Rosemary Reed Miller had rent money in hand when she first tried to start a small clothing shop in the predominately white area north of Dupont Circle, but the landlord turned her down. She remembers being told that she was "too young to rent or be serious, if you know what I mean."
Miller, a black woman then in her mid-20s, called her lawyer, lodged a discrimination complaint with the District government -- and soon signed the lease.
Last week, Miller marked the start of the 15th year of her fashionable boutique, toast and Strawberries, by honoring four friends active in human rights, small business development and community concerns. The ceremony was held in the small shop on R Street, just west of Connecticut Avenue NW. With her customary flair for combining merchandising and community work, she used the celebration as a "forum" to talk about achievements of each of her four honorees.
Over the years Miller has become known for her fashion shows, put on for community groups, seeking funds. She has promoted local artists by exhibiting their works in her shop and has kept her doors open after closing for poetry readings.
She also taught a course in retail management last year as part of the women's program at Howard University's Small Business Development Center. w
"She is a role model as a businesswoman," said Jean McCrae, coodinator of the women's program, who was one of four persons Miller presented with small plaques for their service. The others were Ronald E. Cooper, associate director of Friendship House, a community center on Capitol Hill; Monica L. Meerbaum, staff psychodramatist and psychologist at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, and Carol Randolph, host of "Morning Break" on WDVM-TV.
Black women trying to develop business have to overcome the negative perceptions of others in the business community, McCrae maintains. "People are afraid to take a chance on you. When a black woman applies for a loan, people automatically think risk," she said.
Toast and Strawberries is one of an estimated 500 businesses owned by women in this region, and one of about 50 owned by black women -- excluding beauty salons, McCrae noted.
Red and pink feather boas wrap around the ornate tops of antique mirrors. Brightly colored silk dresses hang on an iron staircase leading to a storage area. Carribean bangles, earrings and beaded necklaces are everywhere.
The shop's tiny entryway is bedecked with fliers announcing local art exhibits, help for "starving and frustrated musicians" and a "cervical cap teach-in."
Miller's business took in about $60,000 the first year, last year she grossed close to $180,000. Her dresses and suits are priced between $30 and $60.
"Buying in larger volume keeps us in competitive range" with other shops in the Dupont Circle area, Miller said.
Fourteen years after her own experience with discrimination, Miller says the issue of race is still with her, however subtle. When she first opened she took care to feature herself and her manager then, a white woman, in one of Toast and Strawberries" first advertisements, because they were "aware . . . that we would be in a mixed area."
But today, she says she can tell that some white customers are uncomfortable shopping in a black-owned store.
Less troublesome, she says, are the people who wander in thinking Toast and Strawberries is an eatery.