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A New Power In Roxbury; The Ghetto Means Money

By Nancy C. Anderson

INSIDE, a gaunt black St. Nicholas and an Uhuru poster, chains broken, decorate the walls of the modern office of Freedom Industries, Inc.--a new attempt in Boston to make black power mean money. Downtown Roxbury -- dirty streets sandwiched between grey buildings, and the problems of ghetto poverty--waits outside.

Freedom Industries is a radically different concept from the oft portrayed black business--a mom-and-pop operation, catering to a ghetto clientele, providing a slim income for the owners and few jobs for others. Not a welfare project, the company makes money, and in the process creates jobs, develops talent, and builds influence--commodities long needed in the Roxbury community.

"We're shooting to be a corporate structure, a single unit of power--in influence, money, and talent," Archie Williams, president of Freedom Industries, explained. As an independent entity within the community, Freedom Industries can efficiently channel its energies toward creating a growth environment in the black ghetto.

Independence does not mean isolation. Stokely Carmichael's militant brand of black power has little sway with Williams. "This is a competitive society. We want to be able to cooperate and have an impact on its economic structure.... I don't have any delusions about operating in a vacuum separate from the rest of the economy."

FREEDOM INDUSTRIES currently competes in the supermarket and the electronics business. The Freedom Electronics and Engineering plant employs 33 full time workers, making computer power supplies, and assembling coaxial cable and plastic circuit boards. Opened in October 1968, the plant already has assembly contracts with Digital Equipment Corporation, RCA, and Western Electric, amounting to $800,000 gross sales. Bent on developing the division to the point where it is competitive with similar operations outside the ghetto, Williams predicts that gross sales will double over the next two months.

The other division, Freedom Foods, operates two supermarkets in the black community employing approximately 125 workers. The company purchased the two markets from Purity-Supreme and buys central management services at cost from the Purity chain. The stores sell goods at competitive supermarket prices about equivalent to Purity's, the price leader in the area. (Williams said some variance exists because of ethnic prefences--"For instance, lamb does not do well in this community, so we sell it at a lower price").

These two supermarkets and an electronics plant are donig impressive things for the ghetto. Freedom Industries employs about 160 members of the community at a minimum wage rate for unskilled labor of $2.00 an hour. (The supermarkets still charge competitive prices, even with this wage increase over Purity, because of a 25 percent increase in sales since the Freedom Foods opening).

As well as employment, Freedom Industries's workers receive training, too. The two supermarkets upgraded employees for work as department heads. One-third of the workers at Freedom Electronics were trained on the job, either at Opportunities Industrialization Centers, or Lincoln Laboratories, an affiliate of MIT.

Helping to build a black economic structure in the ghetto, Freedom Industries buys most services from black businessmen. The company uses only Paradise Cab, a taxi cab company recently organized by blacks in Roxbury, and bought a full year's advertising space in a black newspaper in advance to give the paper the capital necessary to begin printing.

FINANCIAL support filters into ghetto politics. During the recent Boston school crisis, Freedom Industries advanced food on credit to the Roxbury freedom schools set up while the Martin Luther King school was closed.

Building black economic power in the ghetto requires financial backing and know-how. Black business in the past evolved behind the walls of segregation to meet a demand left unfulfilled by business firms operating in the general market (such as undertaking and insurance). Serving a limited market, these businesses provided few positions which could train black youths for business careers.

The discriminatory employment practices of white businesses and limited opportunity in black enterprises resulted in a peculiar pattern of occupational preferences stressing anything but business -- medicine, law, teaching, and the ministry. Williams emphasized the desparate need in the ghetto for "the success image provided for the kids in school" by a black-owned business. This success offers blacks incentive to enter a field they have long forgotten.

The know-how attained, money remains the other obstacle for black business. A Roxbury businessman, encountering difficulty collecting collateral for a bank loan, asked Williams for backing. Freedom Industries sold him old supermarket shelving, refrigerators, and cases at $1000, and the bank, accepting his acquisition as collateral equal to $9000, granted him the loan.

The seed money for Freedom Industries itself was provided in part by Williams and in part by an unidentified private individual, who bought stock in the venture. To set up the electronics plant, Freedom Industries borowed $35,000 from the Economic Development Administration under the Department of Commerce. Freedom Industries bought the two supermarkets with a mortgage commitment from John Hancock Life Insurance and financing from the Episcopal Church.

Money remains a constant problem. The company has had to be very "execute oriented," according to Williams. Parlaying for contacts, inventing new ways to utilize manpower--constant activity is necessary. "It's a gamble to stay ahead of the payroll," Williams said. "So far we have."

RACIAL solidarity--"our ability to market ethnically"--is an important selling point for Williams and a clue to the success of his black business. "It would be very difficult for us at this time to have a white store manager, while we are still establishing our credibility within the community," Williams explained.

Williams hopes the enterprise eventually can be "color blind, with real integration rather than token." Currently, the employees of Freedom Industries are preponderantly black. Williams gave no statistics; "We never count," he said.

Looking to the future with optimism, Williams envisions black people leading the way for all in developing more human-oriented business, and demonstrating that local problems should be solved by the local community.

"I generally think the American white is insane," Williams said--the smothering susceptibility to conformity in white society makes the white American blind to others' needs and values.

Williams favors a large degree of local political and economic autonomy because local needs relate to ethnic, cultural, and ecological factors. Only the people living in an area really understand their own needs.

THE BLACK community has had to learn to recognize the worth and individuality of each of its members, Williams said. "On one ghetto block, you have a welfare mother, a doctor, a pimp, a lawyer--all jammed together." Conformity is impossible; understanding becomes a necessity.

The white will learn from the black. "We'll have a product needed in the white community when we're further on down the road," Williams said--and freedom from conformity is that product.

Black economic power is not the only, nor the final, solution in unraveling the overlapping cause-and-effect ghetto problems of poverty and discrimination. But the relatively untried approach seems to be meeting with a large degree of success in the enthusiastically diverse activities of Freedom Industries.

"I'd like someday to be able to print up a pamphlet saying what a wonderful thing it is to live in our community," Williams said. The possibility today seems remote, but the beginning is now.

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