In the early 1980s, Mary Wesley began to dream about early retirement from Boeing and her future goals. It didn’t come to her at first, but then the idea struck: flowers.
“I just love flowers,” Wesley said. “It’s nature. The scent of flowers is heavenly. It’s so uplifting. We make so many people happy.”
Since 1984, Wesley has owned Flowers Just 4 U, one of the only Black-owned flower shops in the region. She and her flowers have been there for births, weddings and funerals for generations of Central District families. As the neighborhood changed, so did her clientele, but Wesley kept on, a mainstay on the corner of 23rd and Jackson for 28 years, her bright flowers and signs cheerfully calling out to passersby on the busy intersection. Yet Wesley’s story serves as a microcosm of the shifting demographics and challenging landscape for Black business owners in the Central District.
In 2014, the first bloom began to come off the rose for Wesley. Her longtime customer, Southwest Mortuary — one of the last Black-owned funeral homes — was purchased by Bonney-Watson, which led to a decline in her funeral flower business.
The second hit came in 2015, when a city construction project disrupted traffic on 23rd Avenue and created so much chaos Wesley said she lost tens of thousands of dollars in business over nearly two years. While the city eventually gave her $25,000 (from federal dollars) to mitigate the lost business, the damage had already been done.
After that project finished, Wesley got another blow — her building was going to be razed to create new apartments. She would have to move.
In April 2018, her shop was relocated with help from the apartment developer to a smaller location on the corner of 23rd and Cherry, across from the Garfield Community Center. With little parking or foot traffic, her business struggled.
“I’ve been suffering ever since we moved here,” Wesley said from her shop. “Continually losing money.”
After many setbacks, she got behind on rent and in November her landlord gave her a 14-day eviction notice. As news of Wesley’s potential eviction spread, the business development arm of Africatown Seattle jumped into action. They set up a GoFundMe in mid-December to raise $10,000 to cover $6,000 in back rent and utilities and get her back in the black.
The community responded in a huge way. Within a week, the campaign blew past its target, raising twice the goal and is now at $26,000 and counting. Wesley couldn’t believe it.
“I almost fainted,” she said, about getting the news. “I could not believe this could be happening to me. That was one of the most precious things that ever happened in my whole life.”
But while it is tempting and gratifying to make this just another heartwarming story of good holiday deeds, it’s important to talk about the underlying conditions that led Wesley’s business to the brink. K. Wyking Garrett, the president of Africatown Community Land Trust, said Wesley’s situation speaks to larger problems and needs.
“I think this just demonstrates the need for effective, culturally responsive business-development support in our community,” Garrett said. “Black businesses have been systematically disenfranchised through public and private policies and practices … [such as] redlining, not having access to capital and underdevelopment.” When the investments finally come, Garrett said, other communities reap the benefits.
“That’s definitely not equity,” Garrett said. “All boats are not rising.”
Garrett and Africatown want to see a targeted fund for small, historically disenfranchised businesses to access capital to better weather the storms. Technical and marketing assistance could also be provided to support small Black-owned businesses.
While I am sure I will hear from those who say race and history are irrelevant to this story, they’re not. Over generations, governments and institutions created the wealth gap, excluded Black-owned businesses from opportunities and practiced outright discrimination, and private entities are making those inequities worse today through a rising cost of living and fighting higher taxes. The legacy of generational wealth inequality has led to a median family wealth today for white people of $171,000, in contrast to $17,600 for Black people, according to The New York Times. Institutions that created the problem should invest in the solutions to fix it.
In addition to the incredible outpouring of individual community support and customers from the December campaign, Garrett and Wesley said nearby powerful and well-resourced institutions like hospitals and universities should add more Black-owned small businesses like Wesley’s to their lists of vendors. These types of contracts would make a huge impact on her business, and provide a foundation of revenue during tough times. If you can tell an organization’s values by looking at their budgets, how much of that big money is going back to small, minority-owned businesses?
As much as Wesley appreciates the fundraiser support, she knows it’s not a long-term solution. “I just need customers,” she said. “I have to have customers.”
Each day, we all make decisions as individuals, businesses, organizations and governments about where to spend our money. In addition to systemic changes, perhaps there are ways we could spend our resources more intentionally, so that our city’s incredible wealth is spread more widely and ensures those who have enriched our community are not left to capsize.