Lecester “Bill” Allen said it all started with an epiphany. About four years ago, the local philanthropist was watching a television special about the Greenwood district, a business community in Tusla, Oklahoma, that thrived at the beginning of the 20th century. In its heyday, the former Native American territory was considered one of the epicenters for Black wealth and culture in America. That was until May 31, 1921, when a white mob tore through the area known as “Black Wall Street,” burning businesses to the ground and killing Black residents.
Allen thought the legacy of Black Wall Street shouldn’t die with the Tulsa Race Massacre. He wanted to bring it back. “I questioned, like most people, ‘Why [hasn’t] somebody in almost 100 years at that time built a new Black Wall Street?” said Allen, the founder of the Allen Entrepreneurial Institute, which he launched 20 years ago with a mission to increase the size and number of minority and women-owned businesses across the country.
Working with Matthew Hampton, a member of AEI’s investment team, Allen’s vision came to fruition with the New Black Wall Street Market, which opened last November on Black Friday. The 125,000-square-foot space is located in Stonecrest, which officially became a city — and DeKalb County’s largest in terms of land and population — in November 2016.
Shopping Black-owned isn’t a new concept. Concentrating several Black businesses in one place is not a new idea, either. Yet, somehow, the market, just over 15 miles east of Atlanta, feels different. The space’s layout and decor imitates a downtown shopping district. Professional greeters say hello to patrons as they walk in. The website lists 45 shops open for business at the market, including an African textile museum, shoe boutiques, local jewelers, an art gallery, bookstore, and tax services — all designed with Black consumers in mind.
There’s been a recent surge in Black-owned businesses since February 2020, just before the pandemic. But Black entrepreneurs still account for less than 2% of businesses nationwide. Allen thought, provided an opportunity, Black owners can realize economic goals in a space that encourages their growth. Knowing that nearly half of Black entrepreneurs use cash to fund their business, Hampton said they set the price points for rent much lower than other retail spaces. The New Black Wall Street offers physical space for $5,000 down and $1,000 in monthly rent.
“If I’m charging you $50,000 to get in and charging you $5,000 a month [for rent], it makes it more difficult for you to get stable,“ Hampton said of the rental prices at other venues. Stabilizing Black business is an important part of the project, he continued. “What Mr. Allen is doing is really a business development program.” Entrepreneurs at the market can also tap into continuing education programs, including training sessions on marketing, advertising, and online sales support.
The market offers four membership tiers — resident merchant, pop-up, consignment, and virtual — to give businesses options. For folks who want to take advantage of the space but might not be able to afford monthly rent, the pop-up option allows for trial runs, pending space availability and product approval.
Venus Johnson used the pop-up option to explore her entrepreneurial venture, Savi Science Girl. Inspired by her eldest daughter’s love for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), Johnson sells tools and toys to introduce the subjects to other young Black girls.
Johnson’s business is online, but the pop-up program allowed her to gauge consumer interests in person. It also bolstered her confidence. As a result she was able to accelerate the launch of a Black girl-centered backpack exclusive for Savi.
“The customers are so grateful,” she said. “One, they want to support Black businesses. Two, they want to see brown skin people representing and be able to give them goods and services, and then pour back into the community.”
Hampton said he’s not surprised that Johnson’s business found audience success, knowing that women make up 46% of Black entrepreneurs. “Ninety percent of our entrepreneurs are Black women,” he said. “It’s really Black women who are our customers and the people who are running those businesses at the New Black Wall Street Market.”
Another one of those women is Cynthia Shambry, owner of ELDA, a children’s bookstore. Shambry, whose inventory includes bestsellers such as Stacey Abrams’ children’s book, Stacey’s Extraordinary Words, is proud to see her customers invest in Black representation. To encourage customers to make purchases, she priced her books below retail. “I’m more interested in getting these books in the hands and homes of those who will enjoy them as much as I do,” she said, adding that without the market’s flexibility, the markdown might not be possible.
Allen and Hampton’s dream did not come without challenges, most of which were due to pandemic-related construction delays. There was also the current fallout from Stonecrest’s first mayor, Jason Lary, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud and COVID-19 relief fund theft in January. That news called the $700 million bond deal Lary brokered with Allen and the now-defunct Stonecrest Development Authority into question. Hampton, who serves as the market’s director, resigned from his board post on the development authority in 2018, roughly nine months before that deal went through. Hampton and Allen did not respond to queries about these developments.
The duo plans to develop an additional 300 acres of land near the site that will eventually become the New Black Wall Street International Village, a mix-use development featuring more businesses and live-work options. “I kept teaching [Allen] about how ecosystems are how you really build real entrepreneurial communities,” Hampton said.
Allen is just happy to plant the idea, whether or not it grows from here.
“I hope this will be duplicated all across the country,” he said. “I would hope that in small towns and villages we can take self-ownership, and we can own things within our community and beyond.”