Oak Park Couple Travel Far and Wide to Buy Only From Black-Owned Businesses

Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune, March 9, 2009

Maggie Anderson drives 14 miles to buy groceries, which might seem curious given that she lives in bustling Oak Park. She and her husband, John, patronize gas stations in Rockford and Phoenix, Ill. They travel 18 miles to a health food store in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood for vitamins, supplements and personal care products.

The reason? They want to solve what they call “the crisis in the black community.” They want to, as they say, “buy black.”

The Andersons, African-Americans who rose from humble means, are attempting to spend their money for one year exclusively with black-owned businesses and are encouraging other African-Americans to do the same. It is part experiment, part social activism campaign.

They call it the “Ebony Experiment.”

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But the Andersons said they also have known that a thriving black economy is fundamental to restoring impoverished African-American and other “underserved” communities, and they have discussed for years trying to find a way to address the problem.

What they came up with is provocative. One anonymous letter mailed to their home accused the Andersons of “unabashed, virulent racism.” “Because of you,” the writer stated, “we will totally avoid black suppliers. Because of you, we will dodge every which way to avoid hiring black employees.”

Apart from that letter, a solid majority of comments they have received have been encouraging, the Andersons said, adding that most people see the endeavor as beneficial to all.

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The undertaking “is an academic test about how to reinvest in an underserved community” and lessen society’s burden, John Anderson said. {snip}

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They are using a public relations firm, have created a slick Web site–ebonyexperiment.com–have been laying the groundwork for nearly two years and have enlisted researchers from Northwestern to detail and extrapolate the impact of their spending.

Still, the first two months posed challenges in finding stores that meet what Maggie Anderson called her “exacting standards.” Her latest crisis is finding shoes and clothes for the couple’s toddler daughters.

The Andersons buy gasoline cards from black-owned stations in Phoenix and Rockford and use the cards elsewhere. After several weeks of searching, Maggie Anderson found Farmers Best Market, 1424 W. 47th St., Chicago, a black-owned grocery 14 miles from their home, and God First, God Last, God Always Dollar and Up General Store, 2243 E. 71st St., a black-owned general merchandise establishment 18 miles from their house.

They moved their personal accounts to Covenant Bank in Chicago but have been unable to switch their mortgage and student loans to black-owned financial institutions. Their utilities payments will continue going to the companies collecting those now. Maggie Anderson said she has struggled to find financial support for the Ebony Experiment’s grander plans, and she lamented the campaign’s low national prominence.

Lawrence Hamer, associate professor of marketing at DePaul University, called the Andersons’ project “brave and courageous” and said its logic was “exactly right.” But it probably will be futile in achieving meaningful impact in the black economy, he said.

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Although it may be one of the more well-organized and monitored projects of its kind, the Ebony Experiment is not the only buying black venture, said James E. Clingman, a prolific writer on African-American economic empowerment who teaches a class on black entrepreneurship at the University of Cincinnati.

African-Americans have been buying black for more than a century, Clingman said. Booker T. Washington, long an advocate for African-American economic power, was an early proponent, and African-Americans have been forming black-buying cooperatives for decades, Clingman said.

But thriving black businesses began dissolving in the mid-1960s, when African-Americans focused on political power and civil rights and began patronizing white-owned businesses under the misconception that buying white signified blacks’ upward socioeconomic mobility, Clingman said.

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[Editor’s Note: The Anderson family’s “experiment” is discussed in an earlier story here.]

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