStage at Golden Belt, an outdoor stage featuring diverse acts throughout the summer at Hi-Wire Brewery. Her events are undoubtedly "where culture and curation collide."


Present Day Purpose

Every single day in Durham serves as a launchpad for entrepreneurial magic. This fall season, however, innovative African American startups are making their mark on our city in the present day. At the annual Black Wall Street: Homecoming, success, business, and culture will converge in downtown Durham, locals and visitors alike plan to honor the past and future of black founders, investors, industry experts and members of the startup ecosystem. If you were wondering how to get plugged in to witness the inspiration, this is your chance. The free conference will feature pitches, workshops, stories, and art, all with the option to personalize agendas for an unforgettable experience.


What's more, the annual Black Communities Conference at the Carolina Theatre seeks to create partnerships and future collaborations between black communities, academics and other organizations that will enhance, document and safeguard the life of these communities.

Viola Turner, the first female board member of NC Mutual Life Insurance Company and entrepreneurial sesquicentennial honoree will be honored at a free event at Hayti Heritage Center.

The signature Hayti Heritage Film Festival commemorates over 25 years of celebrating Durham's African American heritage and its historic Hayti community, which was a thriving enclave in the early 20th century. This annual film festival showcases diverse works by and about people of African descent, and includes both short and feature-length films from an international cast of directors, and classic feature films. This year's festival takes place February 13–15 at the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation/Hayti Heritage Center at 804 Old Fayetteville Road in Durham, NC. Come for the heritage ... depart with the stories of local and international trailblazers.

Each year, we look forward to the best in entertainment at the Durham born and bred Art of Cool Festival. Past years have featured a range of R&B, Neo Soul, Hip-Hop, Jazz, alternative and spoken word performances and speakers at multiple venues. Art of Cool festival's lineup featured three-time GRAMMY® award-winning singer-songwriter, Jill Scott, Ari Lennox, and RUN DMC, as well as Nas, NC hip-hop producer, rapper and scholar 9thWonder presenting 95Live; NC native and saxophonist Marcus Anderson; classically-trained string instrumentalists and hip-hop duo Black Violin and British soul singer-songwriter Omar.

Dive deep. Visit. Learn about more African American-owned businesses in Durham, NC; the history and progress are etched into the fabric of the Bull City.

About the Author

Ashley Strahm

Jersey roots, Durham fruits. Lover of all things edible, egalitarian and true. Find me clad in Birkenstocks, seeking Bull City Beautiful stories by trail, wheel and spoke.



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