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Interview with Yolanda Hester, Oral History Project Interviewer and Curator of the online exhibit, "Community and Commerce: Oral Histories of African American Businesses in Los Angeles"

Here CFPRT scholar Hailey Loman, who drew up the finding aid for this collection, interviews the project interviewer, Yolanda Hester, about how she went about conducting the oral histories and what she learned from them.

[pictured left, Yolanda Hester]

LOMAN: I thought we could first talk about your interest in starting the collection and how you narrowed down the idea for the collection.

HESTER: I was working on a different project for the Center for Oral History Research, and Teresa Barnett, the head of the Center for Oral History Research, asked me to propose an idea for a collection. I was already investigating in my own research the idea of businesses and entrepreneurial efforts in communities and how businesses support and sustain these communities. And so I proposed this.

We chose the owners based on the longevity of their businesses: each business we documented has been in existence for at least twenty-five years. One of the great benefits of interviewing owners of small businesses is that they've been the owner for a long time, unlike maybe a big corporation, where a CEO is involved for a few years and then someone else is appointed CEO. Some small business owners come from families where a couple of generations are involved. So these individuals have weathered change.

It was also important to me that the series represent a cross section of industries. For example, we could have interviewed plenty more African American businesses that are food related. There are ones that have been around for thirty to fifty years. But I wanted to make sure that we were showing a spectrum of entrepreneurship across industries. So, in the end, the series included businesses from nine different industries.

We also decided to focus our attention on two areas, South L.A. and Pasadena. Both South L.A. and Pasadena were important stops for African Americans during the Great Migration, and both have a long history of African American economic activity.

[pictured right, Fred and Arzella Valentine with their daughters, Gail Valentine Taylor and Jancye Valentine (standing), owners of Woods-Valentine Mortuary.]

LOMAN: How did you structure your interviews and what themes did you explore

HESTER: The first part of every interview focuses on the background of that business owner: where they grew up, their family's migration story, their childhood neighborhood. The second portion starts with them taking that leap of faith into entrepreneurship. And that leap of faith, I discovered, looks like a million different things. For some people it was taking over the family business. For some people it meant leaving jobs where they were being paid very well. Others migrated to Los Angeles, and this was a way to jump-start their new life here. And so the second part of the interview really starts from that point, and it goes into the early makings of the business: Figuring out where the location will be. How do you name the business? What were some of the licenses and permits that you needed to operate your business? How did you staff it early on? What was the startup money? How did you market your business early on?

And then the third part of every interview focused on four areas of change. First was technological changes, meaning how the changes in technology and social media have impacted their business. Then we talked about policy changes. This means local government, state, and federal policies that came into place that affected their business, such as the increase in minimum wage or new environmental standards. And then industry change. For example, funeral homes were mostly mom and pop, and then they became very corporate in the nineteen eighties. These corporate funeral homes were scooping up smaller funeral homes. The small funeral homes had to come up with some great strategies to address this competition. And then the fourth area of change was neighborhood change: gentrification, the changing demographics of a neighborhood, and the changing economic status of a neighborhood.

[pictured left, Horace Bowers with his daughter and current owner of Bowers and Sons Cleaners, Vivian Bowers, and his son Eric Bowers, 1970.]

LOMAN: When you were speaking with people, did their feelings of obligation towards their family or their community come up?

HESTER: Yeah, for example, Vivian Bowers, who owns Bowers and Sons Cleaners on Central Avenue, talked about how at some point her parents had decided to retire, and they thought about selling the business. She had a decent-paying career that paid more than owning or working for the cleaners. She says very clearly in her interview that when you get into the dry-cleaning business, it's not a business that you get into to become rich. But it was her commitment to her family business and her community, a place where she had grown up, that motivated her. She says in her interview how she didn't want to see another vacant space in her community, and so, even though it was not the most financially advantageous decision, she made that shift to take over the family cleaners.

[pictured right, Tolliver's Barber Shop, opened 1967, South Los Angeles]

LOMAN: Were there strategies that you noticed that people employed, such as buying their own building or how they secured credit?

HESTER: Yes, what I found interesting is that most of the people I interviewed, their startup money came from their own savings or from money that was lent to them by family members or friends. What was also interesting is how many business owners felt at some point that it was important to buy the property that their business existed on. I would say maybe a little more than half of the people I interviewed actually own the property that their business is located on. Of those folks, every single one of them would say that it was just a smart move in terms of security and stability of their business. I asked the people who do not own the property of their business if there was a time when they considered it, and pretty much all of them said yes. And for a variety of reasons, they weren’t able or didn’t do it. There was always a little regret about not taking advantage of that opportunity when they could have.

[pictured left, Dulan's On Crenshaw Soul Food Restaurant, Catering, and Banquet Hall.]

LOMAN: Can you speak about the impact of Jim Crow laws on African American businesses?

HESTER: Yeah, you know across the country African Americans had to deal with the onslaught of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and economic isolation. On the one hand, ethnic groups across this country have gravitated to co-ethnic neighborhoods, where they could find cultural shorthand, people who spoke the same language, shared the same traditions, and what have you. On the other hand, African Americas also had to deal with segregation, which wedged black communities into specific geographies.

Early African American communities in Los Angeles were concentrated eastward, but as racially restrictive covenants were ruled unenforceable by the Supreme Court, the black community moved westward. In Los Angeles we had the Central Avenue business strip during the nineteen thirties, forties, and fifties. There was a little commercial area in West Adams during the sixties, because we had all these people migrating from Louisiana and Mississippi. Then we had Leimert Park and the Crenshaw area, which is still very much a hub of black commercial activity.

[pictured right, John Beals, owner of Vivid Reflections Barber Shop, established 1971 in South Los Angeles.]

LOMAN: Let’s talk about the interview process itself. How did you negotiate those accounts when things were tougher? How did you inquire without pushing someone to speak about something that was uncomfortable for them?

HESTER: I tried to be as sensitive as possible. If we needed to pause, then we paused, regardless of whether the recorder was on. If any of the interviewers made it known that there was something that they felt uncomfortable with, I just left it. I did not pursue that. For example, in my interview with John Beals at his barbershop, we started to get to that time period where he went to Vietnam, and he just told me it's something that he couldn't talk about. I thought, “Fine,” and we just moved on to the next time period.

[pictured left, Jeanette Bolden-Pickens and Denise Craven Paschal with their mother, Alberta Craven, owneres of 27th Street Bakery]

LOMAN: How did you build a relationship with the narrators?

HESTER: I did meet with every interviewee before I interviewed them, so I had developed a little bit of a rapport. And I worked very much around their schedule. You know, I was very accommodating. I think it was a combination of being flexible and being interested in the history of their businesses and them as individuals. I think people can sense your sincerity. And then, you know, for every interview, I think being a really good listener is important. I think people respond to that. If they feel that you're a good listener, they are willing to open up a little more and share a little more.

The thing about this type of oral history, where you're meeting with people a number of times and they're telling you a very intimate story--their life story, their family history, their business history--you know, you develop a sense of respect. There's a closeness. Even after the interviews were completed, more than a year ago, I'm still in touch with some of the business owners. They'll still send me an email and ask me how I'm doing and let me know what's going on with their businesses. Every now and again there's a phone call or an email just to say hi and check in. This is not the case with all oral history projects. Perhaps this is a particularly special project or cohort of folks.

LOMAN: Well, maybe that's a good place to stop. Thank you so much for taking the time.

HESTER: Yeah, thank you!

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