How to Be a Better Advocate for Black-Owned Businesses in DC

DC is full of Black-owned businesses that are worthy of your attention and your dollars

June 12, 2020 2:22 pm
calabash coffee black owned businesses dc
Calabash Coffee, a Black-owned tea and coffee shop in Shaw
Calabash Coffee

The last two weeks have been historic to say the least: tragic, above all, but also inspiring, vital and cathartic. Across the nation, thousands of Americans of all creeds have shown up to protest in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement after outrage was sparked by the death of George Floyd while in the custody of police officers in Minneapolis. 

Both on social media and IRL, people have been demanding police reform and equality for Black Americans, a group that continues to be unfairly marginalized and criminalized in this country. Meanwhile, in the background, a global health pandemic still rages — one that disproportionately affects people of color. 

Despite all the chaos, an optimistic view of things will tell you that change feels closer than ever thanks to the actions people continue to take. Hundreds of companies have spoken up and opened their wallets for the cause, a vote for police reform in Minneapolis was unanimously passed, and individuals who have benefited from privilege are speaking up about their not-so-proud pasts. 

So, you might be wondering, what is your role to play in all this? Well, it’s pretty simple, actually. Beyond taking the time to educate yourself about institutional racism in this country, you can also let your money talk for you sometimes. Included below is a list of Black-owned businesses to eat at, shop at and donate to — so you can start making a difference today. 

A quick DC history lesson

It was just 2015 when, for the first time in decades, DC was no longer a majority-Black city. It was also that year that a Washington Post survey indicated that for the first time ever, a majority of Black residents felt like gentrification was not a good thing, as it continued to divide affluent white residents from less affluent Black residents — pushing them further out of the city center into the east. 

By contrast, let’s take a look back at the 1970s, when DC hit its demographic high water mark of over 71 percent “Negro,” according to the census that year. Back then, the District was referred to as “Chocolate City,” and white Americans made up less than 30 percent of the population. Residents chose their first elected Black mayor in 1974, and cultural movements such as Black Power and the Black Arts blossomed there. 

Just a few years earlier, in 1968, the scene was not so different than it was a week ago, as buildings in the city were burned and destroyed during the 1968 riots. Black Americans were rebelling against continued racism, injustice and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“It’s [sic] saddened me to realize that our sons and daughters are fighting today for the same rights that we fought for back then, 52 years ago,” said Virginia Ali, 86, co-founder of Ben’s Chili Bowl. “They’re fighting for the same basic human rights that we were fighting for.”

Put your money where your mouth is

If you’ve ever strolled into Ben’s Chili Bowl for a supremely satisfying late night half-smoke or chili dog, you probably understand why it’s been around for more than 60 years. “We need to carry on our culture and having many Black-owned businesses and Black-owned restaurants is a way to hang onto the history of African Americans,” says Ali, whose restaurant sits on what was formerly known as Black Broadway. 

“The outpouring of love that we’ve gotten has been amazing,” she says. “It’s a hard time for small businesses in this country. Period. So it’s important to support all of them the best we can.” 

Another place for a good half smoke is, well, HalfSmoke — just a skip away from Ben’s. There, you can order anything from a DC steak and cheese for breakfast to crab fries and a po’ boy sandwich for dinner. The popular restaurant is also now home to Butter Me Up, a breakfast pop-up that serves huge breakfast sandwiches, cocktails and coffee for takeout. 

You also can’t talk about the DC restaurant scene without mentioning Ethiopian or soul food. According to the Embassy of Ethiopia, the District is home to the largest population of Ethiopians out of Africa, which is why such a wide breadth of amazing Ethiopian-owned restaurants are to be found in the city. From Habesha Market in Shaw and Zenebech in Adam’s Morgan to Ethiopic on H Street, DC is spoiled for choice. You can also get your morning coffee fix from places like Sidamo, also on H Street, and Buna Coffeehouse in Petworth. 

Elsewhere, Oohhs and Aahhs is a classic soul food joint on U Street serving up cocktails to go along with their robust offerings of comforting items like beef short ribs, catfish, and shrimp and grits. District Soul Food in Barracks Row is also a great option, as is Andrene’s Soul Food and Caribbean Cafe in Brightwood Park.

For a more exhaustive list of Black-owned restaurants in the DMV, make sure to check out Anela Malik’s website.

Shopping for good

Chances are you’ve probably purchased flowers from Lee’s on 14th Street if you’re a long time DC resident. That’s because three generations of the Lee family have owned Lee Flower and Card Shop since 1945. Besides selling beautiful arrangements they’ve also helped to decorate the White House, and even recently advised Mayor Muriel Bowser on the reopening of businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Last summer we also spoke to Louis Everard, who presented a pretty convincing case that everyone should own at least one custom-made suit. His eponymous shop in Georgetown, Everard’s, has been a DC staple since he opened it over 20 years ago — and in that time he’s dressed dozens of White House admins spanning multiple administrations. 

Don’t feel comfortable leaving the house just yet? District of Clothing is a great online shop to help update your closet. Since 2014, they’ve worked with local designers and makers who promote action and progress for the Black community, also partnering with organizations such as Stand With Black Women, the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Washington Area Women’s Foundation. Items can be purchased online.

“Our clothes won’t change the world, but the people who wear them are,” says District of Clothing on their Instagram page. “To our growing community of dreamers, doers and change makers, keep going. We love seeing and hearing about what you’re doing: the protests you’re attending, the tough conversations you’re having at home and work, as well as the time you’re spending in deep reflection, silent action and recruitment. We hope you continue. We have a lot [of] work to do, and we need you.”

Other Black-owned DC shops include Calabash, a tea shop in Shaw that sells delicious tea blends, coffee, self care goods, spices and even garden seeds. And Mahogany Books, whose temporarily closed brick-and-mortar shop is located in the Anacostia Arts Center, is still open for business online selling books primarily focused on Black culture and the African diaspora. 

Donating to the cause

Shopping at POC-owned businesses is always a win-win, but another way to make a difference is to donate. Local chapters of national organizations like Black Lives Matter, the ACLU and the NAACP are always a good place to start, and hyper-local organizations and charities such as the Black Women’s Health Imperative and Casa Ruby, a shelter that specializes in helping LGBTQ+ people of color, are also great places to contribute to. 

Lovers of the arts can donate to, or become a member of, the only museum in the country dedicated exclusively to chronicling the history of African Americans: the National Museum of African American History & Culture. The Smithsonians have not yet reopened due to the coronavirus pandemic, but you can still take the time to explore the museum’s newly released online portal Talking About Race, which has tons of multimedia resources for all ages to learn about the history of race and racial identity.

Finally, if you aren’t able to get out and protest yourself, there are certainly ways that you can still help those that are out in the streets and demanding change happen. DC eliminated cash bail about three years ago, but you’re still able to donate to local bail funds for local protesters in Baltimore and Richmond, or contribute to the National Bail Fund Network, which provides support to community-based organizations across the country and helps organizers creatively tackle the drivers of criminalization and mass incarceration.


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