|Black-owned businesses face unique challenges during COVID-19|
|Published Wednesday, September 16, 2020|
DURHAM – The walls of JC’s Kitchen in downtown Durham tell of an establishment frozen in time – before a pandemic-induced recession, before a summer of racial justice protests, and even before owner Phyllis Terry took over the restaurant 12 years ago.
The signs inside are devoted to God, prayers on every table. Gospel music blasts through the restaurant, though no one but Terry is listening. JC’s, which stands for Jesus Christ’s, was a center for the Hayti District’s church community — families gathering after church to share platters of Oxtail and mac and cheese.
Durham has changed, and the COVID-19 pandemic has changed it even more. Outside her small, red building that was built in 1955, Terry points down the street to a new apartment building. Just behind her is the glass police station that opened in 2018. “We can see the tearing down of the buildings,” Terry said. “I can name too many things that were here back in the day, but now, we're the only building still sitting.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected minority communities, permanently closing an estimated 25% of the city’s Black-owned businesses, according to CJ Broderick, the president and CEO of the Greater Durham Black Chamber of Commerce. In a city facing rapid gentrification, JC’s Kitchen is still alive because of its namesake and the loyalty of the local community, Terry says.
Durham has long heralded its history of Black entrepreneurship. N.C. Mutual Life, the largest and oldest Black-owned insurance company in the United States, is a staple of the downtown skyline. Durham was home to a thriving Black-owned business district, a part of Black Wall Street. But in the past decades, the makeup of Durham has changed as “revitalization” efforts took place — raising property values and making it harder for small businesses to survive. “Most often, people that are small businesses, poor, or of color are not engaged in the economic development process and as such, resources for how areas grow don’t get aligned equitably,” said Broderick.
When cities like Durham began developing their economies, these businesses were not included. A drive down downtown Durham shows boarded up shop windows and “closed” signs taped on the doors. Many don’t have a strong base to survive recessions like that caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everyone should be represented in how the community grows,” Broderick said. “People that are Black haven’t had an opportunity to ensure that their businesses were centered or were any part of the discussion.”
JC’s Kitchen is a part of that recent history. Terry’s brother opened the business 30 years ago as “Lee’s Restaurant” in a small building on the corner of East Main and North Elizabeth streets. Terry’s other siblings came in to help, too. When Terry’s sister Sheilah Lee took over, she transformed JC’s as a center for inspiration and helping others.
JC’s became a place for church-goers in East Durham to gather. Before COVID-19, customers would stop regularly for a prayer before an important court case downtown; daily breads are on every table. Families shared platters of oxtails after church as gospel music played over the chatter. Her sister was at the center of that community. “She and I, we were the best of friends,” Terry said.
Sheilah passed away from cancer in 2008. Terry returned from Japan, vowing to continue her sister’s legacy — “the dream lives on” is painted under her mural. “A lot of people who come here are Christians,” Terry said. “They activate their faith and who they are.”
As Black Lives Matter protests gripped the country after the death of George Floyd, Terry commissioned another mural for JC’s Kitchen. Her niece painted it — a BLM mural right at the entrance to the restaurant, with different colored fists raised in solidarity. As many fought for racial equality and an end to systemic racism, special attention was given to Black-owned small businesses. Posts on Instagram circulated on Black-owned restaurants to visit and support in the Triangle, which included JC’s Kitchen. “We were extremely busy on Blackout day,” Terry said. “But we still had those that have been supporting — the regular customers.”
U.S. Census worker Connie Covell walks into JC’s Kitchen. She’s in the neighborhood collecting surveys in the new apartment complexes and finally decided to stop inside JC’s. She says she’s admired its murals for years. “I’ve been in Durham for 10 years and I’m amazed (JC’s Kitchen) still standing,” she said. “It’s still here, it’s still survived all these years.”
The takeout order is not for herself. There’s a homeless man outside near the bus stop, and she wants to buy him lunch. “Where is he sitting?” Terry asks.
There are many homeless people her customers feed, Terry said, upholding the Christian principles of giving. She recognizes many of them, and there are two who are outside constantly. Terry throws in a bag of vegetables so the homeless man near the bus stop can have something healthy to eat. “I’ve been having to give away a lot of food these days,” she said. “It’s who we are.”
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