by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
It started, as best I can remember, with a ‘four star’ Black restaurant owned by Mark Wade, called Sir Desmond’s. The restaurant was located on 78th and Good Hope Road. Sir Desmond’s was high quality, both in terms of food and customer service. It drew a mixed socioeconomic crowd.
Families were ever present, and area business and middle managers were known to frequent the establishment at lunchtime.
The restaurant was too far from downtown to attract that daytime consumer base. But, even reservations were beneficial for dinner.
The restaurant was sandwiched between Christian Faith and Christ the King Churches, which meant it attracted a nice church crowd on Sundays.
Sir Desmond’s should have prospered. It should have been an anchor for the Black community, a catalyst for a cultural renaissance. Instead it closed within a year.
Then there was the African Hut. Located around the corner from the Bradley Center, it maintained an integrated base of customers. The Hut wasn’t an African American restaurant; it was African, which means a lot to White folks, whether we want to admit it or not. White people have historically treated Africans much better than African Americans. You can figure out why. Or why not?
Last year the Hut closed. The owners said they would reopen. But we knew what that meant.
This year was particularly bad for Black restaurants. One of the remaining ‘four star’ establishments, the Bayou, closed. This time you couldn’t blame its customer base. Instead, questions have been raised–but of course never answered—as to why the city of Milwaukee ‘starved’ the Bayou out. (Pun intended.)
By that I mean a six-month repaving project that blocked entrance to the restaurant, grew into a year-long “project.” Repair work on streets to the north and south of the restaurant guaranteed no access to one of the better Black restaurants in recent memory.
The restaurant was owned by the sons of Bill Jenkins, one of the most influential Black executives in Milwaukee. His sons played Division One basketball at Valparaiso, where they earned their degrees. Many thought they would take their talents elsewhere, but they chose instead to start a business in their hometown. Now they are looking for work, and probably a more progressive city. If that happens, they will contribute to the Black brain drain, a factor that has contributed to Milwaukee’s slow death,
Many (well, a couple anyway) of Black leaders asked why the city killed the Bayou, or at least why they didn’t make attempts to accommodate the establishment. Some (at least me) ask why accommodations are being made for White businesses (drive along East Capitol Dive where there is a major road project, but temporary roads to Culvers and Baker Square.
A conspiracy theory? Well, not if you’re Black. For us, it’s status quo. Some of us even continue to think there’s an organized effort to inconvenience Black businesses; force Black consumers to spend their money with White businesses. Place that strategy under the heading of “integration.” Which in Milwaukee means our dollars go everywhere but our community. In essence, we are allowed to integrate our dollars, even if we can’t physically integrate ourselves.
But back to the subject.
The closing of QFH surprised everybody. But before the shock subsided completely, Stella’s closed in the middle of the night. Now that was a true shocker because most assumed it was doing well. Hell, White folks went there on a regular basis. Surely that’s a sign of success. Isn’t it?
But even as our community was in mourning, word hit that Manna House would follow suit.
Both Stella and Manna House were former franchises—Ponderosa and IHop respectively. The owners dropped the franchise tags to better serve their clientele—i.e. Black folks. As we were told, Ponderosa and IHop didn’t support the introduction of greens and fried green tomatoes. Those vegetable were too “ethnic.”
To some, the closing of a half dozen Black restaurants (one was a “Christian” restaurant, “Two Fish and Five Loaves”—I guess even a scriptural note doesn’t help if you’re Black owned) wouldn’t warrant a column. But in our case, their closures represent much more than failed businesses. Black restaurants, like barbering shops, upscale nightclubs, and art studios, make up a community’s cultural foundation.
If a community doesn’t have anything to offer culturally, what foundational legs does it have to stand on?
Obviously, you can’t compare Milwaukee to Los Angeles or New York. But theorically, you can weigh our “great city by a great lake” with cities of similar size, and comparable African American populations.
So, let’s look at Atlanta. Naw that isn’t fair. Black folks really control Atlanta, and the local government is held accountable.
OK, let’s look at Indianapolis. I guess that’s unfair too, given it’s a progressive city that has long hosted an EXPO and HBCU football game that draws thousands, including hundreds from Milwaukee. Indianapolis, even with its faults, is light years ahead of Milwaukee. They even have a thriving downtown, and Black people are allowed to shop there. Believe it or not, White citizens aren’t running away from areas frequented by Black people.
Well then, let’s look at Washington, D.C. Its school system is worse than Milwaukee’s, as is its crime and poverty rates. Eight blocks from the White House is a ghetto that makes Milwaukee’s worse neighborhoods look like Glendale.
I was in D.C. two weeks ago for three days. Each night I dined at a four, maybe five star Black owned restaurant. First it was the Acadiana, a Cajun restaurant with service that equaled its superb cuisine. The next night we left licking our lips after dining at the restaurant owned by Oprah Winfrey’s former chef. On the third night it was B. Smith’s, a place frequented by President and Michelle Obama.
Where would you invite the Obama’s to dine here, if they returned to their roots and decided to sample Milwaukee’s Black community cuisine? The Lincoln Park Café? The restaurant only has two booths and eight chairs. But that greasy spoon has decent food. Or, we could take them to Red Snapper. Oops, sorry, no seats.
If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, well, it’s more cultural than culinary. The loss of a half dozen Black owned restaurants is endemic of a larger problem, one that gets at the heart of the Black crisis that defines Black Milwaukee. And you’re a fool if you think the November 2 election will provide a solution to this phenomenon.
In fact, the elections are part of the problem. Too many Black folks continue to sing those “White folks and politicians going to save us” blues. But the only thing our political blues have given us is more blues.
I got news for all of you: There is no white knight coming around Center Street waving a magic wand and solving our cultural, or economic, or educational problems. It’s time we woke up to that reality. If anything, all we’ve received from the political parties are sleeping pills.
Truth of the matter is, unless and until Black folks come to grips with the sad reality that all we have is each other, and it is upon each other’s shoulders we stand, it’s going to be status quo. Which in laymen’s English means same old, same old.
I was talking with NAACP vice president Wendell Harris over the weekend about this subject and he mentioned that if he wins the branch presidency next month, the first item on his agenda will be to coordinate a Black economic summit. Not the same old “blame ‘them’” for our problems’ event, but instead a fire and brimstone meeting that will result in a plan to light a spark under some Black butts.
Wendell is from that old school I attended where we believed we should control the community institutions, build a strong cultural base and invest in institutions that support us. As Wendell sees it, we should put the creation of a community investment pool back on the table. Just think, if every Black adult could contribute a small sum based on their income and churches and other large ‘businesses’ contribute a proportionate share, we could start with a bank of several million dollars. And that’s even if only 10% contributed, which would likely be the case since most of us suffer from an illness called cultural myopia.
Within a year, our new investment bank could provide the capital for several new ventures. We could start our own stimulus plan, one with certain economic growth because we would own, and thereby have a vested interest in supporting a shoe factory, or maybe a construction firm (who knows, we may be able to get some of those governmental dollars that goes to everybody but us), or a beauty supply business. Yeah, beauty supplies! There’s literally millions being spent by Black women on weaves, straightening combs and relaxers; all of which leaves our community for the suburbs, or Korea.
Businessman Michael Harper likes the idea of an economic summit. In fact, he says it’s long overdue. The owner of Urban Clean Energy Ventures, Harper thinks the economic and cultural survival of Black Milwaukee may very well be tied in how, and whether, we climb out of this state of depression and economic ignorance.
Black Milwaukeeans have morphed over the years from being providers, to consumers. The chains of a welfare mentality bind the majority of us. Thus, we’ve wasted a generation, almost two, waiting on some Marvel comic book hero to come and save us. Mostly, from ourselves.
The result has been our complicity in a scheme that made Milwaukee, as one study affirms, the worst place for Black people in America. Even that declaration may be putting our predicament in a better light than we deserve. Maybe it should instead be the worse Black people stuck in space.
One of the reasons Milwaukee ranks as the fourth most impoverished city in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is linked to our lack of (successful) business ventures. And the truth is, we’re so deep in that economic hole, we can just about smell the sulfur in Hades.
Think about this little trivia fact I learned from Milwaukee’s own African storyteller and griot, Tejumola: In 2009, Atlanta was home to 61,000 Black businesses. D.C. has over 43,000. Milwaukee has—hold on to your Korean blond wig—3,900! Not 39,000, but three thousand, nine hundred. That statistic would be mind-boggling if it was not so mind-boggling.
There are a myriad of factors contributing to this phenomenon; surely institutional racism plays a part. But not a large part. The larger contributing factor is the same malice that cements our status as leading the nation in teen pregnancy, single parent households, and high school drop out rates. It is indirectly responsible for our having the highest gap between White and Black income in America, as well as the highest Black incarceration rate.
So, how does the Black incarceration rate relate to the closing of a half dozen restaurants in the last couple months? Well, restaurants don’t just feed the body; they also feed our cultural mindset. And as a cultural cornerstone, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out if those small businesses can’t survive—whether due to city oversight and neglect, consumer support or ignorance of their value to our cultural foundation—we are digging an economic graveyard for ourselves.
Actually, that’s a good idea for an investment opportunity. We could own a graveyard. You know, someplace where we can bury bodies, and hopefully the slave mentality so many of us possess.