The Black Market: National Business League and the Digital Future of Black Business

In 1900, Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League in Boston, Massachusetts, to promote the financial development of Black entrepreneurs. One hundred and twenty years later, while the NNBL has dropped the word “negro” from its name, Washington’s mission continues.

The history of Black business in the United States is a turbulent one—from racial violence, like businesses actually being burned to the ground, to systematic efforts to prevent Black people from raising capital. In 2020, Black entrepreneurs still have a harder time maintaining for a variety of reasons, including less access to financial and technological resources. Now, with businesses having to shut down for eight weeks or more due to quarantine mandates, many business owners are in danger of not reopening, or they face a struggle to continue operations once they can reopen. Out of the $2.2 trillion designated for small businesses through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, less than one percent was negotiated for Black businesses. With 2.6 million Black-owned businesses nationwide, that is obviously a problem.

But there’s hope. In April, the National Business League announced that it had partnered with several technology firms who’d invested more than $1.8 million into developing NBL’s business solutions platform. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and designed to close the digital divide, the platform will provide a host of resources for small Black-owned businesses. And on Juneteenth (June 19th), the NBL kicks into overdrive by launching its Black Business Database, which will feature entrepreneurs across the diaspora as well as encourage worldwide membership.

American Urban Radio Networks caught up with Dr. Kenneth L. Harris, PhD., the NBL’s 12th president/CEO, to chat about the history of Black businesses in the United States, the importance of buying Black, and how the NBL continues to work toward the advancement of Black entrepreneurs post COVID-19.

AURN: What are some of the challenges that Black businesses have faced throughout history, and how have some of the lingering issues been made worse post-quarantine?

KH: There’s a history of impact on Black business that goes back to emancipation, which was the first time Black businesses had tried to enter the economic mainstream of society. We have been met with resistance and continuous barriers, policies, and terroristic activity. We can go back to post-emancipation, during reconstruction when we had the Black Codes put in play to restrict us from becoming economically independent. We had our 40 acres and a mule taken away from us—or not even given at all. We had the Freedman’s Bank, which was the first bank geared toward freed slaves and former war veterans. That bank collapsed and everyone’s money that had been deposited was taken from them. Then we get into Jim Crow, segregation, and being forced to do business with ourselves; we started to build Black Wall Streets all across the country. And once we realized the power of being able to build sustainable economic centers, then came the KKK and terroristic activities—bombing communities and lynching folks to steer them away from becoming economically independent and free.

So, we marched ourselves all the way up to civil [but] no economic rights. It was a policy of benign neglect where everyone else benefited more from affirmative action than Black people. Then we get to today’s current climate where white people caught a cold, Black people caught pneumonia, but Black businesses caught COVID-19. What that means is that with thispandemic and economic crisis, it’s being predicted that 20% to 30% of Black businesses will close their doors permanently because they were never a part of the economic mainstream. I think the focus now needs to be trying to salvage the damage of the pandemic, but more importantly—focusing on the economic recovery.

AURN: We’ve been seeing more people highlight and urge support of Black businesses in the wake of COVID-19, but also with more people being willing to learn about the systemic effects of racism on the Black community due to the recent protests. However, the importance of buying Black is a lot more nuanced than people might think. Can you elaborate on that?

KH: I think the most important aspect of buying Black is that we are a $1.5 trillion consumer power. Our dollars influence the marketplace tremendously, but most of it goes outside of our community. So, for us, it is to be able to not only service and patronize Black-owned businesses with the Black dollar but to literally be able to transform our current economic situation. If we were to equate our purchasing power as consumers [into a nation], we would be the 16th largest country in the world in terms of our purchasing power. We spend more here in the U.S. than the total GDPs of some countries. So I think it’s extremely important that buying Black becomes the core option in terms of both empowering ourselves and our economic base throughout the United States of America and in the global diasporic market as well.

AURN: Back in April you announced that you raised millions in capital from tech firms to be put toward the enrichment of small businesses. Can you break that down?

KH: Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic been devastating in terms of health disparities amongst African Americans, but also in terms of our economic situation. And what’s important [to note] is that during the shutdown if we did not embrace technology, it was very hard for us to withstand it. Some Black businesses did not have the ability to connect with their normal clientele and customer base—especially storefronts, restaurants, barber shops, or any other form of retail, etc., that depended on customers coming through the door. If you did not have technology, you were basically shut out of business.

And, more importantly, the tremendous impact of closing your doors for eight weeks forced a lot of Black businesses—who obviously had limited employees anyway—to lay those employees off, or those 1099 contractors. Then, they had to not only lay them off but to pay unemployment insurance, and the debt starts to mount. So it’s really important for us to realize that, especially with the new trend forward, the revolution will not be televised—it shall be digitized, and what that means is we have to transition as a Black business community into the technological and digital age. It is going to be absolutely critical for us to embrace technology and all of its components as a core function of our business practices and not just an extension.

So, this allows for us to have the technology. If you’re a restaurant or retail shop, you can have logistic services for carryout, provide apps to your potential customers, direct where packaged meals are being prepared for meal prep or delivery service, or add it to your business. And you can now bring customers what they need, so they don’t actually have to go into the storefront. This is a unique time for us. I think this is also an innovative time for Black businesses because it allows for us not just to compete in our local environment, but it allows for us to compete statewide, regionally, and nationally. And what’s most important is globally—throughout Africa and all of the Pan-African countries that are throughout the world. There’s a huge, exponential marketplace for any Black business owner that provides commodity goods, products and services on behalf of the consumer marketplace.

After Juneteenth, we are announcing a major national membership drive.We have built out a global and national Black business database that can connect businesses where they are and all across the world. You’ll be able to leverage the National Business League’s digital platform to gain access to capital and tons of resources that are going to be available through our actual program. This is a tremendous opportunity for us to not only offer the types of benefits and services that are going to provide holistic entrepreneurship training, but to provide business and supplier development. Even to hold accountable the public and private sector for community reinvestment as we can advocate properly to make sure that commercial banks and savings institutions as well as traditional lenders are providing credit, capital and other financial resources to Black business owners.

It’s huge for us to be able to focus on economic equity and empowerment, and our ability to start focusing on economic inclusion in the marketplace as well. So, we’re extremely excited about that, but most importantly we want to be able to provide resource deployment and technical assistance to our digital platform for talent placement and acquisition. What I’m really excited about is our ability to start to connect

[the entire globe]

through global commerce for export and trade opportunities, so we can start to link with our neighboring countries in Africa and throughout the Caribbean.  

Just as Black people have one of the most powerful liberation movements throughout history, part of the next revolution of the National Business League—we believe—is the achievement of economic freedom. This will come from Black businesses in the communities that we serve taking action, assuming our rightful place in the digital economy, and leaving a legacy for generations to come. That’s what we’re all about. So, again, the revolution won’t be televised, it will be digitized, and we look forward to digitizing our Black businesses.