The audacity of black capitalism
Inside a forgotten South Sacramento strip mall, black entrepreneurs hope to generate—and spread—the wealth
Berry Accius was running more than an hour late when he pulled up to his south Sacramento thrift store Hidden Gems, located on the back side of a strip mall on one of the city’s busiest streets.
“Peace, king,” Accius said in greeting as he ticked off the obstacles he had to maneuver to get to his tiny shop—another business venture just had its lease terminated, his business partner had a death in the family, an interview with a local TV station earlier in the day, a podcast to finish recording and one of his mentees from his nonprofit Voices of the Youth to pick up.
This is a typical day for Accius, a longtime community activist and youth mentor who recently added a third title: black entrepreneur.
“I have been one of the most unapologetic black men in Sacramento,” Accius said.
If there’s anyone in Sacramento who can boldly claim that he doesn’t apologize, it is Accius, a brash and charismatic street philosopher who has been traveling in more refined circles as of late, but without losing the caustic edge that makes him a go-to sound bite for local media.
“I’ve gone from [addressing] police brutality, to black oppression, to racism, to black empowerment, to build black businesses, to let’s get all our kids out of the education system,” he said. “I’m all over the spectrum.”
His most recent endeavor is the thrift store he opened in April. And while it may seem like a non sequitur for a guy who honed his ability to command a crowd by presiding over countless candlelight vigils for killed black youth, the business venture is an extension of his political philosophy. Located inside the Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum building, the thrift shop is part of a larger effort to create a hub for black businesses in Sacramento. It is a grassroots enterprise with Accius as a player, coach and No. 1 fan.
“We as black people no longer can think service can get us out of poverty or think a church entity can get us out of poverty,” Accius said. “We have to create and build in businesses as well as in ownership.”
It’s not a new idea. While previous efforts haven’t succeeded, Accius and the other tenants are betting on themselves and against centuries of systemic racism.
Black-owned establishments are relatively rare in Sacramento. It’s the capital of a state that boasts a progressive reputation, yet it reflects the country’s economic disparities along racial lines.
Only 30% of black households owned their homes in 2017, while 64% of white occupants owned theirs, according to Census estimates.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of black-owned businesses in Sacramento, however. According to 2012 Census data, African Americans owned only 8% of businesses in Sacramento County, while whites owned 66%. That survey found 8,882 black-owned businesses in the county, but that figure included more than just brick-and-mortar locations, meaning those businesses can also include side hustles such as someone selling their baked goods.
Those 7-year-old numbers likely don’t represent the current landscape in Sacramento. One local effort to both identify and support black-run businesses in Sacramento is an anonymous online map that plots storefronts, including restaurants, beauty supply stores and clothing boutiques. It’s unclear how accurate the map is, or how often it’s updated. Sandra Dee’s Bar-B-Que and Seafood was still listed on Sept. 22 despite closing July 20 after two decades. Accius’ thrift shop hasn’t been added.
Earlier this year, the Build.Black. Coalition awarded his thrift shop $5,000 for placing third in its 2019 Awards and Innovation Competition. Build.Black is one of the initiatives launched last year in response to the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Stephon Clark in the backyard of his grandmother’s Meadowview home, and one of the coalition’s main goals is investing in black neighborhoods and businesses.
One reason why many black businesses fail is because their owners don’t have the same access to support services such as loans and health care, or to start-up capital.
Numbers from the Federal Reserve show the median wealth for black families in 2017 was about $17,600, while white families had a median wealth of $171,000.
According to the Institute for Policy Studies, it would take 228 years for black wealth to catch up to white wealth, but only if white wealth ceased to grow. The institute’s project showed the average black household’s wealth grew from $67,000 to $85,000 between 1983 and 2013, while the average white household’s wealth ballooned from $355,000 to $656,000 during the same 30 years.
Angie Wiggins is trying to combat that trend. She runs Maximum Reach 4 Economic Equity, which hosts networking meet-ups and workshops for black business owners in Sacramento to “fortify economic power and self sufficiency within the black community.”
Her organization focuses on educating black business owners on how to access services such as branding and marketing to help sustain their businesses.
“Even if [progress is] slow, we need to move forward,” Wiggins said. “Self sufficiency means that we teach our youngsters … not that somebody came in—not that the Great White Hope came in and changed it for us, but that we changed it for ourselves.”
During an early evening in September, the Hidden Gems side of the Sojourner strip mall was slow, save for the drive-thru of the McDonald’s across the parking lot. It’s an area of Florin Road that sees more commuter traffic than foot traffic.
Twice a month, the hallways of the 75,000-square-foot building fill with patrons of the African Market Place, which features small vendors, food and live entertainment. But on this day, the front side of the building—which is much larger on the inside than it appears from the parking lot—is slow, too.
Accius and his business partner Passion Bailey are hoping to change that.
“It’s a work in progress,” Accius explained. “This wasn’t a hub. This wasn’t a place that really had a lot of businesses, but had a lot of service providers and programming.
“So now, we’ve definitely leveled up, and you have a lot more businesses that have really sprouted out within the last two or three years. All of this stuff is fairly new.”
In 2003, Tom Donaldson, a retired manufacturing engineer, bought the building for $3.5 million. At the time, it housed health and human services programs including a nutrition program for women, infants and children and the Meadowview Family Resource Center, which primarily served black residents in South Sacramento.
Since then, the building has remained home to some of those same services, while adding the Sojourner Truth African American Museum, the African Market Place and offices for small black-owned businesses and nonprofits.
“I’m looking for a long-term way of turning this place into a destination,” Donaldson said. “So if you’re sitting in San Francisco, and you’re just going through the internet, you look at this place in Sacramento, and it’s got a museum and it’s got this and that, and you want to take a ride up to go look at it. That’s what I want people to do.”
To achieve that, Donaldson is looking toward Measure U, the half-cent sales tax increase that voters approved last November and that is projected to generate $50 million a year. Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the City Council say they want to use some of the money for “inclusive economic development” that could boost destitute business corridors like the one where Sojourner is located.
“Without Measure U, we could do it in five years,” Donaldson predicted. “With Measure U, it would take two years.”
The area has already seen some growth. In September, the African Market Place took over much of the building on the first and third Saturday and on the second Saturday, the parking lot was packed with food vendors for the inaugural Black Food Festival.
It’s events like these that Accius sees turning the strip mall into an epicenter for community building and, eventually, generational change.
“When someone’s talking to me about why it’s important to build black,” Accius said, “I’m speaking it, living it and really orchestrating it in such a way that you can’t deny it. … I’m here at a black establishment, helping grow the grassroots idea of spending black and building black right here in a place where folks left it for dead.”
That idea, more than recycled clothing, is what Accius is hoping to sell.