Black Entrepreneurs in New Hampshire Face Racism, Isolation
Ask Lionel Loveless how many Black-owned businesses there are in New Hampshire, and he guesses just a handful.
Loveless, along with his husband Greg Pruitt, happen to own two of those businesses: the Collector’s Eye antique shop in Stratham, and Route 1 Antiques in Hampton Falls.
“In the antique world around here, there’s not many African Americans,” says Loveless, the twang of his native Oklahoma running through his voice. “I’m kind of like a unicorn.”
Loveless was surprised to learn that a list of Black-owned businesses circulating in New Hampshire actually contains more than 70 companies: from restaurants and salons, to building contractors and consultants.
(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)
These types of lists popped up on social media around the country following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The idea behind them is to give consumers a way to support people of color—in their communities—with their wallets.
Loveless says that support is necessary: as a Black entrepreneur, he describes a feeling of isolation, and a sense that he’s under the spotlight in New Hampshire.
Many of his customers—largely white, largely older—often seem taken aback when they see him behind the counter. Occasionally, they won’t do business with him. Occasionally, they’ve been hostile.
It’s changed how he operates his antique business, including when he does a house call.
“If we get a call to go to someone’s house to look at their items, my husband feels the need to tell those people, ‘hey, I'm coming with my Black husband.’ Because we just don’t know how people are going to react,” says Loveless.
Since Floyd’s death, Loveless says some of his white customers have made a point of expressing support for him. While some of those conversations go well, others feel more like training sessions.
“We had one woman make the comment to me, about how she doesn’t see color,” says Lovelace. “And I had to explain to her, ‘I understand that, I understand you don’t see color, but I need you to see my color. I need you to see my color so you understand my pain and my fear.’”
Uncomfortable conversations aren’t unusual for Black entrepreneurs in the state. John Dye owns Sole Training, a one-on-one personal training company in Portsmouth. Dye says a lot of his customers will first reach out over the phone, not necessarily aware that he's Black.
“They’re all happy and giggling and smiling and joking for a half hour on the phone, and then when I see them in person, it is a two minute conversation,” he says.
In the past few months, Dye has been asked to participate in Black Lives Matter events, but so far, he’s declined those invitations. It’s not because he doesn’t support the movement. Rather, he’s concerned about what it would mean for his livelihood.
“One thing I'm skeptical or a little nervous about is hanging my ass out there and being vocal, because I've been asked to speak at multiple things, and I'm not sure what kind of blowback I’d get for my business,” he said. “I hate that I have to be quiet.”
In the far southwestern corner of the state, in the small town of Winchester, Robert Patton-Spruill has also found times when he’s had to remain quiet.
Patton-Spruill and his brother own New England Sweetwater Farm and Distillery, which operates a tasting room on Main Street. That makes him visible, for better or worse.
“There was a guy who had an old Ford Bronco that had a Confederate flag on it, and his horn was tuned to play the song Dixie,” says Patton-Spruill. “And there is a stoplight right in front of my business, he would drive, sit at the stoplight, look over at me, and beep the horn, and play Dixie at me. It happened every day for the first two-and-a-half years I was there.”
Patton-Spuill says he never said anything. To him, it was just the byproduct, the unwanted side-effect of living as a African American in a rural place.
“My whole life was shaped by racism in a way that made me feel that the only way for me to succeed and to survive was to push through it, ignore it when I could, and always prove to be better than everybody else. That’s always been my solution to dealing with it,” he ways.
Patton-Spruill’s business, which depends on foot traffic and tourists stopping in for samples, has dried up in the pandemic. The list of Black-owned businesses hasn’t made much of a difference.
“I’ve just seen 90% of my sales deteriorate. And I haven’t seen anyone charitably buying craft liquor, so I have not really seen a direct benefit of being a Black business,” he says.
Other companies, though, have seen an uptick, at least in visibility.
Lisa Carter runs Drinkwater Productions LLC, a digital marketing company based in Exeter. She says if somebody reaches out and mentions they found her through the list, “I make this statement: it is great to connect, first of all, right?
“Secondly, understand that that list is wonderful, it should have been done prior to the time we are in now, but also understand that as an African-American business owner, I don’t want you to do business with me because of the color of my skin,” she says.
For Carter, the list of Black-owned businesses, and the entire Black Lives Matter movement, are about putting everyone on what she calls an equal platform.
“I want you to be able to view me on the same plateau that you would any marketing agency,” she says.
Carter is glad the list exists. She hopes it helps her company. And one day, she’d like to see a lot more New Hampshire businesses on it.
(Editor's note: this article has been edited to correct a spelling mistake)