Locals see gradual increase in number of black-owned businesses in Johnson City

David Floyd • Feb 20, 2020 at 10:00 AM

For six months, Craig Charles split his time between Johnson City and Nashville.

He stayed in Nashville during the week and made the 4-hour commute between the cities during the weekend.

At the time, Charles was working to get the training he needed to open a local barber academy, which was an untapped market in Johnson City. As he was getting his instructor’s license, Charles was also operating a barbershop in downtown Johnson City: Craig’s Crown Cutz, 111 Spring St., which he started in 2004.

“I drove to Nashville during the week and drove back on Saturday and then I worked at the barbershop on Sunday and then I drove back to Nashville on Monday,” he said.

Crown Cutz Academy was founded in 2015. Before then, Charles said there wasn’t a dedicated barber college within a convenient radius of Johnson City, and he would occasionally get questions from people about how they could learn to operate their own shop.

“I didn’t really have an answer for them,” he said. “So I figured I’d create the supply and help them out.”

Charles said there weren’t many black-owned businesses in Johnson City when he opened his barbershop in 2004, a number that he said appears to have grown since then at a “minute” rate.

In the late 1900s, local leaders say black-owned businesses in Johnson City started to disappear, hit by the rise of conglomerates that dominated large swaths of the market and by the after effects of integration, which in cities across the U.S. pulled black clientele that had patronized black-owned businesses out of necessity toward other outlets.

“That was a critique of integration,” said Adam Dickson, the supervisor of the Langston Centre. “Was that the life in black communities began to dry up. ... After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you begin to see a lot of the black community begin to fade away — particularly the black-owned businesses.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in February 2016 that nationwide, the number of black-owned firms jumped 34.5% from 2007 to 2012, growing from 1.9 million to 2.6 million. Women were a significant contributor to that increase. Dickson believes national shifts in black business ownership have trickled down to the local level, helping spur a gradual increase in the number of minority-owned businesses in the area.

Dickson theorizes that young people are more hesitant to take on student loan debt and are more in tune with the shifting demands of the job market, which could make pursuing a four-year degree less attractive.

“These are factors that I think open people up to being more entrepreneurial,” he said.

Lorraine Washington owns and operates Taste Budz, which specializes in Southern-style cuisine, in downtown Johnson City with her husband Elmer. She said the number of black-owned businesses has increased “tremendously” over the years and estimates there are at least 20 black-owned businesses in Johnson City with brick-and-mortar storefronts.

She and Elmer previously operated L&E Images, an African-American art gallery and bookstore on North Roan Street, which opened in 1989. At the time, Washington said the couple couldn’t find African-American art without traveling to places like Knoxville, Nashville or Atlanta.

“We just decided, ‘Hey, we’re a proud people,’” she said. “This is beautiful art. Black art has been around for forever, so why not bring it into our area.”

The gallery sold multiple forms of fine art and organized art shows in locations as far away as Detroit. In 2007, the stock market crashed and Washington said the art business became a luxury, which forced the couple to close the gallery. Lorraine and Elmer are now focused on Taste Budz.

“We were doing sandwiches and salads and things like that and it just grew into a full-fledged catering business,” she said.

Charles initially came to Johnson City from Boston to play football on a scholarship at East Tennessee State University. He’d been cutting hair since he was 14, and continued through college.

“I just wanted to work for myself, open my own business,” Charles said, “and a mentor told me one day, ‘If you’re going to open a business, try to go into a business that you’re passionate about.’”

If officials wants to encourage more people to come to the region to start businesses, Charles said Johnson City can do more to highlight its local culture and show off a diverse slate of activities that could encourage people to move here.

“We have a starting point,” Charles said. “There’s a ... ton of great people doing some great things in this area.”

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