DeCharlene & Goliath: A Black business pioneer outlasts Seattle developers

DeCharlene Williams, inside the Central District building that she's owned since 1968. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)
DeCharlene Williams, inside the Central District building that she’s owned since 1968. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)

When DeCharlene Williams was looking to buy a building to run her small business out of, she says she was denied loans by 30 different banks.

It was almost 50 years ago, in 1968, and they just wouldn’t lend to an African American woman. Williams says she was finally able to secure a loan after applying with her initials instead of her full name.

She purchased the one-story brick building at 21st and East Madison in the Central District that’s still home to DeCharlene’s Beauty Shop and Boutique, DeCharlene’s Beauty College, as well as the Central Area Chamber of Commerce office.

“They want my place here, they want it bad… I’ve been fighting them for 50 years.”

The awning is painted a bright yellow and green, the windows decorated with pictures of Presidents Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, and with flyers announcing community events.

“I bought [the building] to help a lot of the Black women get off their knees. Because they were doing day work cleaning up white women’s homes and all that, and they were getting a raw deal. And so I opened up this shop here to give them a chance.”

After Williams remodeled the building and opened up shop, she steadily built up operations, at one point employing 13 women.

In addition to a vibrantly decorated salon, Williams’ shop is filled with glamorous hats, jewelry, and clothing; the walls lined with framed pictures and awards gathered over the years. A vintage sign reading, “Keep on Pushing With ‘Inward Pride’” hangs above the salon mirrors.

But the neighborhood outside DeCharlene’s doors has changed dramatically.  Her businesses appear to be about all that’s left of what used to be a center of Seattle’s Black economy and community along the East Madison corridor.

DeCharlene's one-story building at 2108 E Madison used to be surrounded by mostly Black-owned small businesses. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)
DeCharlene’s one-story building at 2108 E Madison used to be surrounded by mostly Black-owned small businesses. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)

Micro-businesses carrying the world

After expanding her boutique to Bellevue for a few years in the ‘70s and joining the Bellevue Chamber Commerce, Williams founded the Central Area Chamber of Commerce in 1983 to encourage business empowerment in her local community.

“I got with that Chamber over there [Bellevue] and I learned a lot about business… I wanted to help folks and share my knowledge, so I developed the Chamber over here.”

One of Williams’ primary focuses around economic and community development is what she calls “micro-businesses,” typically understood as enterprises with five or fewer employees, or in some cases, no employees other than self-employed owners.

Such business are generally limited in loan capital and don’t have much access to the commercial banking sector. In a neighborhood like the Central District, micro-businesses have traditionally been driven by people of color and immigrants.

“I’ve been working on this for 30, 40 years to push for micro-businesses so people know what it is. A micro-business is the size of a flea when you first start out, but we’re the ones that carry the world. That’s why a lot of them only last two to three years.”

“People used to try to run over me, because I was a Black woman, and small-statured," Williams recalls. "I’d fight them…I’m a good fighter.” (Photo by Chloe Collyer)
“People used to try to run over me, because I was a Black woman, and small-statured,” Williams recalls. “I’d fight them…I’m a good fighter.” (Photo by Chloe Collyer)

As part of her work with the Central Area Chamber, Williams says, “I want to go around and help all the micro-businesses, find out what their needs are and how we can help them. So they can stay in business, and their business can grow.”

Williams says rising rents, development, and construction in the area have put the squeeze on small businesses recently.

“It’s a shame to see all these people suffering and won’t be able to take care of themselves. A lot of them now have to work out of their office, which is the trunk of their car, or go over to Starbucks, meet people out in a restaurant, or use the library. Because they don’t have a facility.”

Doing business with flair

DeCharlene Williams has a remarkable ability to recall names, figures, locations and dates — down to the exact day — spanning over five dynamic decades she’s been a Central District resident, small business owner, and civic leader.

She keeps folders, books, and newspaper clippings chronicling happenings in the community. In fact, she’s a local historian of sorts, authoring a book on the history of the Central District in 1990, followed by a second volume in 1996.

Self-described as “petite”, yet commanding and seemingly tireless, Williams boasts a long list of accolades, including co-founding the Central Area Youth Association (C.A.Y.A.) in 1965, serving on the Small Business Task Force during Mayor Royer’s administration, and even appearing in “The Nona Tapes” an Alice in Chains spoof rockumentary.

Awards for business and civic leadership, as well as hairdressing, line the walls of DeCharlene's. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)
Awards for business and civic leadership, as well as hairdressing, line the walls of DeCharlene’s. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)

Williams made a bid for Mayor in 1993, and for City Council in 1997. Her platform included rent control, job creation, and support for businesses in the Central District.

She recalls that, from a very young age, she always held entrepreneurial and creative ambitions.

“Since four years old I always wanted a business. I wanted to be a dress designer. I cut up my mother’s lace tablecloth and put feathers on it. And she was mad at me. Then she looked at me and said, ‘That is pretty. Who showed you that?’ I said, ‘I showed myself.’”

Born in Temple, Texas, Williams moved to Seattle by way of Portland when she was 16, and began her career as a hairdresser in 1961 after graduating from Edwards Beauty School. She opened her first salon on 25th and Union in 1965.

“I was the best hairstylist in Seattle at that time. I did anybody’s hair – Black or white.”

In 1969, Williams formed a modeling group named Invasions and produced fashion shows featuring the latest trends and hairstyles at venues like the Olympic Hotel. Williams and Invasions also raised over $50,000 for the Seattle Fire Department to purchase the nation’s first Medic One wagon in 1969.

“I was the best hairstylist in Seattle at that time. I did anybody’s hair – Black or white – I was just fantastic. And still am. Not bragging on myself, but I still can do a good job on my stuff.”

Williams also co-chaired the Ebony Fashion Fair from 1972-1974, a traveling fashion show that raised millions since its founding in 1958 (the Bellevue Arts Museum has an exhibit on the 50 years of the Ebony Fashion Fair showing through August 14th).

She estimates she currently sits on 13 committees, ranging from organizing the recent 34th annual Juneteenth celebration, to the Central Area Collaborative, a newly formed group of organizations and community members working towards preserving the African American cultural legacy and supporting small businesses in the Central District.

Williams is also involved in a needs assessment and mapping process of small businesses in the area, which she hopes will ultimately help attract more customers.

DeCharlene Williams sorts through some of the clothes for sale in the boutique attached to her salon. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)
DeCharlene Williams sorts through some of the clothes for sale in the boutique attached to her salon. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)

Change closes in

Williams’ landmark building in the historically African American Central District is now, strikingly, surrounded on all sides by development. In the shadow of pervasive construction and mid-rise structures, it’s a last holdout on the Madison strip.

It’s no coincidence that she’s still here. Williams believes that, in addition to technical assistance, access to capital and property ownership are key to sustainability for small and micro businesses like hers.

“We want [small business owners] to buy up their property and team up together to get property, so they have a place to stay. They can’t afford their rents; the rents is too high, that’s what’s putting them out of business.”

But Williams says that ever since she bought her property, she’s had her share of trouble with developers interested in acquiring it.

“They want my place here, they want it bad…I’ve been fighting them for 50 years, ever since I’ve been on this corner.”

Black-owned small businesses along East Madison have fallen to the wayside over the past decade: Deano’s Grocery and Deano’s Café and Lounge, Philadelphia Fevre Steak & Hoagie Shop, The General’s Bar-B-Que, Chester Dorsey Auto Salon, Chocolate City nightclub, Kolmara Studio hair salon, and Oscar’s II restaurant and nightclub. (In 2000 a state appeals court ruled that the city violated owner Oscar McCoy’s constitutional rights when police targeted his business as a “drug nuisance.”

Across from DeCharlene's stand “The Summit at Madison Park," built in 2004, and another six-story market-rate apartment building that just went up this year. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)
Across from DeCharlene’s stand “The Summit at Madison Park,” built in 2004, and another six-story market-rate apartment building that just went up this year. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)

It’s not just Black-owned businesses that have felt the pressure. Courtesy Tire, which operated next door to DeCharlene’s for nearly 50 years, closed in December 2014 after the building was sold, and the business was unable to find a new space anywhere nearby.

Jeremy Johnson, manager for over 13 years, says that commercial spaces suitable for auto shops simply gave way to condos, small boutiques, and retail that comes with mixed-use development.

“Back when I started at that store, around 2002, there were probably about 14 [auto repair] shops up and down the Madison corridor. And by the time we closed our doors…we were the last one around,” he said. “[The Central District] is really a nice area now, but it’s sad to see all the old businesses that were well established go away to make room for yet more apartments.”

Across East Madison from DeCharlene’s shop stands a six-story complex built in 2004 that houses a Safeway and Starbucks, and “The Summit at Madison Park” apartments, with tiny 454 sq. ft studios currently starting at $1,345 a month.

Its name was taken as an insult by many local residents and business owners, including Williams, who felt it was a disrespectful attempt to rebrand the residences as separate from the Central District and associate them with Madison Park, nearly a mile away.

Across from Safeway on 22nd, at the former site of Oscar’s II and the old Twilight Exit, sits a newer, nearly completed six-story mixed-use development for close to 100 high-end apartments.

Jim Mueller, Managing Partner and CFO at JC Mueller LLC, and formerly a development director at Vulcan, is the driver of the development there.  While at Vulcan, Mueller was responsible for the planning and development of nearly 30 blocks in the South Lake Union area.

According to Williams, Mueller has also approached her in the past about buying her property. He didn’t follow up on requests for an interview for this story.

A sketch shows the old businesses along E Madison St. that have closed to make way for big apartment and retail projects. (Cynthia Brothers)
A sketch shows the old businesses along E Madison St. that have closed to make way for big apartment and retail projects. (By Cynthia Brothers — click to enlarge)

Mueller also used to own the land a half mile south at 23rd and Union, before he sold it off to 23rd Avenue Capital Management LLC, and Capitol Hill Holdings, LLC, and Ian Eisenberg, owner of Uncle Ike’s pot shop. Eisenberg later sold to developer Lake Union Partners, which built the 92-apartment, market-rate building dubbed “The Central.”

The Courtesy Tire lot is also being developed by Mueller. It will soon be demolished and replaced with another six-story market-rate apartment building.

And across East Denny Way, at the former site of Deano’s and Chocolate City, a six-story, 222 luxury apartment and retail complex styled as “Twenty20Mad” is under construction by one of the largest developers in the country, Miami-based Lennar Corporation (also behind West Seattle’s largest development, The Whittaker, with The Valdok in Ballard and a development in Interbay also in the works).

The pressures of development

Williams has already personally felt the impact from the area’s development.

“I think there should be some sort of allowance for all of us. I went through it when they built Safeway and they almost destroyed my business. I’m still here. I don’t have all of the employees I used to…. I can’t afford to hire anyone else.”

“People used to try to run over me, because I was a Black woman, and small-statured…I’d fight them…I’m a good fighter.”

Adding fuel to the fire is the contentious 23rd Avenue construction project, running from Jackson Street all the way north to John. Road construction is currently clogging the roads right around DeCharlene’s business, and is expected to extend into early 2017.

Williams agrees with many small business owners that it’s yet another factor speeding gentrification and displacement in the Central District.  Although the City made modest federal mitigation funds and tax credits available after business owners protested, Williams says she didn’t apply because the City determined that only businesses located south of 23rd and E Union were most impacted.

“We don’t have foot traffic here no more,” she says. “They put hardship on those people and they tore up all of 23rd because they wanted them out of there. Because they know they couldn’t survive it… A lot of people took out loans on homes and cars and they lost it.”

DeCharlene Williams still styles hair, but she's scaled down from almost a dozen employees to a one-woman operation. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)
DeCharlene Williams still styles hair, but she’s scaled down from almost a dozen employees to a one-woman operation. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)

As market-rate housing and high-rent retail attract increasingly wealthy and white residents, what will be the future of Black businesses?

Williams, for one, does not intend to give way easily.

“People used to try to run over me, because I was a Black woman, and small-statured. And they try to push you around, push down. I’d never push down, I’d fight them…I’m a good fighter.”

So how can residents, new and old, help longstanding small businesses in the Central Area thrive?

“We want them to be aware of what’s happening to us and be more supportive. Spend their dollars in our businesses, and get to know the people,” Williams says. “Nobody lives on an island, alone.”

“The world of business is for everybody, don’t care what color you are.”

Clarification: this post has been updated to clarify that the Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum is a 50 -year retrospective, and not an anniversary.

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3 Comments

  1. This article brought back a lot of fond memories of the area where I grew up . I used to get my hair done at DeCharlene’s and buy a outfit at her boutique . The area has really lost a lot of history . 🌹

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