Black Businesses See Banding Together as Way to Overcome

Alabama is hot spot for black chambers of commerce

IN the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in April 1992, Ophelia Cox learned of efforts by the Black Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles County to assist black businesses there.

Inspired by their initiatives, Ms. Cox, owner of Ophelia's Art Gallery in Birmingham, decided the ''Magic City'' needed a similar organization that would empower the African-American community.

Cox broached the idea to some entrepreneur friends, and within months they had formed the Birmingham Jefferson Metro Chamber of Commerce, the first black chamber in Birmingham. ''We wanted to get our community more together so we could go forward economically,'' Cox says. ''We walk in a black pair of shoes. We have problems that are unique only to us, and only we can solve them.''

Since Birmingham's chamber started, six other cities in Alabama have followed. ''Alabama is a hot spot for new chambers,'' says Harry Alford, chairman of the National Black Chamber of Commerce in Washington. He attributes the growth to ''blacks becoming educated to the need for doing things on our own and not having a dependence on the state.... Things aren't going to happen unless we get involved ourselves.''

In Birmingham, the climate for black entrepreneurs has been poor, says Kenneth Owens, an architect and founding chairman of the chamber here. Mr. Owens attributes that in part to a lack of role models who might encourage black businesses. Few city leaders or state legislators have come from the entrepreneurial sector, he says.

''We have approximately 2,000 legitimate [black] businesses in this community, and we constitute somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 citizens,'' Owens says.

Many blacks say better financial opportunities would improve their situation.

''Banks can do better than what they've done in the past,'' as far as taking a chance on giving a loan to a black business, says Jesse Lewis Sr., president of the Birmingham Times, the city's black-owned newspaper.

Derverona Williams, who coordinates the minority business council of the Birmingham Metropolitan Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees that more financial assistance would help spur the growth of minority businesses. But, ''a lot of times the minority business may not be totally prepared when they go to the financial institutions,'' she says, and that is one reason banks may turn them down.

The city's past is also a stumbling block for black advancement. ''When you think of Birmingham and our [civil rights] history, we've probably got the worst history as far as dealing with minority businesses,'' says Myr Tismyles, project director for the Birmingham Business Development Center, a government-funded group that provides training assistance to minority businesses.

''To begin with, the playing field was [more even] than in other cities,'' Ms. Tismyles says. ''But that has changed a lot. The opportunities are available for us. We have many doctors, lawyers, upscale day-care centers, minority franchise owners.''

Owens says the Birmingham black chamber is a tool to help black businesses over these hurdles. It serves as a network for black businesses and promotes business opportunities. The growth of black entrepreneurs ''will come about as an evolutional change,'' Owens says. ''The assumption is my son will do better and on and on. To me that's the answer.'' But, he says, ''It's going to take some time.''

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