Thriving Black-owned businesses ‘righting the wrongs of the past’ in rural Mississippi

Kirk Siegler for 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.”

Ever since the Delta was plowed up into plantations mostly after the Civil War, Herts says there’s been a permanent Black underclass. Many don’t trust the banks, for good reason, he says, and in turn many banks traditionally haven’t done business in the still segregated Black communities.

“And then you have a white elite class here that are descendants of the planter class and much of the wealth of the region still remains in those families,” he says.

For Herts, it will take hundreds more groups like Higher Purpose to really right the wrongs of the past. But he does see momentum behind their work, which is driven by mostly young, energetic and social media savvy people.

And the businesses they’re supporting are filling a need.

How getting a hard ‘no’ lit a fire for one entrepreneur

One of Higher Purpose’s biggest success stories is Dr. Mary Williams in Clarksdale. She opened what was then the town’s first urgent and primary care facility about three years ago. Before then, she says, working people had to drive 45 miles or go to the local ER just to get routine care after hours.

She soon discovered there were many untreated cases of hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity in her community.

“A lot of them, honestly, was going without and a lot of them was going undiagnosed, they didn’t know their blood pressure was up, they didn’t know they were diabetic,” Williams says.

But getting to where she is today, weathering the pandemic with a clinic that now serves some 3,000 patients, wasn’t easy.

While working as a nurse practitioner at the local hospital, Williams got no after no from banks when she applied for loans to start her business. One told her she may be a good health care provider, but that didn’t mean she was a good business owner. Another said there was no business like hers in Clarksdale to base her proposal on, so she’d have to put up her house as collateral.

“I mean, the whole idea for this loan was for community development,” Williams says. “Here I am bringing in a clinic to develop the community and improve our health care and I got a hard no unless I give them my house.”

That lit a fire in her, she was going to help her underserved community if it took everything she had. Williams couldn’t turn to her family for financial help, only emotional support. She was a single mom starting at age 15 and was mostly raised by her brother and sister in the small town of Marks, outside Clarksdale.

After putting herself through grad school and a doctoral program at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, she could only tap what was left of her modest savings to try to open the clinic. Around the same time though, she heard about Higher Purpose, who soon after helped her land a $15,000 federal loan meant to support rural communities.

Today, she’ll care for up to several dozen patients in a single day – black and white, including, she says, some of the people who once doubted she’d be able to run a successful business.

“We shouldn’t have to be motivated by a no, we should be motivated by a yes because we’re providing care for the community,” Williams says. “I hope it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

But most people here think it still will.

Rural Black entrepreneurs “have to think big”

Bill Bynum has done business development in the Mississippi Delta since the 1990s, when he founded a credit union and business lending firm aimed at getting more African Americans access to capitol. He’s also served as a White House economic advisor for several Republican and Democratic administrations, most recently during President Biden’s transition team.

“The Delta has long been associated with, quite honestly, either exploitation or extraction, it was built on unpaid labor,” he says.

Reached at his office in Jackson, Bynum cautioned that the country needs to be paying attention to what’s going on in the majority-Black Delta.

“People of color are an emerging majority and if we leave the emerging majority of Americans on the outside of the economy, then we are really in for trouble,” he said.

For Bynum, rural Black entrepreneurs and leaders need to think big.

That’s exactly what Higher Purpose’s Tim Lampkin is doing in downtown Clarksdale.

Higher Purpose recently bought a large old furniture store which is set to be transformed into a new company headquarters as well as an art gallery and events space. Its location is symbolic: right across the street from the town’s old Greyhound Bus station – its art deco facade still preserved – where Black residents were once not allowed to board busses.

“For us to own this property and also reclaim some of that history and to rewrite the narrative it’s really significant to us,” Lampkin says.

They’ve raised about a third of the $3 million needed for their new hub, which is slated to open in 2023. The non-profit did see donations climb after the death of George Floyd last year. But Lampkin says supporting Black-owned businesses is the right thing to do and shouldn’t just be trendy.

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