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Imagine how powerful the black community would be if the $543 billion that African Americans spent last year were spent with black businesses. This was Booker T. Washington’s idea when he established the National Negro Business League in 1900. His belief that black independent business development was a necessary condition for economic cooperation between the races seemed to catch on.
Today, 204 affiliated black chambers of commerce under the umbrella of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, as well as countless independent black chambers of commerce across the nation, stand united and continue to build upon Washington’s philosophy of economic determination.
For example, in Davidson County, Tennessee, blacks are 23% of the population and generate $1.2 billion in total wages and salaries, yet the Greater Nashville Black Chamber of Commerce (GNBCC) has spent the past three years trying to improve economic conditions for black businesses despite initial objections from leaders in the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We felt the majority chamber of commerce was not for small businesses,” says Rosetta Miller-Perry, publisher of the Tennessee Tribune and co-founder of the GNBCC. “There was no benefit for us. For the vast majority of African Americans, it just didn’t work.” In fact, while the number of African American businesses in Nashville grew by 46% from 1987 to 1992 (20% more than the national average), revenues for these businesses were dismal. Something needed to be done. So, in 1998, attorney Michael Grant and Miller-Perry formed the GNBCC.
GNBCC grew to 200 members in its first year and is today close to 300, and black participation in government has increased from none to about 2% to 3%. It provides networking and training, and has filed federal claims for discriminatory practices on behalf of its members. Nathaniel E. Harris, owner of Woodcuts, a custom frame shop located on Jefferson Street for the past 14 years, has seen a 10% growth each year in his business since joining the chamber two years ago, due in part to the chamber’s marketing initiatives targeting black tourists visiting the area’s universities and colleges.
The low cost of living and the high quality of life has made Nashville an attractive place for business ventures, placing the city on several lists in the early ’90s as an “entrepreneurial hot spot.” It was this type of opportunity that prompted MaryAnne Howland, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, to move to Tennessee 10 years ago. Howland, president and CEO of the advertising company Ibis Communications, is one of the 14,920 African American-owned businesses in the state of Tennessee. Last year, these companies generated $556 million in sales revenue. But Howland often feels locked out of area contracts.
A member of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Howland is also a GNBCC member. “As a black business owner, our issues are going to be different from a white business owner’s in the sense that there’s still discrimination,” she says. “There are still walls that we have to break through. As black chamber members, our voice is heard as a group,