Black Wall Street Historic Marker

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Though slavery had been abolished for nearly 40 years in the early 1900s, African Americans in the post-antebellum Jim Crow South had few opportunities to earn an education or decent wages. Noticing the gaps in the markets, an unlikely group of African American entrepreneurs and educators defied the societal and cultural norms of the time and stepped in to fill them. 

In 1898, a barber named John Merrick and Durham’s first black medical doctor Dr. Aaron Moore founded what became the largest African American owned business in the U.S.—the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Then in 1907, Merrick, Moore and other prominent African-American businessmen joined brick maker R.B. Fitzgerald to open the Mechanic and Farmer Bank for African Americans to bank and apply for credit and loans. The two businesses became a cornerstone of the booming business and financial district that became known as “Black Wall Street” and propelled economic growth in Durham and the surrounding African American communities.

Black Wall Street Founders
The founders of Mechanics and Farmers Bank, a staple on Durham's Black Wall Street, pose together in 1900.

At the same time, an African American pharmacist and educator named Dr. James E. Shephard was building up the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race in Durham—a college today known as North Carolina Central University (NCCU).

Today, many of the buildings and institutions these entrepreneurs established still stand and their stories have been documented, honored and highlighted through sculptureshistorical markers and t-shirts.

But one group of Durham entrepreneurs would like celebrate and harness the entrepreneurial spirit of those trailblazers to catalyze the next generation of minority-led businesses in Durham and the Triangle.

The group is made up of Tobias Rose, founder of marketing and website design firm Kompleks Creative, Talib Graves Manns co-founder of RainbowMe TV and American Underground’s entrepreneur-in-residence, and Jesica Averhart, director of community partnerships and new business for the American Underground. Earlier this year, they organized the first local Startup Weekend with the purpose of including people of all races. And now, they’re spearheading this week’s Black Wall Street Homecoming, in timing with NCCU’s Homecoming festivities.

The three-day event includes talks from venture capitalist and startup experts, an Idea pitch contest, a Back Alley party and exclusive invite-only after-parties. 

According to Graves Manns, it will, “inspire people to think about entrepreneurship and technology in a very big way, allow people to make connections, highlight the activity and energy going on in Durham and celebrate the traditional black entrepreneurial community.” 

Efforts like the Homecoming are beginning to connect the two worlds—business and education—created by Durham’s forefathers. There’s a movement within the NCCU community to connect with the broader Durham startup community too. Last week, NCCU grad and ExitEvent employee Michael English hosted the first LinkUp event to connect NCCU students and alums to established Triangle business owners and experts like Frank Pollock and executives at Coastal Federal Credit Union.

He hopes to build on the early connections between the university and the entrepreneurial community to create a replicable model for advancing entrepreneurship within HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) across the country. NCCU has operated an Entrepreneur Lab in American Underground for the last couple years. Now, English is bringing those entrepreneurs to campus. 

Black Wall Street Homecoming, a reunion

Homecoming will be another significant joint venture between the university and the startup community. The university has partnered with the organizing team to connect more alumni and students to Durham’s growing business and startup community. But the event is not exclusive to NCCU students and alums—it’s open to the entire Triangle community. 

Averhart describes it as a “reunion” and “an opportunity to shine a light on a rich and prosperous history while embracing the next generation of thought leaders and innovators.” 

The event is a mix of networking opportunities and informational sessions for entrepreneurs, those interested in or in school studying entrepreneurship, or anyone who wants to mingle with the special guests, speakers and other attendees. Guest speakers include Chaucer Barnes, a marketing guru from Brooklyn-based Translation, LLC, Durham’s own, Zack Mansfield of Square 1 Bank, local historian Ed Harris, San Francisco venture capitalists Marlon Nichols and Trevor Thomas of Cross Culture Ventures and Stefanie Thomas of the Impact America Fund in New York City. 

Graves Manns said the sessions are designed to be short and bookended with networking opportunities so attendees can be “inspired then go talk about those ideas with people in this ecosystem.” 

All education and networking sessions are free. And the organizing team is only charging for Thursday night’s block party to cover its cost. Any additional revenue from the party will be donated to a local charity. More than 500 people have already signed up. 

Black Wall Street Homecoming 2015
Black Wall Street Homecoming 2015 happens October 28-30, 2015 in downtown Durham. Logo Credit: Black Wall Street Homecoming
Given the organizing team’s experience and broad network, the registration counts are not surprising. Rose’s Kompleks Creative is nearly 10 years old and has an established network and client group including Beyu Caffe and Duke University locally, and VH-1 nationally. As an NCCU alum, he wants to show off to fellow alums Durham’s progress and how “Durham is a diverse place in the way we think, work and the way we do business.”

Averhart and Graves Manns are co-organizing the event on behalf of American Underground’s CODE2040-sponsored Entrepreneur-in-Residence program. And with powerful sponsors in Google for Entrepreneurs and CODE2040, they’re able to tap into broader national networks they’ve established throughout the partnership with Google and CODE2040. Averhart says of the event, “the community-at-large will hear from some of the most unique and creative VCs in the US...insights you don't get every day.” 

But at the end of the day, the organizers’ goals for the event are quite modest. It’s all about the opportunity to inspire and connect the attendees to each other and the community while honoring Durham’s unique roots. 

Indeed, Rose says his chief hope for the event is that “someone makes a connection that puts them in a different place.”