Brain Harris: Get Back to What Made Us Thrive
Brian Harris, Serial entrepreneur and cultural preservationist, welcomes us into one of his investment properties located in the historic Glenview neighborhood. This 100 year home shares a history of being occupied by black middle-class teachers, entrepreneurs, and athletes of old who settled here nearly 9 decades ago in search of a better lifestyle and culture.
South Memphis is a place that many hear about but don’t truly know the Black story that was once rich in pride and resources. There are many gems and historical stories that are tied to places in South Memphis and according to Brian, one of those areas was South Parkway, a street that housed many Black middle class families like Dr. Lincolnwood, who was the first Black gynecologist in Memphis. In fact, South Memphis is home to many stories of Black prosperity , a spark that undoubtedly has dimmed over time.
As we all know, Memphis is made up of a population that is majority Black. In the early 1900s, the Black community was forced to be separated from other races. Many Black people during that time decided that would be the perfect opportunity to elevate the Black community through entrepreneurship. Harris’s family was a part of that entrepreneurial vision. This entrepreneurial bloodline began with Harris’s great grandfather Johnny Brown. Brown was originally from Louisiana. He moved to Memphis where he would become his own boss in multiple ways. In fact, Harris recalls his great grandfather had two businesses that resided on Beale street in the 1940’s. He owned a pool hall and a cafe. Harris’ great grandfather also owned gambling houses and sold corn whiskey, which was privately allowed by then Mayor E.H Crump at that time, so long as the mayor got his cut of the money, Harris grins.
Brown was not only a boss, but he was also a huge inspiration to Brian Harris. By learning about his Great Grandfather, Harris quickly learned “not to put all your eggs in one basket.” This is something that drives Harris into pursuing entrepreneurial ventures outside of his corporate job like real estate development and home ownership. Harris firmly believes that having a mindset of building beyond one source of income has always been the practice for African American communities, but perhaps this practice became lost in translation in recent years. Returning to this practice in today’s time could save the Black community from its wealth decline; “more reliance on entrepreneurial innovation, less dependence on corporate entities that don’t have the interests of black people at heart” Harris insists. Harris believes Black people must champion building for tomorrow and not just for today. He further explains this is something that can be done in a communal way as that is how it was more than a half century ago “before porches were gone.”
Specifically, Harris shared that one reason the Black community shifted from its original involvement in business is because of the way the community itself changed post segregation. Resources left the community. Residents flocked elsewhere for better living conditions and upper-crust lifestyles, and the eastward job migration diluted the buying and trading power black communities had amongst one another.
Brown asserts, “We were better together…Integration ruined the Black learner and earner. It ruined Black neighborhoods, and it ruined Black entrepreneurship. Harris remembers porches on houses so distinctively because the elders of his neighborhood would always sit there and watch and guide the children of the neighborhood. Harris insists that without the guidance of the elders the community suffers. Harris was even once told by a teacher that integration ruined Black pride and he can’t help but to agree based on the stories that he’s been told. Once Black people were given the green light to go into originally white parts of town, businesses, schools, etc. there started to be less and less involvement in the nucleus of the Black community. There was less and less support for Black businesses and commerce suffered because of it.
Although Harris is well aware of this decline, he doesn’t allow that to stop him from pouring back into his community. One of Harris’s favorite artists is Jay-Z. According to Harris, Jay-zz’s album 4:44 was released in 2017 and Harris found himself gravitating toward the message inside. He heard messages of legacy, investing, and building up the community. He relates to this strongly and vows that his legacy will be his unwavering commitment to give back to communities that have been disinvested in.
“One thing I’ll never forget is where I came from,” said Harris.