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  • Writer's pictureAnika Horn

The Walker Program: A renaissance of Black business in the Southern Valley

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Once an important destination in the Motorist Green Book, Black-owned businesses dwindled for a half-century in Lexington, VA, until the last Black-owned storefront shut down in 2018. Five years later, Rockbridge county is experiencing a renaissance of Black entrepreneurship - all thanks to what started out as a volunteer initiative following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

During the Jim Crow era (1877 - 1950s), the Black community made up almost one-third of Lexington’s total population. What’s more, they started and ran close to a dozen businesses mostly along North Main Street, four of which were featured in the Negro Motorist Green Book (source). As desegregation and civil rights took root in the Southern Shenandoah Valley between the 1960s and 1980s, more and more Black businesses closed their doors: their main clientele began frequenting other venues or simply left the area in pursuit of a life in desegregated America. Eventually, in 2018, the last Black business in Lexington - The Victorian Parlour and Shenandoah Attic, owned for 27 years by a husband and wife team, ernestine and Al Hockaday – was sold to new owners.

When the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 shook the United States, it didn’t leave Lexington untouched. A volunteer group of local entrepreneurs, community members, and organizations banded together to address racial inequities in their community: The Harry Lee and Eliza Bannister Walker Entrepreneurship Program was born. Launched in the fall of 2020, the program was named after leading Black business owners in early 20th-century Lexington. The Walker Program set out to establish four to six new businesses owned and operated by people of color in the community.

Fast forward to 2022: To date, The Walker Program has

  • Trained 26 entrepreneurs over three training cohorts,

  • Five of which opened a physical storefront in Lexington and Buena Vista, and

  • Pledged $160,000 in start-up grants to date, all made possible by donations from community members, organizations, and schools.

These efforts have been assisted in part by the Community Navigator Pilot Program, an  American Rescue Plan initiative designed to reduce barriers that all small businesses, including those owned by disadvantaged groups such as veterans, women, and those from rural communities and communities of color, often face in accessing critical support. The Walker Program is part of a consortium that includes a total of six entrepreneurial support organizations for underserved entrepreneurs throughout the Shenandoah Valley, hosted by the Shenandoah Community Capital Fund. During its first year in the program, The Walker Program provided more than 60 training hours and a total of 300 individual counseling hours to the 26 entrepreneurs in their program.

In 2023, The Walker Program will continue to host its 11-week training program during which entrepreneurs receive education and targeted technical assistance. Following the training period, entrepreneurs can apply for grant funding to get their businesses off the ground. In addition to their cohort-based training, the program offers:

  • Monthly workshops on various business-related topics

  • One-on-one business counseling

  • Free legal aid through a partnership with the Washington & Lee Law School

  • Free marketing assistance, and

  • Free bookkeeping assistance.

As a Walker Program graduate, Gabrielle Cash now helps run the program and supports Black entrepreneurs in Rockbridge county. Cash, an Atlanta native, knows what a flourishing Black economy should look like. “Lexington is not quite that… yet,” she says. “With that being said, I believe there's a great deal of support in the city. Between the churches, schools, and local organizations, I haven’t come across anyone who isn’t interested in seeing the program or our entrepreneurs thrive. Our partnerships with the local universities and other organizations have been a great asset and we continue to build on these relationships.”

One of the last Black-owned businesses to close in recent years was Wendell’s Barber Shop, owned and operated by Wendell Baker for more than 50 years. It’s only fitting that Wendell’s location is now the new home of Allyson Davoll Cartwright’s Inspired to Enhance, a nail and hair salon on Lexington’s Jefferson Street. Walker Program graduate Melissa Wooding has opened up the Coffee Corner cafe inside the Rockbridge Regional Library, offering coffee, tea, cupcakes, danishes, and other pastries to Rockbridge’s book lovers. Justina Eason specializes in balloon installations, balloon bouquets, stuffed balloons, and custom special occasion decorations through Tina’s Balloon Emporium. Another Walker program participant, Trevor Stores currently manages SkyBar, an extension of the popular Blue Sky restaurant. SkyBar offers light fare, a compelling drink menu, and good vibes to town residents and visitors. In Buena Vista, Tasha Coleman of Tasha Lamar Photography & Films is in the process of opening her photography studio Studio Create where she’ll be offering portrait sessions, themed sessions for special occasions, and photography workshops for emerging photographers in the area.

Gabrielle Cash and The Walker Program Board are intimately familiar with the challenges Black entrepreneurs face. “There are still many gaps in the opportunities and resources generally available to Black individuals in this area, as are in the country. They encounter difficulties ranging from denial of business loans to being given the runaround when trying to secure retail space. I don’t know if the importance of the Black dollar is a concept that is understood on a widespread level just yet, quite frankly I’m still learning, but I hope that is one of many things we can continue to educate on in an effort to see systemic change”, Cash explains.

Even though capacity and systemic barriers are major issues, the Walker Program has big plans for the future. “We’d love to offer a mentorship component as part of the program to expand the network and assistance available to the entrepreneurs,” Cash says. “Another major barrier for Black entrepreneurs is the lack of equitable access to capital. We’re raising philanthropic dollars right now to expand our grant fund to be better able to meet participants’ requests for funding. A grant of a few thousand dollars can really make a difference to put a new business in a position to get off the ground and thrive. Lastly, we’re working to find more partner organizations that are willing to offer free or inexpensive services, such as tax assistance, accounting services, and marketing help, to the entrepreneurs that go through our program.”

While the Walker Program is gearing up to welcome its next cohort in January 2023, its mission goes beyond helping Black entrepreneurs succeed. Says Cash, “It is my hope that this community continues to embrace the work we are doing as a program and support the Black entrepreneurs who have great ideas and business plans. A lot of these individuals are in the process of trying to build a foundation for generational wealth for their families, and I hope our efforts through this program can better position them to do so.”

If you're interested in being a part of The Walker Program's next cohort, you can sign up here at no cost. If you want to contribute to the program and be "part of the revival," see here for more information on how to give!

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