Saturday, June 20, 2009

Longtime merchants hold critical key to black history - Gazette

Historical Society seeks African-American business owners for connection to Silver Spring’s past

by Agnes Jasinski | Staff Writer | Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Rev. Samuel Myers decided he would open his own business when he was still a teenager, growing up in a small town in South Carolina and learning the dry cleaning trade from his father.

Decades later, Myers, 93, can boast to any doubters along the way that he has run his own shop in Silver Spring for 36 years – Jim Dandy Cleaners and Formal Wear on Bonifant Street.

‘‘You have to stand up and get knocked down, but you don’t lie down,” said Myers of Silver Spring, a black business owner in the downtown area since 1972, when there were few minority-owned shops.

He is known in the area by his ‘‘trade name,” Jim Dandy, which he said is more ‘‘catchy” than his formal moniker, and has also worked as a bellhop, night clerk, farmer and shop steward. ‘‘I was always out there, doing something,” he said.

Myers’ accomplishment is serving as a starting point for the Silver Spring Historical Society in its efforts to gather information on black history in the community’s business districts.

Jerry McCoy, president of the historical society, said it has been difficult to find material on black history in the area. The historical society hoped to speak to black business owners about finding materials and documents of the ‘‘African American presence as it applies to downtown Silver Spring” to eventually compile, learn from and display.

Historically, Silver Spring has been a predominantly Caucasian community, McCoy said, and the minority presence did not become visible until the 1960s and 1970s.

‘‘There was certainly a diversity along that corridor on Ellsworth Drive before the revitalization,” said Andrea Bray, a Silver Spring resident for the last 35 years and owner of Andrea’s Fine Hats on Eastern Avenue for the last 18 years.

Bray, who grew up in segregated Pittsburgh, Pa., in the 1960s, spent most of her life in broadcast journalism, moving from one television station to another, often as the only black woman in the newsroom. By the time she left journalism to open her own business – hats have been a lifelong passion, she said – the community was much more diverse and welcoming to minority business owners.

‘‘I don’t think I ever realized what was happening for me, personally. ... My parents did, and my community did, but it never really hit me,” she said of her experience in majority-white newsrooms.

Roland Dawes, the 80-year-old owner of Roland’s Unisex Barber Shop in Takoma Park since 1986, said when he was working to move up in the barber business, it was inconceivable for a black man to rent a shop, much less buy a building even in an area that was more diverse than most.

He described the Washington, D.C., area as ‘‘breaking loose” since, and the former ‘‘rules” on who was able to buy property became more lax in the decade before he opened the barber shop.

‘‘People may try to discourage you, tell you you can’t do this or that, but you just have to keep moving ahead,” said Dawes, who has run barber shops or refuse businesses since the 1950s, including a hair-cutting business in the Takoma neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Dawes has lived in Takoma Park since he was 3 years old.

In 2002, about 12 percent of the businesses in Montgomery County were black-owned, compared to nearly 16 percent statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest statistics on minority-owned businesses. Jerome Love, vice president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery County, said it was not tougher or easier for black men and women to run their own businesses today than it was 30 years ago, just ‘‘different.”

‘‘We’ve still got some work left to do, but it goes in both directions,” said Love, the CEO of Germantown-based AdCast Inc. ‘‘The owners of minority firms, they have to be willing to reach out to the county.”

Silver Spring resident Lisa Hoston, a black business owner of Concierge Transportation Services in Silver Spring for the last three years, said it is now less of an issue of minorities opening businesses, and more about being an entrepreneur in a difficult economy.

‘‘Of course, everyone told me it would be difficult; my parents said it would be hard,” she said. ‘‘But it was more about being able to get a plan together, get your finances in order.”

Myers agrees. The last eight years have been particularly troubling, as rents and utility costs have continued to increase. But Myers, who described himself as ‘‘slow to age,” has no plans to close his shop. Rather, he wants to expand into a larger site where he would be able to take on more customers and offer more services.

‘‘My daughter, she tells me to retire all the time,” he said. ‘‘I tell her, ‘And do what?’ I have no experience in loafing. Not a bit.”

No comments: