Although she grew up in California, Ursula Martin, 44, spent her summers in South Memphis, visiting her grandmother. She has memories of trips to the neighborhood store, picking up whatever her grandmother needed and maybe, a treat for herself. Years later, Martin sees that those errands offered economic lessons.
“I remember being a kid here in the ‘80s and seeing my grandmother spend probably 85% of her money with other Black people,” she said. “But then in the ‘90s and 2000s, we saw the one-stop shopping experience take over and it’s maintained a stranglehold on the community because it’s convenient, cheap and nearby.
“Now, if I want an onion, I’ve got to give my money to Kroger when I should just be able to go down the street.”
Martin, who lives in South Memphis, wants to get back to the idea of Black people being able to depend on one another to get their most important needs met. So she and her partner, Jerrell Spencer, 45, bought a brick-and-mortar corner store just south of Hamilton High School and plan to open the BL Grocery next month.
The BL stands for “Black Lives,” and they say they hope it will be a step toward greater Black economic empowerment while also addressing the need for a grocery store in one of the city’s many food deserts.
“We’re looking to serve Black people from all walks of life,” Spencer said. “But we’re trying to focus on this particular community because it has a lot of history itself.”
That history includes another Black-owned grocery store once embedded in South Memphis. In March 130 years ago, the People’s Grocery lynching launched a national discussion about lynching, justice and economics. In March 1892, a white mob lynched three Black men — Thomas Moss, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell who co-owned the store because it was beginning to rival a nearby white-owned grocery store. For Black Memphians that history is both past and present, a reminder of the stakes involved in Black ownership and entrepreneurship.
Spencer, who grew up in Riverside, came up with the store’s name, wanting it to be an echo of the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement. He said the “for us, by us” aspect is important.
“We wanted to open it there because I’m from that community; I care about that community,” he said. “When we got the building, I told (Martin) that we have to find a way to give back because a lot of these other non-Black businesses just want to take the money and run. We don’t.”
Spencer, a chef for 22 years, initially spotted the storefront at 1464 Valse St., just east of A&R Bar-b-que, when taking Martin’s son to a friend’s house and was surprised to discover that it was abandoned. Months later, he asked about the property while paying taxes on another lot he owns and was told it was a possession of the Shelby County Land Bank. Spencer consulted Martin, a registered nurse, and the two decided to enter an auction for the lot.
Using their savings, the two outbid would-be buyers.
“We purchased this property outright and didn’t take out a single dollar in loans for a few reasons,” Martin said. Foremost, she said, was the history of discrimination in lending. They might “end up upside down on the loan just based on the ZIP code that the store is placed in.”
“Ownership, true ownership, is very important to us,” Martin said.
The building needed major repairs. Spencer hired a friend to help him rehab the structure. The two worked for months redoing the floors, ceilings and walls before outsourcing the final HVAC, plumbing and electrical work to local Black and brown contractors.
“Where we spend our money matters,” Martin said. “As a business owner and as a consumer, the pendulum has to swing both ways. If someone spends their money with me, I’m not going to run to Macy’s. I’m going to spend it with someone and their mama who sews clothes. Yeah, I could go to Macy’s and spend $40, but I’m going to give my neighbors $65 because it’s a conscious act.”
The store will feature a variety of fresh produce and meats supplied by local farms. It will also offer a selection of warm food for those who need the convenience of pre-cooked meals.
They don’t have a grand opening date yet, but Spencer feels that the best way for others to honor their efforts is to be the change they want to see.
“Understand that we can control our own narrative,” Spencer said. “Don’t just stand there and take it. Learn to compete. Take your money, open up a coffee shop and build it right next to a Starbucks!”
Martin echoed his sentiments, emphasizing her belief that ownership and community are the pathways forward.
“…If we choose to buy property in an all-Black community or if we choose to live in the home that big mama left us because it’s already paid for, we’ll build generational wealth for ourselves and those that follow,” said Martin.
“It’ll pave the way for people to break the shackles of generational poverty. If we really want to be free, we can only get there with the help of each other.”
Alejandra Machín is a Memphis-based freelance writer. You can find her on LinkedIn.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.