In August 2017, Black Sheep opened its doors to the Providence community. The restaurant’s contributions to the local food scene were varied. Black Sheep brought a fresh social atmosphere to one of New England’s most prominent food cities, hosting regular events such as bingo and drag brunches. But these enticing social events are not the most notable aspects of Black Sheep’s opening: Despite the diversity of food establishments that have recently opened in Providence, Black Sheep is one of the only prominent Black-owned restaurants in the city.
Just east of Black Sheep, the College Hill neighborhood represents another area of restaurant growth. New businesses just off Brown’s campus are overseen by the Thayer Street District Management authority, which oversees the establishment of new restaurants on Thayer Street, in an effort to attract new businesses and revamp the neighborhood. Although the influx of new food options builds on Providence’s existing culinary diversity, food options representative of Black Americans’ culture remain minimal in urban restaurant districts despite Black people making up 16 percent of Providence’s population.
This lack of African-American businesses is not an aberration in New England. Many of the region’s major cities, such as Stamford, Providence, and Boston, report a dearth of Black-owned restaurants. De facto segregation, redlining, and discriminatory drug laws are some of the obstacles black people face when attempting to start businesses in the US; the Northeast, despite its progressive reputation, is no exception. Alongside more salient examples of racism sits a deep history of oppression in restaurant ownership. President Nixon, a purported advocate for increasing Black capitalism, initiated federal loan programs to spark Black restaurant ownership in urban communities via fast food corporations. These policies rightly aimed to enable more Black economic agency, but they had perverse outcomes. Although Black restaurant ownership increased, it did so only among unhealthy and non-traditional fast food restaurants. In this case, the (often white) corporate owners reaped the majority of the profits, making Black restaurant ownership a reality in name only.
Gentrification has posed a further challenge to Black restaurants, disrupting their reliance on neighborhood proximity and foot traffic. Activists such as John Templeton and Frederick E. Jordan Sr. have responded with the creation of National Black Business month. This effort builds on the legacy of San Francisco’s George W. Davis, who in 1979 helped initiate the spread of Black restaurant awareness and consumer activity through the Black Cuisine Festival. Since then, San Francisco has become a leading city for black restaurant activism. In 2014, the San Francisco Chronicle helped to popularize a Black Restaurant Week by publishing a list of Black restaurants with varied styles of service and cuisine. This past August, 15 such Black restaurant weeks were planned across the nation, in cities such as Memphis, Portland, and Baltimore.
Drawing upon this successful track record, Providence and other communities in New England should institute Black Restaurant Weeks and related promotions to give a boost to the recognition and development of Black-owned restaurants. As Providence looks to enhance its status as a premiere food city, it should recognize the pragmatism of recognizing Black-owned restaurants. Riding the national trend of Black Restaurant Weeks can help mitigate gentrification’s dispersive effects and the lasting burden of Black discrimination on today’s African-American restaurateurs. Government investment in Black ownership can produce real benefits when it doesn’t center profit-seeking corporatists and fosters Black agency. When entrepreneurs of the African diaspora can access capital and have encouragement to create meaningful culinary experiences, culturally eclectic social spaces with amazing food emerge. This kind of activism can be combined with events at existing institutions seeking to acknowledge and rectify historical injustices, such as the Brown’s Center for Slavery and Justice and Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. If Brown and the Thayer Street District Management Authority are committed to diversifying and revamping the Providence community’s food economy, then a Black Restaurant Week this August is the first place to start.