What Black History Means To Me

Black History Month celebrates Black History and the achievements and stories of black Americans. It means much more to me than that and always causes me to reflect on lessons I learned when I managed a grocery store in Cleveland Ohio.

I grew up in a bubble. It was a small, “New England style” college town nestled among the corn and soy fields near the Appalachian foothills of East Central Ohio. I had a great childhood with fond memories. But it was still a bubble.

I went off to college in another bubble. It was a wonderful small Jesuit university, and I learned and embraced some of the Jesuit ideals - service to others, pursuit of excellence, learning from experience, and contemplative vision formed by hope. Those learnings helped shape the person and leader I am today. But it was still a bubble.

Although I was fortunate enough to travel to many places it wasn’t really until I graduated and entered the world of work that I experienced any significant time outside either of those bubbles that I grew up in. A few years after graduation and as a young General Manager for Finast Supermarkets, I was assigned a store located at East 119th and Superior in Cleveland, Ohio. Not everyone wanted to manage a 65,000 square foot “SuperStore” in an urban location. High customer counts, large swings in volume from the first to the end of the month, low income, and high crime were some of the challenges. As a result, many times it was a new “recruit” that was assigned a store in the urban market. Did I get awakened by a phone call on the one day of the year when no employees were in the store (Christmas Eve) to notify me that someone broke the window with a brick and stole 3 cases of cigarettes (not cartons - cases)? Was there a bullet hole in the building? Did we have to staff the store with off duty police officers? The answer was “yes” to these questions, but these experiences and reminders drove my commitment to the store and the greater community.

I maintain to this day that the best education I ever received was the one from the corner of East 119th and Superior. Forgive the Seinfeld reference, but as a “Bubble Boy”, the first thing I learned at my new assignment was what it felt like to be viewed as different simply because of the color of my skin. Aside from a half dozen employees, I was the only white person - and at 6’5” there was no doubt that I stood out. That helped me learn a lot about perception and the conclusions people make based on their own perceptions. Sure, this was a difficult store to run in a tough neighborhood. But based on bad perceptions, there were some obvious stereotypes that this green General Manager needed to address.

The first was that there were literally chains with padlocks wrapped around two of the entrance doors to help prevent shoplifters from making quick getaways out the entrance doors. Many long time store employees thought I was nuts, but I removed the chains and locks. It was my goal from that point forward to prove to the residents of this area that they could have the same shopping experiences as the shoppers at our other stores in the suburbs. There was a perception that existed in the urban communities which we served that the suburban stores, among other things, received fresher produce and meat, had more employees, and had cleaner stores. But do you blame shoppers for thinking this way when you had to walk around to a different door simply to enter your own store?

I was a General Manager at this store from 1999 through 2001. It was around this time that Malcolm Gladwell was writing his book The Tipping Point, which gave examples of how little things can make a big difference. Although I didn’t read his book until years after I left, in hindsight, my decision to remove the chains was similar to the example in the book in which NYC officials made a commitment to constantly remove graffiti from the subway cars to change the perception. As a result of that commitment, crime on subways and in NYC overall went down significantly, and in the time I was at this location, the same occurred regarding theft. It’s all about perception and doing the little things!

I had a supportive leadership team at Finast, and then later Tops Markets, when the two companies merged. My District Manager Doug Deacon supported new ideas, and I was even able to convince our CEO Steve Odland during a store visit one day to let our store host the banner changing ceremony when we converted from Finast to Tops. The company was planning to host the banner ceremony in a suburban store, and I felt very strongly that the ceremony should take place in our store to continue to change the “urban vs. suburban” perception and to show the residents that we appreciate them and value serving that community.

In February 2000, the first Black History Month Celebration took place at this store. I borrowed some pictures from the African American Archives of The Western Reserve Historical Society for the entire month of February and displayed them near the entrance. Many of the pictures were of Cleveland’s leading African American citizens including leaders in athletics, business, civics, education, law, media, medicine, politics, religion and social service. Additionally, the students of a local elementary school contributed pictures of what Black History Month meant to them and local artists contributed other works of art. Products manufactured by black owned companies located in Ohio were featured adjacent to the history and art collection. Much like taking off the chains to the door, people were concerned that we were featuring prized museum pieces in an inner city supermarket. But it was all part of the plan to change the culture and perception of an “inner city” store. We hosted a ceremony in 2001 and my protege and managers from other stores continued to host similar events in subsequent years. Events like this and the success of the cultural turnaround earned recognition from Progressive Grocer as an Outstanding Chain Store Manager. This is one of my prized accomplishments because after emerging from the bubble, we were able to change perceptions and make a cultural change. Tops Markets (which no longer operates stores in Ohio, but still headquartered in Buffalo, New York) has continued the tradition of Black History Month recognition in their stores to this day.

In addition to the Black History Month celebrations, we did many other “out of the box” things at this store including hosting a carnival in the parking lot, countless barbecues, a dance competition, kidfests and many other fun events to show that we were part of the neighborhood that instilled pride in the greater community. We also created our own marketing plan with separate ads for the urban market.

That is why Black History Month means so much to me. As I learned from my experience, Black History Month is not just a celebration of black American’s achievements and stories. It’s about respecting the dignity and equality of black Americans.