My Mom Was A Black Entrepreneur. I Never Thought About It, Until Now
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By J.D. Bryson
One day this summer, I was reading my Instagram and came across the wonderful historical accounts of Black women who have made their mark in American entrepreneurship, from Madam C.J. Walker to Rose Morgan and lots of people in between. I found the stories incredible and enlightening.
Often they were a necessary means to an end due to lack of options for Black women to be gainfully and fairly employed. Or they filled a need by the Black community that was overlooked by the general population.
But as I sat and pondered one of the stories, it dawned on me that there was a story right here, in the other room. I'm talking about my mother.
Her entrepreneurship story is one that I had not been willing to attribute to the subtleties of racism and discrimination. It's easy to ascribe that ugliness to events and actions that are farther out and away from oneself. It's harder to see, and accept, when it's a part of your everyday life, your existence. Nothing quite as blaring as the N-word. It is oh-so-subtle.
We didn't live in an overt environment of racism and blatant discrimination when I was growing up in the Midwest. Although there were some issues. I went to a high school in Decatur, Illinois that had about 35 to 40 Black kids in it, and kids will be kids. Even with that, I formed a band that was as diverse as the music we played, which was a mix of jazz, disco, and R&B. Although we were in a town in the middle of corn and soybean fields, race was not the subject of conversation.
Race and/or discrimination, although the catalyst, is not the crux of this story. The story is about how a single Black woman in the 1970s had to believe in her worth and skills, when the establishment constantly negated these things by not paying her for them — yet freely rewarding the white men around her.
My mother had worked for years as a tailor.
She had apprenticed with some of the best menswear lines and stores in Peoria and Chicago from the age of 16 years old. Once in Decatur, she settled in at Myers Brothers Department Store in 1970.
After a short stint there, she went on to a menswear store that seemed to be more appreciative of her skills. Upon hiring, she was promised profit-sharing bonuses, and was initially afforded the same respect her male counterparts were.
Still, time went by and she had not gotten that elusive bonus yet, for one reason or another.
Since her salary was low to begin with, the bonus was a negotiating tool, I'm sure, with which to lure one to hire on. For her, that bonus meant a bit more than just a new pair of shoes or a bottle of cologne. It meant catching up on the light bill and getting that leak fixed in the refrigerator — and perhaps some extra food would be nice.
That menswear store grew and moved to a new, large, modern location. Business was booming. On the surface, it would seem that profits grew, too. Unfortunately, there would be no bonus that year for my mother, well, because of the expense of building and moving.
However, one of the salesmen, a white man who had been hired shortly after her, a couple of years earlier, had come into the tailor shop to complain about his bonus being smaller that year — because he had to share it with one of the high school boys who had started working there part time.
"There were bonuses this year?" my mom asked.
"Oops, I let the cat out of the bag?" the salesman replied.
"Yes, you did. Send the boss man down here to talk to me when you go back up," she requested.
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After some talk about this reason and that reason for not giving her a bonus — again — that year, mom decided it was time for her to quit. The ongoing differences were adding up, and now they'd been underscored with this last act. Time to go.
"Why did you quit that good job?" asked a couple of friends, "What are you going to do now?"
She didn't know, but she started at the unemployment office. That certainly was a fight, until mom presented her two-page documentation of the things that had gone on the last two years or so.
In front of the Appeals Officers, the owner started to rebut, and was asked to leave the room by the officers. The owner was told that with all that was documented, he was getting off easy — this could go on as a discrimination case.
The unemployment benefits started, but then what? After a tough time finding work, and with some perseverance, the only thing my mom could do was start working on her own.
My mom never dreamed of having a home-based business, but one does what one must do.
EVENING GOWNS IN THE DINING ROOM
Fortunately, one of the places she'd tried getting a job, after turning her down, called a couple of weeks later to tell her that the dress designer they worked with needed a new seamstress.
As a 16-year-old, I thought it was neat that evening gowns my mom was sewing would be in the downtown stores. Nevermind I would wake up at 3 a.m. to find her doing it. And until gown season was over, we had evening gowns hanging all over the dining room, being assembled for a fee that is paltry by any meaning of the word.
Store to store she went for steady work. It was sporadic, at best. Fortunately, the guys she worked with at the job she'd quit steered freelance work her way. That sustained us for a while.
Then my grandmother came to live with the two of us and we needed more room, so my mom remodeled our basement, where she could put in a tailor shop to her specifications.
That required commercial-grade equipment if she was going to make it work. A loan wasn't an option. The bank questioned her repayment plan "...if you become pregnant." Another obstacle for a woman, let alone a Black one. Fortunately she had forged relationships with suppliers who were willing to let her have the machines as she paid for them "on time" in installments.
Meanwhile, my mom, grandmother, and I got the basement ready for both ladies to do their thing.
My grandmother was teaching piano and organ lessons in one of the rooms — while my mom was fitting and sewing in the main room — which meant the doorbell was quite busy during those days.
By now, my mom had contracted business with most of the boutiques and men's stores in town, not to mention the personal clients she had. Things were truly humming. So much so that she had to hire a couple more ladies to help out. I even helped on the pants-hemming machine at times.
Dr. B's Clothes Clinic, as she named her business, was growing, not due to glossy packaging or soaring billboards, but from the strength of business cards, phone book ads, and old-fashioned word-of-mouth.
Customers would come from the little towns around and travel from as far as St. Louis to get their clothes done. I know for me, once I was grown and living in Chicago, it was a trek to schlep clothes to my hometown, but I never had any of my clothes done by anyone else. I'm very particular.
There were the wives of prominent families in town, like Mrs. Staley, of the A. E. Staley Mfg. Co., along with presidents of banks, ministers, doctors, lawyers, and executives of the ADM Corporation who were counted as my mom's regulars. Once boundaries were established, in some cases, the relationships were good and went on for years.
When the clients weren't traveling to Florida, Palm Springs, or taking cruises, or there were economic downturns curtailing people's clothes-buying, my mom would take on sewing jobs as small as gardening smocks to as large as the Civic Center stage curtains.
She had to survive, not on handouts and government programs, but on sheer determination, talent, and faith.
My mom's decision to start her own business might have been predicated on years of unfair treatment and racial and, often, gender discrimination, not only by her last employer, but other bosses prior. For the many years that my mom operated Dr. B's Clothes Clinic, however, they were highlighted with respect and friendships that carried it through the next 34 years.
CLOSING UP SHOP
When my mom told me that she could no longer keep pace with the demands of sewing, we knew it was time for her to give it up. At 76 years old, it really was time to retire.
But now what? She had to sell her house and close the business. With that went everything she had identified with. It was hard to get rid of just about everything and move across the country to Southern California, where I now lived.
The difference with her big decision this time was that she knew where she was going, and what she would do.
I found a place in Riverside that would work for the both of us. She had never been able to take a vacation, or see any of those places from television that we all dream about seeing.
I knew that I had to do my best to make this as nice as it could be for her. I wanted her to gaze at the mountains, the palm trees, and mostly, never have to worry about getting the driveway plowed so that her customers could park.
Mom got to see the ocean for the first time at Santa Monica on her 77th birthday, in January of 2012.
She just loves Palm Springs, where she really thinks she's somebody. Mom says that the people in Palm Springs don't make her feel like she is an old lady; she feels respected and special. And to me, she is. She is everything.
Now, at 85, Mom still sews, but mostly by hand and only light work. It's just in her.
Just like my mom's story, there are thousands of others who are moving through life working the way she did, because they have to.
No patents-pending or hotel conference room rallies, no corporate offices — but they are vital, nonetheless. Because sometimes, just keeping oneself and one's family fed, clothed, and housed is all the business.
Thank you, mom, for all you have done for me, and for holding it together through the years.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Born in Chicago and raised in Central Illinois, J.D. went to college in Champaign, Ill., before settling in Chicago, again. His work took him to Riverside, California, where he lived for many years until he transferred to Philadelphia in 2019.
His real passion is music, as he played classical piano for years until the itch to have an R&B band got him. His other passion is sharing stories. He's working on two projects: "Scolded Ego," a semi-autobiographical account, and "Tessie's Blues," the story of a woman who spends her life waiting because of one moment in time.
Having lived in three major metropolitan areas of the U.S., he must admit there's something to be said about growing up in small-town America.