For decades, Black entrepreneurs and business leaders in Boston have worked without much fanfare to create jobs and wealth for their community.
Then Jaylen Brown uttered these five words: “Black Wall Street in Boston.”
After signing a $304 million extension with the Celtics, the richest in NBA history, Brown spoke about how he might spend the money during a press conference late last month announcing his deal. The star player’s message went viral in a way that only happens if you’re a pro athlete with a mega-size contract and megaphone that comes with it.
If Brown were to follow through on his words, to “attack the wealth disparity,” Black leaders believe this could actually mark a turning point in closing the racial wealth gap in the region. For years now, there has been the will and investment, but Brown could finally provide the star power necessary to get it done.
“Everybody expected him to get this deal,” said Eastern Bank president Quincy Miller, whose professional and nonprofit work has focused on equity. “What caught my attention was his commitment to investing in our local community, but particularly the Black community.”
Nicole Obi, president of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, was less surprised. She said Brown has been talking about a Black Wall Street for a while, so much the council has tried to recruit him to headline the business advocacy group’s annual expo.
“I’m so excited that he is a person in a position as a young person, as a Black man not just talking about creating Wall Street, but he’s really looking to take action,” said Obi.
Still, she and others who have worked on closing the racial wealth gap cautioned that Brown can’t go it alone.
“This is bigger than one man or one organization,” added Obi. “But this coming together of people and organizations interested in building Black wealth, it’s really encouraging.”
“The advice I have for Jaylen is to reach out to those folks, not only our elected and city officials, but also the policymakers, the think tanks, the experts, the people who have done this work,” said Lazu. “It’s good for him to be in community so that resources aren’t recreating the wheel and sucking oxygen out of the room, but actually kindling the embers of Wall Street that sit in Boston now.”
Historically, Black Wall Street refers to a thriving business district in Oklahoma that was destroyed in 1921 in what became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Over the years, Black Wall Street has come to mean having a prosperous community of Black businesses and professionals.
Off the court, Brown is known for his social justice activism. He has been outspoken about police killings of Black men and led a protest after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. He also has started the 7uice Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at eliminating inequities in education. Working with the MIT Media Lab, the foundation has created a high school camp to help cultivate the next generation of leaders in science and technology from under-represented communities.
The 26-year-old guard has provided scant details about how he might create a Black Wall Street in Boston. Still, that hasn’t stopped the local Black business community from wondering, dreaming, and offering up its own ideas of what it could mean.
Pam and David Griffin, owners of Chocolate Therapy, envision a marketplace that Black merchants can call their own. The couple make chocolate sold wholesale, online, and at a store in Wayland that will open in September.
Think of a Boston Public Market style venue with a dozen shops and cafes, all Black-owned, selling everything: coffee, wine, chocolate, clothing, jewelry, and more. The rents would be affordable, and the small businesses there could get support, such as legal advice and marketing services. Such a concept, called New Black Wall Street Market, opened in 2021 just outside of Atlanta.
Pam Griffin said Black-owned businesses tend to open pop-up stores, but they need something more permanent.
“We’d get these opportunities, and that opportunity hits, and then it’s gone,” said Pam Griffin. “Every Christmas, every holiday, we’re busy. But then come June ... we’re dying.”
Teresa Maynard of Sweet Teez Bakery wants Brown to become a financier, akin to a Wall Street for the Black community that specializes in providing capital. Maynard believes you need money to make money, and that’s where Black entrepreneurs struggle. They don’t have access to low-cost financing.
Consider her dilemma: If Maynard gets an order for $90,000 worth of cookies and brownies, she will need to spend $45,000 upfront because that’s what the ingredients, packaging, shipping, and other expenses cost. For a small business like hers, it can become a financial hardship to fulfill an order that large because bulk clients typically don’t pay bills for 60 days.
“Sometimes, working capital is so that you can play with the big dogs,” said Maynard, who has been in business for about seven years and bakes out of the CommonWealth Kitchen in Dorchester. “Otherwise, you will always be a small business.”
Chris Hope — founder of Loop Lab, a nonprofit that trains young adults of color for audio and visual careers — said Brown could help everyone think bigger.
“When we talk about Black Wall Street, that has a very historical reference and refers to something that people can latch onto,” he said. “The other side of that is instead of being a mirror, let’s think of what Jaylen is saying as a window to limitless possibilities.”
Building Black wealth in Boston won’t be easy. It will probably take a generation to see true progress. To succeed, Brown will need to be in it for the long haul and surround himself with other leaders and institutions who are already doing this kind of work. For starters, he could reach out to the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, the Barr Foundation, Boston Foundation, Foundation for Business Equity, Boston Federal Reserve Bank, New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, and Visible Hands.
Brown can be the game-changer in creating a more equitable Boston. Let’s hope he keeps up the full-court press.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.