The phone rang all day at Nikki Young's, after a Washington Post story identified Brenda Russell as the black owner of the smart women's clothing store in downtown Washington.
The callers wanted Russell to know just how they felt now that her secret was out.
Russell -- along with several other successful black entrepreneurs named in the story -- said having their stores identified as blackowned could be the kiss of death.
Some of the black business owners were so fearful of being publicly identified with their businesses that they threatened to deny ownership.
Russell, who has owned the fashionable clothing store at Connecticut and Rhode Island avenues for four years, agreed reluctantly -- along with several other successful business people -- to step forward to talk about the problem.
Now, months after the story was published, only one of the business owners said he lost customers. Russell and the others said their businesses were not affected by the revelation that the businesses were black-owned.
Before the phone stopped ringing at Nikki Young's the day the story ran last August, Russell said more than 150 phone calls had come in.
"I haven't found that any of my regular customers stopped shopping because of the article. They were more concerned about me and what some of the other business people said," Russell explained.
"A 90-year-old woman in Georgetown -- who told me she probably could not fit in any of my dresses -- called and said she wanted me to know she supported any black woman trying to make it in the business world."
Russell said that she, rather than her business, was affected by the story. She said she now has to contend with people who come into the store and want to commiserate with her rather than buy clothes.
"I find that I now spend more time in the back room (of the store) to avoid people asking me about my business," Russell said.
The publicity has also made her more visible in the community and subject to requests for help. Since the story ran, she had dresses from her shop shown at an NAACP fashion show.
And during a recent interview, Russell was asked to donate clothes by a woman who said she runs a shelter for women. Smiling and turning to the reporter, Russell said: "See, I told you people haven't forgotten."
Russell worries that some people were misled by comments other business owners made in the story.
"I didn't want anyone to read it (the story) and be misled. Color had nothing to do with the operation of my business. We chose one of the best locations downtown. If this section of town had been all black, we would have still taken it," said Russell.
Carthur Drake, who owns the Barn-Que barbecue restaurant on 14th Street between New York Avenue and F Street NW, was the only owner who said there was a negative effect on his restaurant as a result of the article.
"Sure it had a negative effect -- as I predicted it would. There are fewer customers eating at my restaurant, but I have been scrappy enough to withstand it and steadily improve my business."
The outspoken Drake also noted, however, that a large office building across the street from his business closed and the summer tourist trade was ending about the time the article appeared. Both could have had an effect on his business, he said.
Drake, whose restaurant was recently listed among Washingtonian Magazine's top 50 in the area, hired a white manager to make customers believe the business was owned by someone white so they would feel more comfortable eating there.
Other black entrepreneurs, including John Saunders, owner of Scott's Bar-B-Que Pit, and John Seidel, owner of Seidel Chevrolet, said they believed the public awareness of their racial identity could attract customers. b
Many of those hesitant about revealing their ownship of the businesses agreed that in some cases -- such as barber shops, soul food restaurants and record shops -- it might be an advantage to have black ownership publicized -- "Just don't quote me," several said quickly.
Rosemary Reed Miller, owner of Toast and Strawberries, a boutique at Connecticut Avenue and R Street NW, has never made an effort to conceal the ownhership of her business.
"I knew I would be working in the store and could not change it (her race)," she said. She added, however, that she hired "mature" women -- white and black -- to help customers feel comfortable when shopping in her store.
Edward Pinkard, who owns the Sabrett Company, whose vendors sell hotdogs on downtown street corners from familiar yellow-and-blue umbrella carts, said as a result of the story, he received only a few phone calls from friends, but there was no noticeable difference in his business.
Robert Boyd Sr., owner of W.H. Bone Co. restaurant in Southwest Washington, said he did not experience any problems after the story appeared. He repeated his earlier comment -- "Money is green, baby!"
Boyd said he plans to close the restaurant at the end of this month to make improvements that should take about three weeks. "The improvements should please both whites and blacks. We are going to spruce up the restaurant, paint and then we're going after some cash," said Boyd.
Seidel said that he could understand why some black owners were reluctant to have their identity known and added that "My only concern was that one of those businessmen quoted in the article (Drake) overstated the point."
Jim Griffin, owner of Comprehensive Marketing Systems, a housing consultant firm, said there was no negative impact on his business as a result of the story.
Courtland Cox, staff director of the D.C. Minority Business Opportunity Commission, said all minority businesses get a bad rap when one minority business fails or is in trouble. "You don't see in the headlines of newspapers that one minority -- Sam Jones -- messed up. The headline says 'Minority Business in Trouble.'"
Russell said she agreed with Metropolitan Board of Trade President Oliver T. Carr Jr., who said that the quality of products and service is more important than emphasizing race.
But most of the business owners interviewed said that the problems of black-owned business should not be minimized. Many black owners are still reluctant to discuss the issue for fear of publicity.
"I know things have to change, but I don't want to risk my business," they say. "I have worked too hard to let something I can't control destroy it."