Makeda Sandford for NPR
Isha Joseph owns Make Manifest, a clothing and jewelry store in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, which also functions as a workshop space for the community. She remembers the first days of the pandemic in 2020.
“I was just like … this can’t be it,” she says.
In the next few months, nationwide, the pandemic took a massive toll on the economy. Especially hard hit were Black-owned businesses like hers. Joseph watched as the vibrant activity on Tompkins Avenue, where her store is located, came to a halt.
“It was like a ghost town,” she says. “It was more the despair. Just people feeling very uncertain. Not knowing what’s going on, not knowing what’s happening.”
To counter some of the uncertainty, she and other women who owned businesses on Tompkins banded together. They and some of their customers pledged to support one another through the most difficult of times, so no one would have to close down. It worked.
Today, as the pandemic wanes, the number of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. is currently around 30% above pre-pandemic levels. That growth is being driven by Black women like Joseph and her fellow nearby entrepreneurs.
Their efforts kept their doors open eventually earned the nickname “Black Girl Magic Row.”
While Joseph and the others celebrate their success, they also acknowledge the challenges they faced.
Tompkins Avenue has been heavily gentrified in recent decades but commerce remains significantly Black-owned
Even in the dead of New York winter, Bedford Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy, is gorgeous. Under a canopy of bare trees, lined by stunning old brownstones, it’s always been a hub of Black culture, home to artists like Lena Horne and Jay-Z.
And while it has been heavily gentrified in recent decades, commerce on Tompkins Avenue remains significantly Black-owned. On any given day you can walk by and smell some smoky jerk chicken from a local stand, mixed with incense wafting out from one of the neighborhood stores that specializes in local Black designers and African textiles.
Khadija Tudor grew up around here in the 1980s. She has a lot of fond memories, like listening to music with friends. “I am a card-carrying member of the New Edition fan club!” she says, with a full laugh.
But it was also difficult. This neighborhood was hard hit by drugs and violence. “I had a really good friend, we were like maybe 12 or 13 years old,” Tudor remembers. “And we would walk around in our neighborhood, but we would look down, we would never really look up. Because we didn’t really want to see what was around us. But we would talk about what we wanted it to look like.”
Part of that vision was having her own business. Tudor is now a massage therapist, and she co-owns the Life Wellness Center with her partner.
“When I started doing this work I started seeing that, it didn’t matter what the socioeconomic background was,” she says.
She takes pride in the symbiotic relationship between her store and her clients. Especially women. She depends on them to stay in business, and many of them depend on her, for their wellbeing.
But in early 2020, as the city went into lockdown, the entire symbiosis of Tompkins Avenue was tested.
“What happens to designers and entrepreneurs if they can’t open their doors?”
Hekima Hapa co-owns Botanical Life Style, which sells locally designed home décor and clothing. She’s also the founder of the nonprofit “Black Girls Sew,” which teaches tailoring to young Black women. She remembers one evening, in March 2020, when one of her students walked in, and made a strange request.
She wanted to make face mask.
“And I kinda laughed. Like … what a silly thing.” It was so unusual, Hapa posted a picture of the self-made mask, on Instagram. “And maybe two, three days later, we found out we were going to have to close down our space. And I just remember thinking: ‘What happens to designers and entrepreneurs if they can’t open their doors?’ ”
Her concerns were well founded. Nationwide, by April 2020, Black-owned businesses dropped by 41%.
The situation proved especially dire for folks like Khadija Tudor. After all, massage and acupuncture require a level of physical contact that was being actively discouraged by health authorities.
People like Goldwyn Lewis Wilkinson, a retired nurse who is one of Tudor’s regulars, says she was too scared to go out. “I remember a particular moment where I knelt to the side of my bed, and I said ‘I’m scared. I’m scared.’ ”
The coronavirus killed four people in Wilkinson’s family, including her daughter.
“She was 39. Just married two months,” Wilkinson says. “She got married in February and she died in April.”
The pandemic battered this community, but also brought out its fighting spirit
Tiecha Merritt owns a juice bar in this area, The Bush Doctor. “When I shut down, I said, ‘If I’m going through this issue, so are the [other] merchants.’ “
Merritt, who is also the president of the Tompkins Avenue Merchants Association (TAMA), says she immediately called every store owner and helped them apply for loans and grants.
“All the businesses that are part of TAMA received grants, which was a number one press for us,” she says. “To keep their business afloat.”
In addition, TAMA helped owners move their businesses online, and outside: they closed down the avenue, and had sidewalk sales.
For many entrepreneurs, it was also about responding to new customer needs.
Hekima Hapa, the sewing teacher who shared a picture of the face mask her student made that last day of class, says she woke up the next day, checked her social media, and, “There was literally 100 people saying: ‘where can I get a mask?’ ”
Although at first she hesitated, she gave in to the requests. It paid off: For the next two years, she says it was precisely the sale of handmade masks that helped keep her business afloat.
But it was a lot more than that. The Tompkins Avenue owners checked in on each other every day, in a WhatsApp group. They’d compare notes about PPP loans, the cost of new hygiene requirements.
“So much information coming at you,” says Tudor. “You’re a small business owner, and you’re just trying to figure out how to open up, and sell online.”
Isha Joseph says banding together was huge.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Truly,” Joseph says.
“The landlord was very supportive. I mean we had to pay the rent eventually- but he wasn’t on top of us. He understood that he was in the same situation. And he believed in us too.”
In an area where gentrification has pushed the price of housing into the millions, she says that was a very important gesture.
Tompkins Avenue was dubbed “Black Girl Magic Street” after news about their efforts were reported. Joseph smiles when she hears the nickname. “Black women have been able to really rise up in times that you just have to get it done,” Joseph says. “It’s like a magical thing. Like you can turn chitlins into a gourmet dish. Black girl magic is all about how women literally can turn dust into gold.”
Customers say the “Black Girl Magic” magic keeps them coming back to Tompkins Avenue
Still, it took many months for “Black Girl Magic Row” to re-open fully.
Goldwyn Lewis Wilkinson had been a long-time customer at Khadija Tudor’s. After her daughter’s death, Wilkinson needed care more than ever, but she couldn’t bring herself to go anywhere. She’d spent years going to Tompkins Avenue, but this time, Tompkins Avenue reached out to her.
Tudor and her partner called her, and offered to bring her in on a day when no one else came, so she’d feel safer.
Wilkinson says as she lay there, she felt “a sense of calm, and relief.”
She told the massage therapist, “She’s here you know. She’s watching us. She’s smiling at us. ‘Who are you talking about?’ the therapist asked. I said, ‘My daughter. She’s right here, she’s happy that I’m taking care of myself.’ ”
Afterward, Wilkinson says, she sat in silence for a while, holding on to that feeling.
That magic, it helped get her through.