Not long ago, Michael Bryant toiled under the hood of a car, a world of broken fan belts and corroded batteries in which the work was steady and his modest paycheck was signed each week by someone else.

Then one day, backed by $100 in cash and a deep well of desire, Bryant struck out on his own. As founder, chief executive and vice president for everything at the newly founded Metropolitan Pest Control, Byrant found himself working odd jobs around the community to earn extra money to buy equipment for his fledgling D.C. firm. In his spare time, he attended classes in management at Howard University. He's currently making a profit and preparing to add more employees to his two-person staff.

"It has been really hard to stick with it," Bryant said. "I would rather make $10 in business for myself and dream of making $100 someday than make $25,000 working for someone else."

Bryant is typical of the 6,000 or so black entrepreneurs in the Washington area who opened for business during the boom years of the mid-1980s. His company is small, his capital is thin and as a business owner he is still on the steep upside of the learning curve. And with the growth in the region's economy grinding to a halt and bank credit tightening for many businesses, small black-owned firms find themselves in particularly vulnerable positions.

"If small business has a cold, minority business has pneumonia," said Joshua Smith, chief executive of Maxima Corp., the largest black-owned company in the Washington area, and chairman of the federal commission on minority business development.

"What we're detecting is no growth and difficulty surviving," Smith said. "We're almost at a state of alarm."

According to a U.S. Census Bureau report on black-owned businesses released two weeks ago, the years from 1982 to 1987 saw an explosion of black business start-ups in the Washington metropolitan area. Measured by the number of black-owned firms, the Washington area continues to rank third in the country, just behind New York and Los Angeles. By other measures, it ranks even higher.

"The Washington-Baltimore corridor is the largest area in terms of dollar receipts for black business in the country," said William Bradford, chairman of the University of Maryland's Finance Department and an expert on black-owned businesses.

The Census Bureau reported that the total number of black-owned businesses in the Washington area grew by 39 percent from 1982 to 1987, reflecting a similar increase nationwide, and double the start-up rate for the country as a whole. For those in and out of the black community who had long called on blacks to more enthusiastically embrace entrepreneurship as the key to political and economic empowerment, the report -- after a decade of other less encouraging statistics -- was welcomed news.

However, the census report pointed to one particular sign of weakness -- the District itself.

The number of new black-owned businesses created in the District from 1982 to 1987 fell far short of the steady growth elsewhere. During the five-year period, the number of black-owned businesses in the District increased by 96 -- a change of only 1 percent. Receipts for black-owned businesses in the District also grew at half the rate of the economy as a whole.

In addition, the census report showed that black-owned companies in the District and nationwide lag behind the economy as a whole in financial health. About 17 percent of 424,000 firms owned by blacks nationwide in 1987 had paid employees, the Census Bureau said. In the Washington area, the percentage of black-owned companies with paid employees was only 11 percent.

Moreover, the small number of companies with paid employees accounted for about 70 percent of the sales to black-owned business in the Washington area.

Bradford attributed the lackluster rate of growth for black-owned businesses in the District to a slowdown in federal government contracts set aside for minority-owned businesses. Other explanations include the flight of black middle-class residents from the city to Prince George's County, which boasts a high rate of black entrepreneurship, and the continued deterioration of some black neighborhoods that might have otherwise been welcome territory for black-owned restaurants, barber shops, hair salons and other retail stores.

In the District, a stark reminder of the difficulties of operating a small, minority business is Mega Foods, a black-owned independent supermarket. It now stands deserted in the middle of the H Street corridor in Northeast Washington, where it was meant to be a cornerstone in the revitalization effort. The company filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors in July after a rocky two years in business.

Arnold Montgomery, one of the owners of Mega Foods, said the supermarket's primary problems was a lack of capital, a location in an isolated shopping complex and disruptive picketing by the United Food and Commercial Workers union that drove many customers away.

"Mega Foods was black owned, but I don't really think being black owned was part of our problems," said Montgomery. "We were undercapitalized in the beginning, and we knew that. A supermarket is a pretty large undertaking."

The experience of companies like Mega Foods continues to hang over the black business community.

At a recent gathering of black-owned businesses at the Washington Convention Center, the festive banners welcoming Washington's newest business heroes -- Earl Graves, Magic Johnson and their newly acquired Pepsi-Cola franchise -- contrasted with the stark reality of black-owned small businesses searching for new customers on the convention floor.

"We're all getting squeezed out," said Avery Porter, a black entrepreneur who ownes and operates a fledgling leather goods business, Exquisite Leathers, based in Suitland. His eyes darted to the crowd of convention-goers, looking for potential customers.

"We really need help. We need help from the government to make something happen, but we also need help from the black community," Porter said.

As the contracting economy hits home, black-owned firms have intensified their search for solutions.

In Prince George's County, home of one of the greatest concentrations of minority-owned businesses in the country, an increasing number of companies are trying to ride out the economic slump by applying for government contracts set aside for minority firms, according to Dennis Smith, deputy director of the county's Minority Business Opportunities Commission.

"I think that minority business and black business both are feeling the pinch of the downturn in the economy," Smith said. "The downturn has forced them to market more vigorously, so {the office} is seeing more applications and more phone calls."

According to Nancy Flake, director of Howard University's Small Business Development Center, lack of capital causes the most problems for the small businesses she counsels.

"What we're going to have to see for African-American businesses is creative approaches to financing," Flake said. "We're going to have to pool our resources more, work with suppliers so they extend credit, share space and do cooperative buying of products."

The center, funded by the Small Business Administration and the university, offers free counseling and a business development certificate program, which includes classes in business fundamentals like marketing, financing, record keeping and developing of business plans.

"I can tell you from the daily activities of the center that there is an increased interest among African Americans in the District in owning and operating their own businesses," Flake said. "The biggest problems we see are clients that come to us when it's almost too late."

Bryant of Metropolitan Pest Control said the Howard center provided him with support. "Most of the problems I encountered had nothing to do with outside influences," he said. "My main problem was management experience."

While small black businesses hunt for healing injections of capital, the picture is not entirely bleak. Washington has a strong contingent of secure and established black-owned firms.

In Black Enterprise magazine's annual list of the 100 largest black-owned firms, the Washington area had a strong presence with three computer service firms -- Smith's Maxima, Intergrated Systems Analysts Inc. of Arlington and Network Solutions Inc. of Vienna -- ranked among the dozen largest companies.

In addition, Independence Federal Savings Bank of the District ranked first among the largest black-owned savings and loans, and the Industrial Bank of Washington, also D.C. based, is the third-largest black-owned bank in the country.

"Those businesses that have a history of surviving will do well" in an economic slowdown, said Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise, which is based in New York. "Those who are new on the block are going to have a tough time," he continued. "We're going to have to be tougher and leaner."

The stakes are high not only for black business owners, but for the communities in which they operate.

"One cannot underestimate the contributions of minority enterprise to {a community's} economic opportunity, vibrancy and tax revenues," said Margaret Simms, deputy director of research for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank in the District.

"Minority entrepreneurs provide for employment and redevelopment for other parts of the city other than downtown business district. It's also important at this particular point that young people have role models they can look to, individuals who are successful at business who are an alternative to other people in the community whose occupations are not so wholesome."

Black community leaders are divided on whether the experiences of blacks differ from other racial minorities or even from whites attempting to start and manage their own businesses.

"Black businesses, white businesses and Asian businesses are certainly no different from others when you're having a slump," said Gregory Davis, executive director of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. "Color has nothing to do with it."

To be sure, the biggest problem facing small black businesses -- lack of capital -- is a problem for most small firms, black or white.

The growing reluctance of banks to make business loans "has affected all companies, so it has affected black companies as well," said Terry Jones, co-president of D.C.-based Syncom, one of the largest black-headed venture capital funds in the country. "The stream of opportunity that we see as a venture fund is quite attractive and quite full. There is no shortage of either black entrepreneurial efforts or business opportunities -- that's not a problem. There's a shortage of capital to do them."

But others say that black entrepreneurs face a host of specific problems, none more vexing than the lack of support from the black consumer, whom many business leaders consider less than loyal.

"It's very hard to garner the support and sympathy of the black consumer," said Smith of Maxima Corp., adding that other ethnic groups "have much more loyalty toward the entrepreneur and the business person."

The idea that blacks should buy from blacks has been a common refrain for black leaders. Recently, though, the movement has attracted wide support.

Earlier this month, Black Expo '90, a convention geared toward introducing black enterprises to black consumers and to each other, visited the Washington Convention Center. During the same weekend, the NAACP and 100 black organizations endorsed for the first time a program urging black consumers to support black businesses.

At Black Expo '90, Avery Porter offers a business card that proclaims the name of his three-month-old company, Exquisite Leathers. The business card looks perfectly ordinary -- simple glossy black letters on a white card -- but to Porter it symbolizes his whole business philosophy.

"In everything we do, the biggest thing is that I want to do it through a black business," said Porter, who is black. The business cards came from a small black-owned printing shop, Porter explained. A black-owned leather manufacturer in New York produced the handbags that Porter sells at predominately black trade shows and community gatherings.

"The community has to make up its mind that we have to band together and make a difference by supporting black stores on the corner," Porter said.endquad