TULSA — Small business owners were at the heart of Greenwood 100 years ago. Then white vigilantes burned down the district, killing as many as 300 people and forever marking the fabric of the community.
Today, Rameissa Thompson is making history on her own terms. She’s a Black woman business owner along Cherry Street — about 2 miles from Greenwood – in one of the most affluent areas of the city. From her storefront bakery, she sells cakes for $85 and up.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a Black owner on Cherry Street,” she said. Her store is Zoe Cakes Unlimited. “I think I’m the first, actually. It’s a milestone.”
Tulsans and people all around the country and world marked the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre over Memorial Day Weekend, with much of the focus by national media on the question of reparations. As the United States grapples with the question of systemic failures of justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the calls for reparations for Black people and families who suffered during post-World War I violence across the country are rising. In Tulsa, a high-profile event that was to include Stacey Abrams and John Legend was canceled as attorneys for the three elderly survivors scheduled to participate asked for $1 million each from the event organizers, and $50 million for a reparations fund,
On the ground in Tulsa, a new initiative to build Black wealth is emerging, with a $4 million plan to establish a new incubator for under-represented founders in a building that once housed a hospital established just after the Massacre.
Entrepreneurs like Thompson are showing how resiliency is helping Black-owned businesses thrive in Tulsa. She became a business owner after many years of baking as a hobby, and also after she lost her daughter and unborn grandchild in a car accident.
There is a wide gap in wealth and other indicators among people of color compared to white Tulsans, according to a report issued by the local Community Service Council.
Midtown Tulsa, where Cherry Street is located, is 8% Black. The majority of residents – 68% – are white, according to the report. Unemployment is more than 10% for Black Tulsans compared to 4% for white Tulsans, the report found. And the median household income of white Tulsans is almost double that of Black Tulsans.
Entrepreneurship and business ownership are increasingly seen as one way to close the wealth gap.
Thompson, 44, first became intrigued by cakes when she saw a photo in a magazine with what she thought was a beehive – and, in fact, it turned out to be a cake.
“The beehive looked real, but it was cake. It sparked an interest in me and I wanted to know how to make it,” she said while sitting during an interview inside Zoe Cakes Unlimited. “I wanted to know how to make a cake that looked like that, that realistic.”
Her attempt didn’t turn out well, she acknowledges, but she soon enrolled in a local class and started attending show competitions, which helped her perfect her skills.
“There, you learned the secrets and the technique,” she added.
For years, she baked for family, friends and neighbors while juggling a job as a radiology technologist. She ended up focusing on her business full time, which she said was challenging as she moved from a stable position to an entrepreneur.
She initially started working from home, going through four stoves, before attending a program at a local economic development organization, TEDC Creative Capita, that helped her gain the skills to run and operate a business, such as writing a business plan and business pitch. The program, funded by the state and federal governments as well as private entities, has helped nearly 300 small businesses in the last five years and distributed more than $150 million in loans. Loans range from $5,000 to $10 million with public and private funds.
“I started looking for buildings, space, and this came to me,” she said. “It found me.”
The pink-walled storefront has tables and images on the wall of cakes. High ceilings and lighting fixtures add to the ambiance. It opened at the end of March 2021. Thompson invested a combination of savings, winnings from cake competitions and money from a TEDC loan. She declined to say how much.
“It’s been great. It’s been busy,” she said, adding that she gets orders for weddings, birthdays, baby showers, graduations and other events. She makes about 10 to 15 cakes per week.
Thompson would like to eventually open multiple locations. The small business owner currently employs two other people. Her advice: Be consistent and keep faith in your dreams.
“Sometimes you have to make that jump,” she said, adding that taking programs and classes can offer opportunities for education.
Growing Business Among Black Tulsans
The new entrepreneurship hub, to be called the Greenwood Entrepreneurship Incubator @Moton, will be constructed in the former Moton Health Center, which was originally established as the Maurice Willows Hospital. It was named after a Red Cross executive who led the national organization to respond to the aftermath of the Massacre. The Red Cross treated hundreds of injuries and fought diseases such as dysentery that developed after the Massacre survivors were forced into camps.
The Hospital was renamed for Robert Russa Moton, a national Black leader who left the Republican party after Herbert Hoover abandoned promises of economic aid to Black citizens who helped elect him. Moton was later renamed again to Morton Comprehensive Health Services to honor a local physician.
The incubator’s new name and location at Pine Street and North Greenwood Avenue honors the older history. The budget, which comes from federal stimulus funds, includes rehabbing the building, $500,000 to support the launch of MORTAR Tulsa, a 15-week TEDC accelerator course and $1 million to see the Build Tulsa Fund for entrepreneurs.
TEDC Chief Executive Officer Rose Washington said in a statement that the new programs “will nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of Black Tulsans for years to come in a place that has great historical significance.”
Starting in July, MORTAR will host two cohorts of historically marginalized entrepreneurs. The program, which runs for 15 weeks, costs participants about $300, though scholarships are available.
Thompson has kept an eye on the centennial events, but mostly, she’s been busy working, She made a handful of cakes for gatherings. Reached just at the start of the weekend, she planned to head down to Greenwood from her Cherry Street location, a new Black business owner visiting the site where many others’ dreams and lives were destroyed. But she is mostly focused on the present day, on keeping her own business growing. “It’s history in the making,” she said.