MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ Tami Sawyer organized her first protest as part of the Black Lives Matter movement in the fall of 2014, after a Ferguson, Missouri police officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown wasn’t indicted by a grand jury.
Sawyer’s activism didn’t end with the criminal justice system. The 33-year-old has become an advocate for African American consumers spending dollars with African American-owned businesses, rekindling an idea her parents’ generation would find familiar.
“I don’t think it’s a widespread idea,” Sawyer said. “With integration, we lost that natural support of our businesses when we didn’t need them anymore. We forgot that they also needed us, so a lot of Black businesses crumbled.”
But Sawyer, who is director of diversity and leadership at Teach for America in Memphis as her day job, is attempting to link African American consumers and businesses using 21st century means, a website called Power Box (ourpowerbox.com).
The website includes a database of about 900 Black-owned businesses from around the country, Sawyer said. She estimated that 10 to 20 percent are in Memphis. A large number are in the nation’s capital, reflecting the 10 years she lived there as a contractor for Navy leadership and diversity, she said.
Many of the firms listed are online, rather than having brick-and-mortar locations.
“Having a brick-and-mortar business is tough for Black businesses because of the rising cost of property and real estate, but a lot do exist in the online virtual space,” Sawyer said.
She’s had a taste of that dilemma herself, operating a home-based cupcake business in Washington called TamiCakes for about two years before deciding she couldn’t compete with brick-and-mortar competitors.
In 2012, she competed in a Food Network show called Cupcake Wars. She didn’t make it beyond the first round of the “soul food challenge” competition with her collard green cupcake, with whipped molasses frosting topped with a hush puppy. But it was delicious, she said.
A St. Mary’s Episcopal School and University of Memphis graduate who attended Howard University Law School, Sawyer returned home to Memphis in December 2013, she said.
She started Power Box with Kickstarter funding that raised $2,500, and has invested more while working with three friends in other parts of the country to build the website.
There are other sites, such as Purchaseblack.com, that are Black-business oriented, but Power Box is like a Black business directory rather than an Amazon.com, Sawyer said.
For years, from 1987 to 2013, Melvin Jones operated the Black Business Directory in Memphis.
History professor Juliet Walker, founder and director of the Center of Black Business History, Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of Texas at Austin, said that Black Americans have encouraged supporting Black businesses since the 18th century.
“In the post-Reconstruction era rise of Jim Crow until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Black business operated in a virtual separate Black economy,” Walker said by email. “Literally, there was no alternative except to buy Black notwithstanding that outside of the basic necessities, African Americans were literally forced to buy from White corporate America.”
Historic African American leaders including Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey encouraged Black consumers to buy Black, she said.
Walker pointed to “The Empowerment Experiment” by an African American couple in Chicago, John and Maggie Anderson, to spend only with Black businesses in 2009 as a more recent example. A book about it is available, “Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy.”
At the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, executive director Madeleine Taylor said that it’s always important to buy in the community that you live in and applauded Sawyer’s initiative.
“I see many things that we went out and protested on behalf of when I was a student and thought those things had been won and addressed,” Taylor said. “But I find that they’re back and the younger generation has picked them up again because they needed to be.”
Sawyer, standing in Guilt Free Pastries, a business owned by African American chef Brandon Thomas at 344 S. Main, said a majority of Black people don’t know Black businesses, what those businesses can do and the products they offer.
“He’s making quality vegan, gluten-free products and people would be surprised that these types of businesses exist,” she said.
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com