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Richmond's Black Businesses Have Rich History, but a Brighter Future

Tucked along the northern edge of downtown Richmond lies Historic Jackson Ward. Originally established by European immigrants attracted by its proximity to the retail hub of the city, Jackson Ward became an enclave for former enslaved persons and freed Blacks following the Civil War and during Reconstruction. The neighborhood eventually grew to become a thriving epicenter for Richmond’s Black community, serving as a center of both enterprise and entertainment.

Known as the “birthplace of African-American entrepreneurship,” Jackson Ward hit its stride as one of the most significant Black neighborhoods in the country during the 1920s through the 1940s. Residents built a thriving and self-sustaining business community, anchored in part by the chartering of St. Luke Penny Saving Bank by Maggie Walker, that was often referred to as “Black Wall Street.” St. Luke’s found its footing in providing loans to those who were often rejected by traditional banks, particularly Black doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs.

In the 1950s, parts of Jackson Ward were demolished to make way for the construction of I-95, which would ultimately sever the vibrant neighborhood from the rest of the city – proving disastrous for the community and its businesses.

Today, while many have spread beyond the boundaries of Jackson Ward, Black-owned businesses continue to face some of the same problems as they did back then, as well as added stressors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, approximately 41% of Black businesses shuttered between February and April 2020 alone. When the federal PPP loans became available, most banks worked strictly with their existing clients, something which inadvertently benefited white-owned businesses who traditionally had stronger banking relationships built on legacies and generational ties – something that the now defunct St. Luke Penny Savings Bank had endeavored to rectify.

Both now, and during non-pandemic times, Black-owned businesses tend to be fully self-funded due to reduced or non-existent access to capital which in turn, means that the owners tend to self-staff their business.

By supporting Black-owned businesses, it enables these businesses to hire additional staff which creates jobs within the community and serves to strengthen the economic health of the entire city, after all, a rising tide lifts all boats. The reasons to support local businesses are just as important, if not more so, when it comes to supporting Black-owned businesses – which often fill a void in the Black community in terms of product or location.

Supporting Black-owned businesses in Richmond has never been easier. In 2019, Richmond Region Tourism launched BLK RVA, a collaboration with more than 20 community leaders in celebration of the Black cultural experience in the region. On their website, visitors will find shopping and dining directories, interviews with community leaders, as well as historical and cultural guides and highlights.  

Additionally, those looking to support through their taste buds will want to mark their calendar for the annual Richmond Black Restaurant Experience, which takes place March 7-14, 2021 this year, and highlights the city’s Black-owned restaurants, caterers, and food truck operators as well as their contribution toward the city’s food culture.

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