Visitors to Greenville’s Upcountry History Museum can’t miss the obvious as they stroll through its second-floor displays: for most of U.S. history, blacks in the Upstate were confined to an economic straitjacket that relegated them to the fields, the kitchen, or the blacks-only section of a textile mill.
“Unequivocally, the primary barrier to African-American uplift has been white prejudice, which obstructed and continues to obstruct African-American opportunities,” said Courtney Tollison, the museum’s founding historian and a Furman University professor.
Fifty years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “We would like to think that we have moved forward with giant steps,” said the Rev. J.M. Flemming, president of the Greenville NAACP. “That is not the truth.”
Yet, in the midst of unparalleled economic growth, it appears that business and community leaders are taking, if not giant steps, then strong, measurable ones to help blacks move closer to economic parity.
Historically, African-American churches were the one place where blacks could hold leadership positions and be protected from white intimidation, Tollison noted, with King inspiring millions of young, disenfranchised people.
“As I progressed through college, medical school and then through residency, I wore out a CD of Dr. King’s most famous speeches,” said Dr. Scott Porter, a nationally known orthopedic surgeon and Prisma Health–Upstate’s vice president of organizational equity. “When times got hard and mentors were few, I found solace in not only the words that I would hear but the passion of the voice no matter how heavy the burden,” he said.
James Jordon, president of Jordon Construction Company, found several role models at home. His father’s passion for construction inspired “the possibility of entrepreneurship” and his stepfather “an appetite for information,” with his mother “incredibly supportive.”
Whether from Dr. King or family, the need for inspiration remains.
While Greenville County’s unemployment rate stood at 2.8 percent in December, black unemployment claims represented 84 percent of the monthly total. And for South Carolinians working in the state’s five most common occupations, the highest average salary for blacks recently stood at $36,085; for whites, $56,786, according to datausa.com.
There is also a scarcity of black role models in many occupations, Flemming said.
“We have less black doctors practicing in Greenville County now than we did 50 years ago,” he said. “No one can afford 200 or 300 thousand dollars.”
While graduates don’t have to be first-in-class to be successful, “education is power,” said Rick Harris, founder of RL Enterprise, a Greenville-based executive and management placement firm that also handles temporary staffing.
Business partnerships in elementary and secondary schools are increasingly helping minority and non-minority students prepare for a variety of job options beyond the core curriculum.
Public schools now spend more time emphasizing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)in the early years. At Greenville’s A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering, named after a civil rights pioneer and where more blacks than whites are enrolled, corporations like Fluor and GE provide students with hands-on experience in engineering technology.
At the secondary level, Personal Pathways to Success, a workforce training program, gives students the option to select training that aligns with their strengths and aspirations.
Technical schools can build on secondary school training, and programs like Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research are partnering with schools like Greenville Tech, where students enrolled in manufacturing training programs can collaborate on cutting-edge projects.
The Upstate has “transformed itself” and the increasing use of automation and robotics can now give minority students a chance to get in on the ground floor of new kinds of careers, Harris said.
For those who prefer to stick with time-honored endeavors, the trades still represent “a viable career path” with strong earnings potential, said Jordon, himself a technical school graduate.
With the crumbling of discriminatory barriers to education in recent decades, the call for inclusion spread to the workplace and workplace-related institutions. That call has been heeded sometimes wholeheartedly, sometimes reluctantly.
There are now a myriad of mentoring and sponsorship programs in corporate America, observed Dr. Porter, who believes “many” of those initiatives “fall short of their intended goals.”
“An organization must start with a look at their own motivations for such changes,” he suggests. “If compliance is the goal, very little will be done as that organization chases a metric. If a catalyst for improvement is the goal, then an organization may unleash a host of tactics that may result in that improvement.”
One example of the latter is the Medical Experience Academy, said Brenda Thames, executive vice president and provost at Prisma Health–Upstate.
“While the physician shortage is a national problem, the impact is greater when you think of underrepresented minorities in medical school,” she said. “The Medical Experience (MedEx) Academy, she noted, is “designed to increase the pipeline of students prepared to enter and succeed in medical school” and works with a network of historically black colleges and universities.
To date, the academy has provided summer experiences to 570 students from 48 high schools in the region and 48 colleges and universities across the country.
Beyond medicine, the Greenville Chamber of Commerce has helped reduce disparity through its Minority Business Accelerator program.
Founded in 2013, the program prepares minority-owned businesses for growth and expansion. Its service model includes assessments of participating businesses, growth planning, coaching and mentoring, and access to large corporations for partnerships.
“There was just a huge chasm in Greenville between the haves and have-nots and if you took a stroll down Main Street, you’d come to the errant conclusion that we are one of the most vibrant, economically prosperous cities in the South, and all the numbers really ran counter to that,” says operating team member Toby Stansell of the CPA firm Cherry Bekaert, speaking in a program video.
Participants in the 2018 accelerator included black entrepreneurs whose businesses provide transportation, photography, senior care, and more than a dozen other services.
The Greenville Chamber is one of only six chambers in the country to offer a minority accelerator.
Meantime, corporations like Denny’s and Milliken & Company recently hosted workshops where minority supply-chain providers can discuss ways to build relationships with such companies.
As blacks pursue greater opportunity, infrastructure issues are holding some back.
“We got to start looking at the transportation barrier,” said Rev. Flemming. “The city funds more of it than the county,” he said, but more money is needed to create more routes for workers to get to jobs.
Greenlink’s plans include increasing the frequency and number of routes. Some expansion of existing service is slated for 2020, but 10 new routes will not be implemented until at least 2029.
“We have to get our local government and the state government in the right mindset to do these things,” the NAACP leader believes.
Scott Porter, M.D., Vice President of Organizational Equity
“While there are a number of laudable programs that exist to help minorities and specifically minorities that are woefully underrepresented … one must still come to the table with a certain degree of self-reliance. Regardless of how many doors may be opened by a particular program, there will always come a time when that door closes and a young person finds themselves in the room alone. It is then that an individual will find out what they are truly made of.”
James Jordon, President
Jordon Construction Company
Raised in the Midwest, Jordon caught the entrepreneurial bug early.
At 18, while going to school and working at the Harley-Davidson plant, Jordon showed his W-2 to a banker and got a loan so he could buy a rental rehab. The banker helped him develop a business plan and renovation work progressed, but he and a friend “got stuck” with HVAC and plumbing. “A heck of a learning experience,” he calls it.
Today, Jordon Construction does business in five states using traveling work crews.
“Our business strategy is to focus on areas that have high barriers of entry” such as healthcare construction, which now accounts for 40 percent of his business, he said.
With a crew that’s knowledgeable about things like negative air flow and infection, he likes people who say, “I’m hungry and I’m willing to learn.”
The company also handles domestic contract work for the Department of Defense.
Latoya Dixon, Founder
The Queen Photographers
What started as a Facebook group of 30 in South Carolina is now a collaborative of black women photographers with international participation, Dixon writes on her website.
Founded in 2016, the association helps members find professional resources, mentors, and personal encouragement within a sisterhood.
Dixon, a participant in the latest class of the Minority Business Accelerator at the Greenville Chamber, now expects to create “a more viable and sustainable business model” and utilize “more measured” logistics and metrics for greater success.
Her five-year goal for the association is to reach 300 paying members and create partnerships with corporate sponsors for programs and events.
“You have to be your biggest supporter and believer in what you’re doing because mindset is the soft skill of entrepreneurship that can make or break you,” Dixon says.
Rick Harris, Owner
RL Enterprise & Associates
Armed with an MBA from Ohio State, Harris began his career by wearing out shoe leather carrying Glade and Windex into stores for SC Johnson.
Things got more enjoyable – and profitable – when Harris advanced to general manager for the Caribbean. Based in Puerto Rico, he took charge of operations on more than 20 islands. Later, he managed the passenger tire division in the U.S. and Canada for Michelin North America.
RL Enterprise provides direct placement of executives for corporations as well as temporary staffing in Greenville, Easley, Greenwood and Charlotte.
“I think we need to get deeper into the school system,” he says. “That’s your workforce of the future.”