The History Of Black Businesses In Utah
When people share the history of Blacks in Utah, it’s typically the fur trapper James Beckwourth and three slaves that arrived with the Mormon pioneers they talk about. Some people also mention the railroad workers and the soldiers. However, what is rarely discussed was the rise of Utah’s Black economy once the Black population began to grow.
The Black population established their own churches (such as Trinity African Methodist Episcopal and Calvary Baptist Church), political organizations, newspapers such as The Broad Axe, and social and fraternal organizations such as the NAACP. They were also farmers.
Once slaves were freed, their former owners assisted them in acquiring land in the Cottonwood, Fort Union, and Millcreek areas. With the influx of railroad workers and servicemen, several hotels (such as the Royal Hotel owned by Lonnie Davis and his wife), restaurants, and clubs (such as The Porters and Waiters Club, owned by Billy Weekly) began being owned and operated by Blacks.
After desegregation, Blacks had access to more successful white businesses and the Black businesses began to decline. Conversely, no support to Black businesses came from White consumers. Now, the Black community is steadily growing, and support for Black-owned businesses is increasing again.
Over the last 10 years, the Black population has grown more than 30 percent, with most of the growth coming within the last few years. With this growth, we have seen an increase in small Black-owned businesses―like caterers, barbershops, salons, breweries―becoming more industry-diverse. Rosemary Crosby and her family built a small empire that included a barbershop, salon, music store, and a mortgage company.
The strength of Utah’s Black community is found in connection. For being such a small community in a state that lacks in diversity, it is easy to feel disconnected when not plugged in. Companies see value in growing their diverse workforce and thusly recruit talented professionals from around the country.
Many of these professionals come from environments with a strong diverse population surrounded by businesses owned and operated by people of diverse backgrounds. When coming to Utah, it doesn’t take long for these professionals to feel isolated, wondering if they made the wrong decision and should look for opportunities where they know a culture of safety exists.
This is why an organization like the Utah Black Chamber is critical to fostering the growth of Utah’s overall economy. Growing and strengthening the ecosystem the Black community once had back in the early 1900s helps strengthen the recruiting and retention of Utah’s diverse workforce. With a top-rated economy and its growing diversity, the opportunity for Blacks in Utah to grow a new ecosystem exists by owning hotels, restaurants, car dealerships, and more.
The Utah Black Chamber has worked hard to establish and grow relationships with several resources such as the SBA, local government, and the other local chambers for small businesses to connect with to learn, develop, and grow. The Chamber has also invested several years in strengthening the connection of the Black community. Several organizations are members and/or partners of the Chamber such as the National Association of Black Accountants, National Society of Black Engineers, the NAACP, the Black fraternities and sororities, churches, and Black social groups at the colleges and universities. These connections help a newly talented Black professional get connected to the community.
Companies looking to recruit and retain a diverse workforce can partner with the chamber to share and create opportunities to connect and grow the diverse community. The community growing with professionals migrating with a wealth of knowledge, innovation, and a whole new perspective.
To this end, the chamber hosts an annual community concert at the Gallivan Center in the summer (which attracted nearly 8,000 people last year) and all corporate members had an opportunity to have a booth. This high-energy Motown show arguably attracts the largest diverse crowd for a free community event. Danell, an attendee of the event last year from Dallas, TX has only been a resident of Utah for two years. He says if events like this were happening more often, people like him would never think about leaving. He’s a Black man with a family, and became a member of the Utah Black Chamber and serves on the committee of the Chamber’s Utah County Chapter.
Danell is an example of what happens when one not only becomes a member of the Chamber, but participates as well. Being an organization that relies solely on volunteers has many opportunities for individuals, companies, and organizations to engage in its mission. It doesn’t what ethnicity you are, the Utah Black Chamber welcomes all, as it understands that we are stronger as we work and grow together. Engaging in the growing diversity is one of the most impactful ways to keep Utah’s economy thriving.
James Jackson, III is the founder of the Utah Black Chamber and is engaged in many diversity initiatives. Learn more at www.utahblackchamber.com.