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Letter to the Editor: Experience Is the Best Teacher

By Mildred D. Henry

In this year of unprecedented politics, there are those who would tell me how I should think and feel as an African-American. I ask, if the African-American experience is so bad, what have you personally done to alleviate the situation? What is your personal experience with the African-American community? I have a few personal experiences I would share.

  • On a visit to Little Rock, Arkansas, shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president, I personally met with key administrators of his transition team decision-makers, which were African-American. African-Americans have been employed in his administrations throughout Bill Clinton’s political career.
  • President Clinton appointed Rodney Slater U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Rodney is an African-American married to the daughter of my schoolmate, Henry Wilkins III, who attended all-Black Merrill High School in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
  • Hillary Clinton worked with the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) which was founded by African-American Marion Wright Edelman in 1973. CDF is the leading nonprofit advocacy organization in the United States for children’s rights. A leading coalition is the Black Community Crusade for Children.
  • In 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, Hillary Clinton worked with the African-American student organization at Wellesley College to organize a two day strike.
  • On October 16, 2016, while visiting the Museum of Black History and Culture at the historically Black AM&N College/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, I met an art major graduate who is currently employed as an archivist in the Clinton administration. This young lady is responsible for preserving artifacts, and making restorations, such as she did on the broken nose of President George Washington’s face. She is employed to also be responsible for archiving memorabilia, such as Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe. I have found African-Americans involved at all levels of the Clinton’s experience.

I could go on and on. If my African American experience is as bad as you purport, you have not walked in my shoes, and if you provided no jobs or shoes for my feet, you cannot talk to me, or for me.   Sorry, “I can’t hear what you say for seeing what you do”.

On Tuesday November 8, I will cast my vote for proven experience.

Black Woman Thrives in Washington’s World of Cigars

By Michael H. Cottman, Urban News Service

Negest Dawit, a savvy businesswoman from Ethiopia, steered her 1998 Mercedes Benz past a vacant building on 9th Street near downtown Washington, D.C. and gazed into her future.

“I looked at the building and said ‘This will be my store,’” Dawit told Urban News Service.

That was 10 years ago. Today, Dawit — affectionately called TG — owns a cigar store. TG Cigar Lounge is at 1118 9th Street, NW.

But her journey from Ethiopia to entrepreneurship was not easy.

She moved from that East African nation to Canada in 1996 and worked as a housekeeper. That job paid the bills, she said, but not one she wanted for long.

“I only had $50 when I got to Canada,” she said. “My mother gave me the money.” Dawit sat in her modest apartment, talked to her sister, and, during meals, discussed her future.

In 2000, Dawit packed her bags and moved to Washington, D.C. seeking better opportunities. She spent four years at an Ethiopian restaurant on U Street.

Even as she waited tables there, she planned her next move, next job, and next challenge.

“It was very hard moving here,” she said. “I had to learn the streets, the Metro, driving. It was a lot to learn. I moved here and started from scratch.” 

And there also was the language: Dawit learned English at school in Ethiopia and speaks it well. But her thick accent reveals her African heritage.

Dawit took a job at Presidential Cigars at Union Station in 2004, and it changed her life.

“They taught me everything I know about cigars,” she said. “I worked in sales, and I learned the business. And the owner encouraged me to open my own business.”

And that’s just what she did.

“I was a housekeeper, a waitress, a cigar saleswoman, and then I opened my own cigar store,” Dawit said. She now is Washington’s only female cigar store owner. 

“Customers ask if they can speak with the owner, and they are surprised when I tell them I’m the owner,” Dawit said.

Dawit opened her business in 2006 after standing inside the dusty storefront building and imagining what how her operation would look after she renovated. 

“It was formerly a T-Mobile store,” Dawit said. “It was dirty, and it needed a lot of work. But it was mine.” 

Mark Jackson, Dawit’s store manager, recalls meeting Dawit as he strolled through Presidential Cigars.

“I was checking out local cigar shops, doing research to launch my own line of cigars, ‘Blacksmoke,’ which I eventually did,” he said.

Jackson said he was immediately drawn to Dawit.

“She was absolutely beautiful and very knowledgeable about cigars,” Jackson said.

But opening her own store had its unique challenges, Dawit said. She required inventory — $30,000 to start — and needed people to vouch for her, tough things for someone just getting started. 

“They were asking me for referrals, but I didn’t have any,” Dawit said. “It was a challenge. I built relationships with sales people and wholesalers, and they helped me build my inventory, and some gave me credit.”

Dawit now has a $500,000 inventory and is arranging to buy the property, which she now leases. She has more than 3,500 customers, some of whom pack into the shop seven days a week to smoke cigars, sip Scotch, and network with other smokers.

“My customers include businessmen, politicians, and cigar club members,” Dawit said. “One third of my customers are women.”

She said the three cigar clubs that loyally meet at her store help her business flourish.

“They feel like they are at home,” she said. 

Dawit proudly points to the 2,000 cigar brands for sale inside her state-of-the-art glass-case humidors

The aroma of cigar smoke fills Dawit’s spacious location. Next to the well-stocked bar is a roomy lounge with comfortable seats and a large flat-screen TV.
While nearly 13 billion cigars were sold in America in 2015, according to the Center for Disease Control, Dawit is not the typical cigar store owner: She doesn’t smoke.

“I don’t smoke cigars, and I don’t drink,” Dawit said as she walks through her stylish venue, and cigar smoke hangs in the air. “But I do offer my customers a great deal of knowledge about cigars.”

Dawit is friendly, attractive and formidable. She has a sly smile, long black hair that flows over her shoulders, and a sultry accent that hints of mystery.

“TG’s gift is certainly her personality,” said Jackson. “She hugs people, shakes hands, it’s a genuine passion for her business and it brings folks back.” 

Dawit agreed.

“I haven’t had a vacation in 10 years,” she said. “I work seven days a week; I’m always here.”

Dawit says her store also offers a full-service tobacco shop with house-blended tobaccos, cigar lighters, novel ashtrays, vaporizers and hookah pipes. 

And she drives to work in her 2017 Range Rover.

“I know everything there is to know about cigars,” Dawit said. “I can smell cigars, roll them, merchandise them, and sell them. I just don’t smoke them.”

Berlin Wasn’t Just Jesse Owens’ Olympic

By Ronda Racha Penrice, Urban News Service

Gymnast Simone Biles. Swimmer Simone Manuel. Shot putter Michelle Carter. All three won gold medals at the Rio 2016 Olympics in sports not typically associated with black American athletes.

Eighty years ago, a grand total of two black American women athletes, Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes, both in track and field, traveled to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where Jesse Owens won four gold medals. Because his victories debunked Adolf Hitler’s pronouncements of Aryan supremacy, many believe Owens was the only black American Olympian there.

“He wasn’t alone,” says filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper. “There were 17 other people.” Her documentary, “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” tells the stories of Pickett, Stokes and the other black American Olympians with Owens.

Nine of them also won medals in the Nazi capital. Some did so with Owens. Some competed against him. Some didn’t compete with him at all. 

Ralph Metcalfe shared the podium for gold with Owens after the 4×100-meter relay. Then Metcalfe won silver to Owens’s gold in the 100-meter dash. Jackie Robinson’s brother, Mack, took silver to Owens’s gold in the 200-meter dash.

In high jump, Cornelius “Corny” Johnson won gold, while Owens’s fellow Ohio State Buckeye, Dave Albritton, snagged silver. Archie Williams mined gold and James “Jimmy” LuValle bronze in the 400-meter run. John Woodruff won gold in the 800-meter run. Frederick “Fritz” Pollard scored bronze in the 100-meter hurdles, and Jackie Wilson earned silver in bantamweight boxing. 

Draper found their stories accidentally while researching the life of American trumpeter Valaida Snow, who shared her tale after being interned during Hitler’s rise. Snow’s positive comments about the black American Olympians in Berlin sparked Draper’s curiosity. It took the former advertising executive four years to put the puzzle together. That puzzle is chock full of stunning archival footage, interviews with some of the Olympians’ children, and even actual audio from Olympians Williams and LuValle. In fact, their words help narrator Blair Underwood, also an executive producer, tell the story.

“It’s remarkable to have their voices and to have them kind of guide you through their experience through Berlin. It kind of feels like you’re having that conversation with Archie or Jimmy,” Draper says.

Digging through the archives of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Draper found interview transcripts and then hunted down the corresponding audio. As demonstrated in her breakthrough black-model-focused 2012 documentary, “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution,” Draper has a knack for letting her subjects speak for themselves. That was easy in “Versailles ’73;” her subjects were still alive. It is decidedly more difficult when all the subjects are dead. But Draper is committed to letting black people speak, even if it is about the 1930s where their voices are harder to find.

“I don’t like anyone to speak for me, so I don’t want to take someone else’s voice from them because I don’t like my voice taken from me,” Draper says. “I think that’s a respect thing.”

This also speaks to the independent filmmaker’s work ethic. Louise Stokes Fraser’s son, Wolfie, recognized it immediately after seeing an early cut of “Olympic Pride.”

“He looked for seven years to find footage of his mother and was unsuccessful, and he was a cameraman for NBC for 30 years,” says Draper, who found the footage in archives in both Los Angeles and Berlin.

When he did see his mother, Draper says, “He cried a lot. He saw his mom on the boat, and he saw his mom getting off the bus. He saw his mom in the stadium, the Nazi stadium, sitting there next to Mack Robinson. His mother. And he said he was so proud. Just seeing her reminded him of just how amazing his mother was.”

That kind of response is what keeps her Atlanta-based Coffee Bluff Productions grinding. (Draper named the company after a historic stretch of her native Savannah.) “Olympic Pride” premiered theatrically in New York and Santa Monica on August 5. It is also available on Comcast’s Xfinity Streampix and can be pre-ordered on Amazon. A 10-city expansion is in the works for September.

If Draper and those like her hope to continue to buck the Hollywood mainstream, she says, the public will have to step up and massively support these movies.

“We need a movement to elevate the film in the consciousness of people who want to see this type of film. We need folks on Facebook (1936OlympicsMovie) to tell us they like the film,” Draper says.

“We have to convince distributors that there’s an appetite for African-American films,” Draper says. “People have to be convinced that African-Americans want to see something different.”