After the Civil War subsided, when Lafayette was known as Vermilionville, the Freetown neighborhood was home to businesses owned by freed Black slaves and was developing an economic prominence within young Lafayette.
Now in the 21st century, the concept of Freetown is making a comeback through network initiatives to broadcast the growing community of black businesses in Lafayette.
It all starts with promotion.
In 1936, Victor Hugo Green created The Negro Motorist Green Book. He discovered difficulties Black individuals faced when navigating through America during the Jim Crow era. The Green Book served as a guide for the black traveler.
Shop Black Listed is a website and an application fully devoted to promoting black-owned businesses in the local area.
Karnina King, lawyer and the CEO of Shop Black Listed, was a student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette when she discovered the need for a revised and convenient black business directory.
“People don’t know where the black businesses are to support [them]. There was not a level of connectivity between black businesses and the community,” King said.
In 2010, while in law school, she recalled recruiting individuals to join her in creating the directory. In 2016, she gathered a diverse group of women to accomplish this task.
King wanted to honor and support black businesses. Her hope is for African-Americans to make an intentional effort of shopping black first.
The Black Exchange.
The neighborhood of Freetown allowed the exchange of goods among freed people of color.
According to “Cajun Culture is Black and White,” the population of freed black people engaged in trades. There were carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers and other businesses that solely catered to the black economy.
In Freetown, the Vermilion river allowed freed black settlers the same source of trade as the Nile did the Egyptians. Now, the black community of Lafayette is on the search for another mainstream.
Shannon Ozene, founder of The Black Element, decided to create an apparel shop to promote self-love and pride within the Black community. “I just desired to have clothing that our people can identify with,” she said.
Ozene started her website in 2016 and opened a physical location in 2018. Ozene has become a well-known advocate for black businesses.
“I started to support black businesses once I created a business of my own,” she said.
She said she understood how the support of her community directly affected her livelihood. During Black History Month, she created a series of blogs where she documented her experience at black businesses in Lafayette.
Shannon Ozene opens her doors to The Black Element in the afternoon. She waves at passing cars and invites her customers her upcoming project called “porch talks.”
Her porch talk idea derived from the memories she had with her family.
Ozene said that she wants those same philosophical talks to be common and fruitful in her own neighborhood.
Ozene also is the creator of a nonprofit organization in memory of her son.
The Shane Ozene Foundation gives low-cost heart screenings to children and has provided services to more than 400 teenagers.
Ozene, through her nonprofit, has also provided AED defibrillators in every parks and recreational area in Lafayette.
“She has a lot of goodwill in her community. That’s why she was a perfect candidate for Shop Black Listed,” King said.
This summer, the crew of Shop Black Listed wants to provide scholarships, mini grants for black businesses and host workshops.
Although support for black businesses is growing, Ozene and King described how they are lacking support from the African-American demographic.
King said that the stores within Lafayette black neighborhoods are not black-owned.
“The black spending dollar doesn’t stay in our community to make an impact,” she said.
Ozene said that the lack of support has to do with a “subconscious programing” through media outlets. Commercials and television shows, in Onzene’s opinion, do not promote commerce within the African-American community.
“It’s such a beautiful thing to see us finally taking back our neighborhoods,” said Seanathan “Sean” Polidore, a writer and community leader.
Just the beginning.
The advocacy of black-owned businesses is there. Through Shop Black Listed, individuals are given access and opportunity to support a growing community.
Keith Nickolson, a local historian and writer, compared the uprising of Lafayette black businesses to the Harlem Renaissance.
“We as a people, you know, use to rely on one another out of necessity. Now, I see black people supporting one another out of love for their race and community,” said Nickolson.