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Celebrating Black History: Highlighting Black entrepreneurship in Mississippi

Published: Feb. 7, 2021 at 9:55 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - It’s lunch time and the line is long at the iconic Big Apple Inn.

Customers are ordering either the famous red smoked sausage or pig ear sandwiches known in the south as ‘smokes and ears.’

“If you want a pizza do you know where to go? If you want fried chicken you know where to go. If you want fried catfish you know where to go, but if you want a pig ear sandwich where do you go? You come to us,” said Owner Geno Lee.

Geno Lee is a fourth-generation owner of the Big Apple Inn, which is one of the oldest restaurants in Jackson.

It’s located on Farish Street, once a hub of African American business.

“We opened in 1939, but back then Farish Street was 100% black and everything... On Farish Street it is operated by black people, and the whole district was built by freed slaves. Medgar Evers’ office was upstairs when he was the field secretary for the NAACP and whenever he would have his Freedom Rider meetings, he would try to fit them in his office, but it was too small so we would have them inside the Big Apple Inn. It was amazing because the Big Apple Inn was filled with Civil Rights icons.”

Now more than 80 years later, the historic diner is one of the only businesses still open and still catering to the community.

“To stay in the neighborhood, a neighborhood that’s dying but there are still a lot of residents around here. I think that’s very important and that is why no matter what and as long as the building continues to stand, we are going to open our doors.”

Less than a block away on Farish Street is Johnny T’s Bistro & Blues.

“If we backtrack a little bit, this place was called a Crystal Palace back in the 1940s, so the pictures on the side of the building reference the artists that actually played in this very building. Red Fox, Lena Horne, and Sammy Davis Jr. all played the stage.”

Jackson State graduate John Tierre is the CEO and Owner.

He started out with a t-shirt business..

“From the business, I got into the entertainment business, whether I was doing concerts or different events and it segued into the restaurant business. It did so extremely well that it was time to move full service and that’s where the concept of Johnny T’s comes from.”

He admits he has faced a lot of struggles being black and in business including a lack of access to capital.

“It won’t be handed to you. It’s not easy, it’s very competitive, and there are no guarantees. You can have the money and lose it, so it’s really tough.”

But he didn’t let his challenges stop him, instead it fueled him to be the best.

Now, this black business owner has built one of the most popular and profitable spots for music, comedy, food, and drinks in Jackson.

“Dan Aykroyd came through maybe three months before we opened, he was here for a fundraiser.”

African American women are also making waves in the business community.

Elisha Roberts-Turner is a Jackson native and owns “SHE IS” THIRTYONE :TWENTYFIVE

“I sale female clothes, accessories, jewelry, handbags to book-bags to shoes.”

Get this- she launched her retail business online during the pandemic.

She also turned a room in her home intro her showroom and office to build her brand.

“We did some marketing, networking, praying, and word of mouth.”

Within months her clothing, jewelry and other items started selling out, and her business exploded.

“I had one number in my head of what I was going to make when we launched.

The number that I came up with to reach a goal for the entire month, we exceeded that goal that same day within four hours.”

Now she is preparing to move out a small room at her home and into a brand-new building.

Yes, from online to her own store.

“I had the pleasure of sending my first order to New Mexico, and I was like okay we’re moving. I have a map that is coming in with my map every state that I make an order I’ll put a star on there, and my goal is where I don’t see a star is to network and push it and get it there. I want everybody to see what this Mississippi girl has done.”

All three business owners didn’t let their setbacks stop them from achieving their dreams.

They say black entrepreneurship is still a vital part of America’s Landscape, and their advice to others wanting to do what they did.

“Pray and trust the process. Get out of your own way ,” said Turner.

“You have to do your research. Whether it is on the job training, whether it’s going to college, getting degrees, whatever it takes, but it’s tough,” said Tierre.

“If you are going to operate a business make sure you love it,” said Lee.

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