More from the series
Black History Month
A selection of Black History Month stories from February 2021.
From the late 19th to early 20th century, Black-owned businesses lined the streets in a stretch of downtown Durham that came to be known as Black Wall Street.
On Black Wall Street, “a black man may get up in the morning from a mattress made by black men, in a house which a black man built out of lumber which black men cut and planed …he may earn his living working for colored men, be sick in a colored hospital, and buried from a colored church; and the Negro insurance society will pay his widow enough to keep his children in a colored school,” wrote W.E.B. Dubois at the time. “This is surely progress.”
Desegregation and urban renewal destroyed much of the nearby Hayti neighborhood, where many owners and patrons of Black Wall Street lived, and a new highway separated the residential neighborhood from Black Wall Street. Many businesses closed their doors.
But across the Triangle, Black business owners have persevered: from restaurants to medical offices, barbershops to nonprofits, Black-owned businesses make up 4.2% of firms in North Carolina, according to a December report from Partners in Equity, a small business investment firm focused on business owners of color.
In Durham, 4.7% of business owners are Black, according to a recent study from SmartAsset, which ranked the city in the top 10 cities where Black Americans do best economically. Statewide, 5,500 Black-owned businesses have paid employees.
But these business owners face numerous obstacles: The discrimination that prompted Black people to develop their own financial institutions during the days of Black Wall Street has continued, making it difficult for Black businesses to access credit.
Despite accounting for 4.2% of firms in North Carolina, Black-owned firms generated only 1.3% of the business revenue generated in the state, according to pre-pandemic estimates.
And the challenges have only grown during COVID-19, as relief funds have excluded many Black businesses. As a result, the number of Black businesses in the state has decreased by 41% since the start of the pandemic, according to estimates from the North Carolina Business Council.
In observance of Black history month, we spoke with a few longtime Black business owners in the Triangle about their successes and struggles and the significance of their business, both to themselves and their communities.
The Chicken Hut
From the start, The Chicken Hut had to fight for its future.
Shortly after Claiborne Tapp Jr. started the restaurant in 1957, its home in the Hayti neighborhood was marked for urban renewal, a federally funded program meant to clear so-called blighted areas.
It also meant one of Durham’s most prominent Black communities was leveled to make room for the Durham Freeway, displacing hundreds of Black homes and businesses.
The Chicken Hut — known at that time as the Chicken Box — was among them. The government promised to help them rebuild. That never happened.
The young restaurant was forced to start over from scratch at its current location south of North Carolina Central University.
The customers followed. And with its famed fried-chicken recipe, it has turned into a totem of the Durham community for generations, while many of its fellow Hayti businesses disappeared.
Now, it’s hoping to add a pandemic to the list of obstacles it has overcome.
To be sure, things are different at the Chicken Hut because of the coronavirus pandemic.You won’t find patrons telling stories for hours in the dining room.
But when you open the Chicken Hut’s doors, you’re still hit with the sounds of R&B classics and the smell of hot oil. At lunch time, customers still make the journey down Fayetteville Street— but these days, the orders of fried chicken, mac and cheese, collards, rolls and red velvet cake are all to go.
“When this all first started, I was just praying to God like, ‘Please let us get through this,’” The Chicken Hut’s second-generation owner Claiborne Tapp III recently told The N&O.
Tapp, who goes by Tre, inherited The Chicken Hut in 2018 when his mother, Peggy, died at the age of 78. His father, the restaurant’s founder, died in 1998.
“I just remember words that my mother was always telling me,” Tapp, 43, said. “You have to roll with the punches.”
Tapp uses the restaurant to help his community keep rolling, too — making sure his 14 employees keep their jobs and local kids don’t go hungry.
Since April, the restaurant has been giving away hundreds of free meals on weekdays, and partnering with Healthy Start Academy to make sure its students get food while the school is closed.
For Tapp, it was the obvious thing to do, the thing his parents would have done.
“I look at everybody that walks through that door like they are family,” Tapp said. “I don’t look at them as just a customer. We all have a personal relationship with most of the customers.”
One customer told Tapp recently that they had been coming to The Chicken Hut since the 1960s. “Basically, he grew up in this restaurant,” Tapp remarked, “That makes me feel proud, seeing how my parents worked so hard to keep this establishment.”
Tapp almost always looks to his parents’ examples when running the restaurant. Just like it has used the same chicken recipe since 1958, Tapp family wisdom still courses through the kitchen. Tre Tapp’s cousin, Jeff Johnson, and two of his aunts are nearly everyday fixtures behind the counter.
Tapp said he wants the Chicken Hut to grow again. Before his father had a stroke in the 1990s, there were five Chicken Hut locations in the Triangle. That became too much to handle, so it shrunk down to the flagship location.
“Me and Jeff are trying to take this to another level from what my parents did,” Tapp said.
Recently, that has meant attracting a younger clientele via social media. During a recent lunch rush, multiple patrons said it was their first time coming to the Chicken Hut after finding out about the 63-year-old establishment.
“I watched my parents work day and night, and they kept this business going for me,” Tapp said. “Because I used to always tell them I had a passion to take over this restaurant.”
His two daughters, ages 11 and 12, are also growing up in and around the kitchen, learning about the family business. He’s already hopeful they’ll be able to keep the Chicken Hut going for another 60 years.
“I’m trying to keep this going for my daughters,” he said, “and pass it onto the next generation.”
Raleigh Nursery School
When a group of Black mothers of World War II soldiers opened the Raleigh Nursery School’s doors out of a house on East Lenoir street in 1949, there weren’t many other daycare options for young Black kids.
For Brenda High Sanders’ family, the program opened up a lot of opportunities. Sanders’ father was a barber and her mother was a public school teacher in Knightdale, a long commute from their home in Southeast Raleigh. Sending Sanders and her siblings to the daycare allowed her mother to keep her job, providing the family with economic stability that shaped their lives.
Sanders was only 3 years old in 1954 when she started attending the nursery school, then located in a building in the Chavis Heights housing projects.
“We brushed our teeth every day, we put on PJs for naps … we used real hand towels to wash our faces and wash our hands,” she recalled in a phone interview with The News & Observer. “Because there was a heavy emphasis on nurturing as well as cognitive development, it felt like an extension of home.”
And she remembers clearly how the nursery director, Rosia D. Butler, came to be like “a second mother, a grandmother figure.”
So when Butler, who had served as director since the school opened, asked Sanders to take her place in 1986, Sanders was committed to offering the same opportunities to other families that the nursery school had given hers.
To Butler, shaping the lives of students like Sanders was the most rewarding part of the business.
“It is a great feeling that sometimes in the early life you might have touched them in a certain way that maybe that has helped them to succeed,” Butler, who is turning 100 in March, said in a phone interview with The News & Observer.
But the nursery faced numerous challenges.
“Most of the children who came were children of parents of modest means,” said Butler, which meant they had to keep tuition costs low. “That wasn’t enough to do very much financially.”
And the program struggled to receive recognition: the first time she recalls the nursery receiving any extensive news coverage was an article in The News & Observer in 1999, 50 years after its founding.
“Certain things were done to make sure that you were not quite equal to some other program,” said Butler, who believes that the program was ignored by the media because it was run by and for Black people. “Sometimes it’s almost painful when your news isn’t as good or equal to other news and nobody says anything about it.”
Then in 2003, the city used Hope VI funding to demolish hundreds of Chavis Heights public housing units, and with it the nursery school classrooms. The Raleigh Housing Authority proposed a new location in Halifax Court, north of downtown.
At the Chavis Heights location, the school had paid just $1 a year to the housing authority; at the new location they began paying a reduced market rate of thousands of dollars a month. Some students remained, but many others, whose parents didn’t have a car or the time to commute, left the program.
The pandemic has presented new challenges. The school has been closed since March: a survey of staff at the start of the pandemic showed that all but three of the 20 staff members had either preexisting conditions or were caring for an elderly family member. Sanders says she doesn’t plan to open until the staff can be vaccinated.
But she worries about what the school will be like when it does reopen. Some teachers have found other jobs and some kids’ families have found other day cares.
It’ll be a big adjustment: at least a quarter of the kids at the daycare have parents or grandparents that attended, too, and many of the teachers have been there for years. She also worries about falling behind on rent and operational costs without any tuition coming in.
“We’re going to need some bracing and a lot of prayers to fulfill the mission of high quality care that low and moderate income families can afford,” said Sanders. “It’s getting tougher.”
Gates of Beauty
In a town known for its unique small businesses and people, Brother Peacemaker has long stood out as one of the most recognizable faces in Carrboro.
In part, that’s because his face has been nearly everywhere.
He’s been in a book about Carrboro, and, for years, he was even plastered onto the side of a Chapel Hill transit bus as part of an advertisement for the town. And, finally, driving down Main Street, you’ll see where an artist has painted him on the side of his small car repair shop, Gates of Beauty.
It’s the body shop there — just a sliver of a building really, often with work flowing out onto the sidewalk — where he has become a town fixture.
The 74-year-old — with a white beard and a cheerful laugh and usually sporting a cowboy hat — leaps at the opportunity to greet passersby at the shop at 405-B East Main St.
“I show myself friendly and friendliness is shown on to me,” Peacemaker said of his outgoing style. “I am one of the happiest guys in the world. And I don’t know how to do anything but love on you.”
He does reserve some of that love for cars, which he says need to be treated somewhat like people. Since 1984, Peacemaker has run Gates of Beauty, a body shop specializing in paint jobs and repairing damaged fenders and bumpers.
Automobiles have been his passion since he raced them in his wilder, teenage years growing up in Chatham County. “I was fixing everything that I was tearing up,” he said, especially a beloved two-door, ‘62 Chevrolet Impala.
Getting into the business of auto repair helped him transition to a calmer life than he had been leading in his teens and 20s. Before taking on the name Peacemaker, he said, he was more apt to be called a hell raiser.
He said he took on the Peacemaker moniker around 40 years ago, when God came to him and called him to be a peacemaker. He soon left behind his old name, Fred Marsh.
Later, he found out that the name Fred is derived from the German word for peace. “How about that,” he said.
When he can, Peacemaker uses the shop to play the role of mentor. He’s hired dozens of people over the years to teach the ropes of entrepreneurship. Several of them eventually started their own shops elsewhere.
Becoming a small business owner was life changing, Peacemaker said.
“It allows me to do my passion every day,” he said.
”I absolutely (could run Gates of Beauty) forever.”
From the sidewalk in front of his small auto shop, Peacemaker has seen a lot of change come to Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
The buildings have gotten taller and there’s more people living and working around downtown. It’s also gotten a lot more expensive, with more chain restaurants and businesses along Franklin and Main streets.
The body shop itself is just south of the Northside neighborhood, a historically Black community that has faced rising housing costs in the past decade, and Peacemaker is one of the longest operating Black-owned businesses left there.
Could someone like Peacemaker start a business like his today?
“I doubt I could afford it,” Peacemaker said. “If I hadn’t gotten the shop back in the day, there’s no way I could get it now.”