New series turns spotlight on Twin Cities Black businesses

For nine decades, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder has told this community’s stories. The joys. The injustices. The Halloween blizzard.

“We talk about the good in our community,” said Tracey Williams-Dillard, publisher and CEO of the Minneapolis newspaper her grandfather founded in 1934. “We need to keep hope alive. If all I ever hear and see is negative stuff, how can I ever have hope?”

Now the state’s oldest Black-owned newspaper is the story. And it’s good news.

Williams-Dillard and her staff soon will be featured on “Small Business Revolution,” a show that connects family businesses with the financial advice, business mentorship and funds needed to renovate their businesses. The new season of the show, focusing on Black-owned businesses in the Twin Cities, begins streaming Tuesday on Hulu and Amazon Prime.

Williams-Dillard, who once went a year without a paycheck to keep the newspaper going, now sits at her grandfather’s desk in a newsroom with new computers and furniture, fresh coats of paint and much needed restoration work for the iconic mural on the 63-year-old Spokesman-Recorder building in south Minneapolis.

“Running a newspaper, especially a small newspaper, is not the easiest thing I could have done with my life,” Williams-Dillard said with a laugh.

At one point, she and her husband, Robert Dillard, pulled out their credit cards and dipped into their personal savings to make sure their staff, at least, got paid.

More than 90 American newspapers went out of business during the pandemic. The Spokesman-Recorder kept publishing.

They had stories to tell as the city went into pandemic lockdown, as George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer blocks from their door, as Minneapolis burned. Even when COVID-19 stole Robert Dillard’s life last December.

“In 87 years,” she said, “we never missed an edition.”

When the producers of Small Business Revolution went in search of worthy small businesses around town, Williams-Dillard was ready with dozens of suggestions. Being selected as one of them was a blessed bit of good news after so much hard work and heartbreak.

“These are the stories we are here to tell,” she said. “No one else is telling these stories.”

Season six of Small Business Revolution focuses on six Black-owned businesses around the Twin Cities.

In addition to the Spokesman-Recorder the show will highlight Elsa’s House of Sleep, a family-run furniture store founded by an Eritrean immigrant in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood; Gentlemen Cuts, a neighborhood barber shop on the East Side of St. Paul hit hard by the pandemic; and Lip Esteem on Lake Street in Minneapolis, featuring a line of plant-based lipstick that makeup artist Tameka Jones launched after she was furloughed during the pandemic.

There are two restaurants: Sammy’s Avenue Eatery on W. Broadway in Minneapolis, where business evaporated overnight after the pandemic hit; and Taste of Rondo in St. Paul, which opened in the middle of the catastrophic summer of 2020.

Williams-Dillard’s grandfather, Cecil Newman, came to Minnesota from Missouri at age 17, looking for a better life. What he found, she said, looked a lot like the life he’d just left.

When he ordered his first hamburger at a Twin Cities restaurant, the staff tried to discourage him from returning by lacing his meal with so much salt that it was inedible.

“He knew he still had a lot of work to do,” Williams-Dillard said. “So from that point forward, he just tried to right the wrongs and be the voice for the voiceless.”

Newman went on to found the Spokesman on the Minneapolis side of the river and the Recorder in St. Paul. He joked that he couldn’t afford to start one paper, so he started two.

He was still putting out the paper when he died, much too young, in 1976. His widow, Launa, took over the paper and kept it going despite a skeptical competitor who moved his rival paper into the same building, expecting to snap up her business when it folded.

In time, the paper passed to their granddaughter.

“I’m just trying to keep that old engine moving,” Williams-Dillard said. “This is my family legacy and I’m very proud of it.”

To read or subscribe to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, visit spokesman-recorder.com/.

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