By Kirk Siegler, NPR
In Greenville, Miss., pop. 27,000, a modern, brightly lit juice bar stands out in the small downtown lined with mostly mom and pop businesses and a few taverns near the town’s riverbank casino.
The chorus of friendly, neighborly hellos is a customer favorite, but what’s really turning heads is the owner of Kay’s Kute Fruit, 30 year-old Kenesha Lewis.
“I’m really excited for the young people to walk in, and they say, who’s the owner, and they’re like, what? I had somebody do that to me,” Lewis says laughing.
Growing up here, she can’t recall any prominent Black-owned businesses like hers (today the town is about 81% Black). She and her husband Jason Lewis opened up this brick and mortar last Spring after a few years of making edible fruit arrangements and smoothies and selling them out of their home on the side of their regular jobs.
“Being a young woman here in the Delta, it’s not a lot of health options,” Kenesha says. “It’s not a lot of places you can go and get a healthy wrap and then you can go in the same place and have nice service.”
Indeed, the Delta is known the world over for its delicious comfort food, but fresh produce and even regular grocery stores are few and far between. At Kay’s the blenders appear to always be running, churning up pineapple or mango smoothies with the popular add-ons of chia seeds or turmeric.
“Acai bowls and pitaya bowls, nobody sells that around here,” she says.
Lewis got the idea to start a business after her husband kept getting on her case for eating too much sugar.
“I lost two teeth and he said, ‘wait a minute now, you’re too young to be losing these teeth,'” she recalls, laughing. “[he said] ‘Let’s figure this out.’ So we created smoothies together and I said, okay, this is good for me.”
And it turns out, it was also good for business. Lewis exceeded her projected annual sales in her first month after opening. Growing up, she says people in her community were good entrepreneurs but they usually worked out of their homes. Her mom is a stylist and her dad ran a house painting business.
So, as a Black woman now with a storefront downtown, she sees herself as a role model.
“Our Black people are waking up, they know that they can do this,” Lewis says. “I think that we have helped them to understand that they can do this, they can succeed in this era.”
In this isolated corner of the country, the odds are still stacked against Black women particularly. The mostly rural Mississippi Delta has long been synonymous with racial and economic inequality. Yet today there are a growing number of small, economic bright spots, due in part to a grassroots effort that’s trying to right some of the wrongs of the past.
Hundreds of new Black-owned businesses like Lewis’s are starting to spring up in this region long seen as being dismissed or “forgotten” by outsiders.
The racial and economic disparity goes back decades
Drive south of Memphis, near the massive river levees, and a lot of small town store fronts are boarded up. Some buildings and old homes are condemned or abandoned. Much of this seemingly never-ending, flat expanse of land and its cotton fields is still controlled by white business interests. So when Tim Lampkin, 35, moved back to his hometown of Clarksdale after college and a stint working in corporate America, he had an idea.
“When I came back I noticed that a majority of the businesses in Coahoma County, and particularly where we’re looking at in downtown Clarksdale, are white owned,” Lampkin says. Like in nearby Greenville, more than 80% of Clarksdale’s 15,000 residents are African American.
In 2016, Lampkin started what he calls an economic justice non-profit. Higher Purpose Co. helped Kenesha Lewis in Greenville from start to finish, applying for a loan, prepping her for meetings with bankers. And they follow up frequently with her today, all things Lampkin says would probably be a given for aspiring white business owners in the area.
“If we’re going to make special exceptions for entrepreneurs because, you know, they’re a white farmer and we know their family, why can’t a Black entrepreneur get the same level of access and understanding and patience when it comes to getting access to capital?” Lampkin asks.
A mentorship program Higher Purpose started in late 2019 is now helping some 300 Black entrepreneurs across Mississippi take their business acumen to the next level. The non-profit helps them do things like find grants to cover closing costs or tap into donations and seed money for renting or buying spaces and storefronts.
“Part of this is just evening the playing field for everybody,” Lampkin says.
The disparity here goes back decades. At Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., Rolando Herts, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, says the region is a microcosm for the country’s broader racial and economic inequality.
“In the consciousness of America, this is considered to be one of, if not the most, racist states in the union,” Herts says. “Everybody’s able to look at Mississippi and say, at least we’re not Mississippi.”
Click here to read the full article on NPR.