Brenda Russell is the walking embodiment of a successful retailer. Her elegant Connecticut Avenue dress shop attracts a wide-ranging clientele in search of taste, sophistication and style.
Yet, when approached recently about a story, she was hostile. "If you wirte about this shop and mention my name, I'll sue," she hissed, and consulted her lawyer.
To Brenda Russell, publicity means visibility, and visibility could be the kiss of economic death. Her reasoning is simple.
She is black.
Russell is among an unknown number of successful black entrepreneurs who work at personal anonymity in the high-profile world of the marketplace.
While their white counterparts clamor for publicity, they choose instead to remain in the background, often hiring white managers. Customers are left to assume the whites are the owners.
Russell's store, Nikki Young's, which she manages, is at Connecticut and Rhode Island avenues NW, one of the best retail locations in downtown Washington.
Like some other blacks aiming at the general marketplace, she fears being identified publicly with her business. Success is dependent on drawing both black and white customers.
A prevailing misconception, she said, is that black businesses are more likely to provide inferior service, poor quality and eventually fail.
"It is a question of stigma," she said. "For some reason, minority businesses stick out like sore thumbs when they fail. People seem to associate business failure with minority businesses rather than small businesses.
"I was a national retail consultant and I know it takes at least five years for a small business to survive."
She said she lost sleep worrying about being identified as the proprietor of her 3-year-old shop.
"It's just that I don't want to deceive my customers," she said. "I don't have time to explain questions about ownership of my business to them. I have worked so hard to make this business work."
Carthur Drake, who owns Barn-Que, a new downtown restaurant, was just as reluctant to be interviewed. "You've got me scared to death," he said initially. "You can't print the name of my restaurant. I'll lose business. I don't want people to know it's black-owned. If you print it, I will deny it."
Drake, whose restaurant is on 14th Street, between New York and F Streets NW, said both blacks and whites believe a black-owned business is only for blacks.
"The facts are clear," Drake explained, "only one out of 10 blacks go out to dinner, while three out of 10 whites eat out. I need both black and white customers to survive. Right now more than 65 percent of my daytime customers are white."
Suburban whites make up nearly 80 percent of his evening clientele, he said.
"If it is known that we are black-owned, white people from the suburbs will be reluctant to bring their wives downtown to our restaurant at night. They think black men will hang around looking at their wives."
Drake agreed with other black entrepreneurs interviewed that black consumers are often reluctant to support a black-owned business because they, too, believe they offer poor quality and inferior service.
"I know things have to change, but I don't want to risk my business," he said. "I have worked too hard to let something I can't control destroy it. It would be my fault if I gambled my money away. It would be my fault if I did not manage my business. But I can't control racism."
Obviously, not all blacks who own businesses are concerned about being identified. Some find a high profile profitable, notably those who market products for blacks, operate stores in black communities or are eligible for government set-aside contracts for minorities.
John Seidel is one of them. His 5-year-old Chevrolet dealership in Landover is on Black Enterprise magazine's list of the top 100 minority businesses in the country. He sells in the retail market and seeks government contracts.
He says there are times when it is advantageous to be a minority and times when it is not. Seidel was recently awarded a $680,000 contract under the District's minority contracting program to provide automobiles to the D.C. police department.
Light-skinned enough to be confused for white, Seidel said he does not emphasize the fact that he is black when dealing with the public because it could turn off potential car buyers.
Jim Griffin, the owner of Comprehensive Marketing Systems, a computer software company, was reluctant to discuss his business. Like Seidel's his is both a retail and government contract market.
In his case, being openly black-owned can be a tremendous handicap when seeking the confidence of bankers and the businesses which comprise the market. Blacks are not part of the old boy network. Business transactions are sometime conducted by phone, in an effort to minimize the chances of racial identification.
Several people interviewed referred to what happened to the Sabrett Company, whose vendors sell hotdogs on downtown street corners from their familiar yellow-and-blue umbrella carts. They recalled that the company was features in a 1976 newspaper profile on minority business.
"After that the trouble began. Sabrett was audited (by the D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue) four days after the article appeared. Police harassed vendors, and the health department inspected the company's carts.From what I understood he lost a lot of money and his partnership broke up," one businessman said.
Edward Pinkard, who owns the company, confirmed the troubles. He said a note ordering the audit appeared in his District business operator's file immediately after the article appeared. "Now," he says, "I just maintain a low profile."
Perhaps the most crucial concern among black business people is their customers' attitudes.
Rosemary Reed Miller, owner of Toast and Strawberries, a boutique near Connecticut Avenue on R Street NW, said she originally promoted her store as a black boutique, using black models in her ads.
Even though the exclusive use of black models played up the fact that the business was black-owned, Miller took precautions to appeal to those who might be reluctant to shop there.
"I would stand out front and smile at people, but I would always have a white staff person with me, so if whites wanted to believe she owned the company they would be comfortable."
Miller recently changed her advertising to include whites because she found whites were "not prepared" for a black-owned shop when they came in. "It was clear they were uncomfortable," she said.
Restaurant owner Drake said that being in the food business presents him with a special problem.
"I don't believe white folks are as liberal as they say they are, and that they will buy food whether you are black or not. I have noticed that both blacks and whites seem to respond to my white manager rather than to me. They are often shocked when he comes to me to get the checks signed.
"Look at W. H. Bone and Co.," he added, "they advertised that they were a black restaurant, and they have not gotten the support from the white community that you would expect. When you mention W. H. Bone to white people and talk about food, they want to change the subject. Whites don't support that restaurant."
Darryl Hill, the former owner of the restaurant said, "I catered to whites who wanted to cross-associate with blacks. Although some whites have been uncomfortable being around blacks, many have come to the restaurant just as they would to a Chinese or any other ethnic restaurant.
"There are just some cases where you shouldn't hide your minority status, . . . I served chitlins on fine china."
Robert Boyd, who recently bought W. H. Bone, said he has seen quite a few whites eating in the restaurant.
He has hired a white manager and a white head bartender. "The reason I am getting more visible whites is to make those whites who eat here more comfortable," he explained.
"I don't like to get my name in the paper. I just like money. I'm very interested in it."
He said he does not see himself as a black businessman. "I am an American businessman. I deal with American banks, not black banks."
Oliver T. Carr Jr., president of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, said he believes black business owners are wise to remain colorless in the consumer market. He said quality is far more important than the business owner's race, so blacks who are not emphasizing their color are following good business instincts.
"When the chips are down, what counts is what you sell to the public," he said.
His advice to those who worry about race as an issue is "the less they play up their minority status the less the public will. They just must keep their eye on the real ball, which is quality of product and service."
Carr noted that the Parks Sausage Company of Baltimore, which was originally, but no longer is, minority-owned, was very successful.
James L. Denson, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the smaller, traditionally black counterpart of the Board of Trade, at first basically agreed. "I'm probably a minority among minorities," he said, "but I believe economics are green and all that matters is dollars and cents."
Yet, when pressed on the issue, he added, "Blacks must realize they are going to have to deal with a certain amount of racism.
"If you have been disadvantaged you probably have reason to be scared."
He said the reluctance on the part of black business people to speak out when they are discriminated against in the business arena is another problem.
"That is where we are having a lot of problems. Black people are not fighting the system. They are all reluctant to deal with those attitudes.These blacks are like closet gays. You should be what you are and roll up your sleeves and fight."
The surprisingly, he continued, "The problem is that a lot of these low-key, middle-class blacks want to be white."
He also said not enough black entrepreneurs are trying to change the system: "I hate to say it, but they have no guts to fight back. Why do you think that in a city that is more than 70 percent black there is less than 2 percent black business ownership?"
William B. Fitzgerald, president of the black-owned Independence Federal Savings and Loan Association of Washington, and black business owners are in a period of evolution.
The country is a melting pot, he noted, and each minority goes through phases. "It was absolutely necessary in the '60s for Stokely Carmichael to get blacks to take pride in themselves. At that time black businesses marketed themselves as minority.
"Now minorities in business are evolving to a point where they are people in business. They must do business in the mainstream, especially when the difference between success and failure may be only a 10 percent margin."
Fitzgerald said it took more than 10 years for the savings and loan to attract certain leery black depositors, reluctant to invest in a black-owned institution.
"I understand the fears these black business people have. They are all suffering to some extent from the past sins of minority business and of stereotypes," Fitzgerald said. "I believe there is some merit to the concerns these black business people have, but it is better than it was five or 10 years ago. I do not believe whites still hold those reservations.
"Black people have to do what other ethnic business people have done. They do not say I am a Jewish or Polish shoe store. They have to say I have a shoe store and these are the best shoes in the world.
"Right or wrong," Fitzgerald said, "white people are now saying, 'All right, for 400 years we screwed you, and for (recent) years we had empathy for your plight. But that is it. There aren't going to be anymore breaks. You have to survive in the business world on your own.'"