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Even before COVID-19 ravaged the U.S. economy, Dr. Selma Bartholomew said she often felt invisible.

The Bronx-based entrepreneur owns Legacy Pathways LLC, an education consultancy that works in schools to support at-risk students through STEM learning and designs curriculums around gang violence prevention and life skills. 

But during her 12 years in business, Bartholemew struggled to secure contracts in new districts and adequately expand to meet what she sees as a growing demand to help close the achievement gap between Black and white students.

And then the coronavirus hit.

“I think I was certainly worried [about the coronavirus], absolutely,” Bartholomew told NewsOne recently. “I work in schools. But I don’t think anybody – and I certainly was not prepared for the level and the scale of this.”

Preliminary data shows that African Americans have been disproportionately affected by infection and death rates from COVID-19 in the United States. Now, Black entrepreneurs say that the virus is killing their bottom lines and the economic impact of the pandemic is pushing them out of business. 

“We were worried before COVID-19 as a Black business owner,” Bartholomew said. “I was already apprehensive. And now I think we should all be in a state of panic.”  

Last month, the federal government passed the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or “CARES Act,” landmark legislation designed to shore up out of work Americans and struggling businesses. As part of the bill, the Congressional Black Caucus negotiated $10 million in grants specifically for Black-owned businesses. But the Black business bailout amounted to less than $4 for each of the 2.6 million African American owned businesses in the country — a move some Black entrepreneurs said was cold comfort for companies struggling before the virus’ onslaught.

They’re calling on government officials for more advocacy and a commitment to supporting Black businesses which, the Small Business Administration says, support nearly one million jobs and provide a lifeline in minority communities. 

Black businesses were already in trouble before COVID-19. Black firms were more likely to be classified as “distressed” or “at-risk” compared to other ethnic groups, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Small Business Administration said Black business owners are three times more likely to have trouble accessing capital — affecting their profitability — compared to white business owners. 

And in New York City, the number of black-owned businesses declined by 30 percent from 2007 to 2015, according to city Comptroller Scott Stringer. Despite making up nearly a quarter of the city’s population, Black businesses in the Big Apple comprise just 2 percent of companies overall and less than 2 percent of city contracted businesses.

“We can’t all be horrible business people who are uneducated,” said Zevilla Jackson Preston, an architect and member of the Black Business Empowerment Committee, a coalition of business owners, community organizations and churches working to create and preserve Black businesses. “It implies there’s something structural that continues to lock people out. There’s something else going on, and it’s worth looking at.”

Black-owned businesses need direct relief in the form of a bigger share of local, state and federal contracts — including no-bid master contracts for coronavirus-related services, according to a recent white paper from the Black Business Empowerment Committee. The committee said Black-owned businesses need funding at the local level to provide cash grants and loans to Black entrepreneurs to pay their immediate bills. 

The committee is advocating for a minimum 90-day moratorium on real estate and sales taxes, water and sewer bills, late fees on business loans and payroll taxes. They want unemployment insurance premiums frozen through the rest of the year and for the government to issue tax credits in advance to help businesses offset payroll costs.

“I think people have to be willing to think outside the box and be innovative in their approach,” Jackson Preston said, “and admit there is a business community in this country who, with the legacy of chattel slavery in America, have been historically harmed and we are deserving of a different fix of what they’ve come up with for other people.”


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