When I attended Edward W. Stitt Junior High School, JHS 164, I met a classmate in seventh grade named Victor Davis. We called him Gramps. His father, Mr. James Davis, owned Afro Brothers Variety Store—the best variety store in the neighborhood, and they sold everything. Their motto was, “At Afro Brothers we put our soul into it.” The store was on the ground floor of a railroad-style, 5-story walk up apartment building located in the Sugar Hill section of West Harlem.
Afro Brothers sold all the freshest and best candy, including penny candy. One of the shop’s walls was lined with Ebony and Jet magazines, comic books, and romance story magazines; vinyl records were sold in the back. You could play your numbers in store, legal and illegal—NYS ones too, as well as purchase illegal alcohol when the liquor stores were closed. In the summertime, Afro Brothers sold shaved ices, watermelon slices, and they shucked clams out in front of the store. Mr. Davis had someone staffing a hot dog wagon on the corner by Battleground Park.
Mr. James Davis was the quintessential Black businessman of my youth, and when Victor introduced me to his father as one of his 7th grade classmates in the gifted program in the fall of 1969, I felt honored because I was meeting a Black man who owned his own business in my community. Later, I learned from Gramps that his father was a motorman for NYC Transit as well. I thought, imagine that: he had a full-time job with transit and his own business too!
I started having conversations with Mr. Davis one day when I came in to buy my weekly candy plus my beloved reading materials. He smiled, shook my hand, and told me, “It’s nice to meet a smart girl in my son’s class, please call me Bubba. You come in all the time to buy candy, records, watermelon slices, and my reading materials. You like my Archie comic books and the true romance magazines. I know my customers, and you keep on buying Black, young lady.” I was shocked he knew that much about my buying habits, so he proved his point to me.
The only other Black man in the neighborhood that owned their own business was my neighbor, Mr. Harris. He lived on the second floor in my building with his son, Buddy. Mr. Harris was a private investigator, and his son Buddy was rapper T.I.’s father. Bubba was the first person I met who worked multiple hustles, including owning his own business. Bubba would stand out in front of his store and loudly proclaim to Black people walking along the block that we should, “Buy Black.”
One day I asked him why he’s always screaming to Black people on the other side of the avenue to buy Black. Bubba told me, “Black-owned businesses flourished when white people wouldn’t allow us into their stores. We employed our people, and we were prosperous as a people within our own communities. Go into the stores owned by white, Spanish, and Chinese people in our neighborhood, and you’ll see—they will sell to us, but most won’t employ us. I couldn’t do that in their neighborhood; they wouldn’t shop me.
“Our money goes into their establishments and then it all leaves out of our community. They don’t sponsor any neighborhood athletic teams like I do for males, and I’m the only business that sponsors a female basketball team. Bottom line is if Black people don’t buy Black, then Black-owned businesses will cease to exist. And only a few of us will have job opportunities within our community.” And with that, Bubba stepped back into his store.”
After that encounter, I started looking at my neighborhood differently. Who owned the real estate versus and who rented in places like NYC?
Known as the mayor of Harlem, Sherman Hibbitt owned and operated Sherman’s, a soul food restaurant on the corner of the same block as Bubba’s Afro Brothers variety store. Hibbitt was a visionary in his day because he owned the apartment building over each of his restaurants: four in Harlem and one in Washington Heights. President Harry Truman, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and even Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes brought The Beatles to eat at the Sherman’s on my block in 1964.
The lesson Bubba taught me as a junior high school student was driven home while I was in graduate school at New York University. I ran into Bubba one day at school. He was taking a workshop for small business owners. We spoke about the urban renewal coming to the block where his variety store was located. Sadly, as renters Bubba and Mr. Harris (T.I.’s grandfather) had to vacate and find new locations for their businesses. Sherman Hibbitt refused to sell his property, and the developer had to build the block-long housing development around Mr. Hibbitt’s corner property. Had they known what was coming, I wondered if Bubba or Mr. Harris would have done the same thing Sherman did.