This article originally appeared in Allegany Magazine, February 2022. Read the original article here.
It is always difficult to picture the heydays of Cumberland, with streets bustling with people who have traveled to visit the Queen City. It is even more difficult to picture the then bustling African American business that lined streets like Frederick and Pine street, or the Brownsville community with offices, shops, restaurants that catered to black and brown people in the Jim Crow era. As another African American History month comes around, it is difficult to fully celebrate looking at the state of things from my position as an African American in our community.
Statistically, about 7.9% of the population of Allegany County is African American, this is almost half the national ratio, so not terrible for a small mountain town in rural Appalachia. In fact, it’s probably more of a percentage that folks in urban areas east of us would like to believe.
When you look at the history of Cumberland, Frostburg and Allegany County, you learn that African Americans have lived and helped build this community for decades, alas, save for the few mentions this group of people received for vanishing moments during the 28 or 29 days of February every year, the breath of their contributions socially, economically and culturally are not only amiss in societal consciousness, I am not sure they are truly valued.
A pivotal self-realization happened to me a few years ago, I realized that although I looked at myself as a Nigerian first and an African American second, the vast majority of people who saw me from across the street, who never heard me speak or knew anything about me, would assume I am an African American. Whether I believed it about myself or not did not matter, I was an ambassador for the race. Ironically, I am the literal definition of an African American, maybe to the chagrin of some. This has not been more poignant or important than in the past year.
No matter how people feel about race in this country at large, there is a respectable number of African Americans in Allegany County and Cumberland in particular. We bring our culture, heritage, knowledge, expertise, flavor, and a story just like any other group. That is why it is essential that there are more businesses owned and run by people of color in the city. For those astute at Cumberland culture, African Americans also were instrumental in shaping and making this place what it was and what it could be again.
In that regard, I am proud to be able to put my hat in the ring and put what money I have where my mouth and heart is, and open a business in this gem of a town. In my heart, this is not only a bid to contribute our flavor in Cumberland, but also to do so in the outdoor recreational space, where people of colors are underrepresented. I believe it is not time to ask permission to be admitted, rather to show why we deserve a place in our great town which we also love.
We want to also set an example for our girls and our son that anything is possible. And if you have a dream you need to go for it. I hear “should we do this?” “what do you think about this idea?” and to me, that is asking for permission. You don’t need permission from anyone to pursue your own dreams.
When I hear people say Cumberland has problems, I sometimes ask people “and what are you doing to solve those problems?” What town the size of Cumberland doesn’t have its problems? What big city doesn’t face challenges? The question should be though – are you doing something actively to solve a problem or just complaining that there is a problem? Complaining about a problem does not solve it. I tell people when they are out walking around, stop looking at your phone. Stop looking down. Start looking around and seeing what is around you. And start looking up.
We have had opportunities as a couple – my wife Jamie and I – to leave the area but then I walk outside or I go for a ride on my bike and I am surrounded by all of this nature – and it’s therapeutic – and there is no where else I want to be. There is so much that is right here. There is so much to be appreciated. This whole story of why we are doing what we are doing – why we are opening this store and why we decided to stay in Cumberland – it all evokes the American dream. This what it looks like to be in pursuit of your happiness.
I know some may read this as entitlement, alas, this is anything but that. This is an ode to the American dream taking shape in small town USA. My sister told me – do not despise the days of humble beginnings. This is where we are. And we are humbled now by these beginnings. This is just the beginning.
This is also a step in the right direction of encouraging black, brown, white or red children to strive and attempt to make the places they live and love better than they met it. This is a celebration of hope in the midst of uncertainty.
There remains a few gems of African American contributions in our community. They include the Carver school which sits practically abandoned, unrecognized captains of Canal boats who worked for many years on the C&O canal, members and families of highly decorated Tuskegee Airmen, many of whom remain largely uncelebrated by our community, some of the oldest African American churches and communities like Brownsville in Frostburg stand in our community. These are things which are only known as a result of conscious inquiry and not things publicly taught, embraced and publicized by our community. Save for the dance we do as a country a few days in the month of February, many kids will never truly learn about the stories of many African Americans walking across the Mason Dixon line into freedom, or the only documented lynching of a black man in Maryland which happened a stone’s throw from our downtown in Cumberland.
One of the necessary traits essential to be successful in business – especially a small business like the one I have — is optimism, so although any commentary on race in today’s America is likely to be depressing, when I look at my eight and four year old girls with their curly, beautiful manes , I am reminded of the sacrifices made by their forebearers and the efforts we as community members and a business like Wheelzup are making to put a little flavor, a little color in the business scene, I am encouraged. It’s no question that there is a lot of work to do, and as a community we are behind and need to care more. Fortunately, there remains the three ingredients we must embrace during this month of recognition – Faith, Hope and Love.