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    CSUF project traces the history of Black business in Orange County
    • October 11, 2023

    By Nicole Gregory, contributing writer

    Jamila Moore Pewu, assistant professor of digital humanities and new media in history, is working with students on a groundbreaking project that traces Orange County’s Black businesses and their history.

    It all began when Natalie Graham at The Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation reached out to Pewu in 2021, suggesting that she might work with the institute to develop a mapping project to show Black businesses in the county.

    “But because I come from the standpoint of really looking at placemaking, both historically and in the present, I was like, ‘Well, we can’t really understand where the businesses are today, and why they’re here today, and in what context they’re here unless we understand historically what had been here,’ ” said Pewu, who is a digital historian and previously worked at the Museum of African American history in Boston.

    Pewu leads many digital humanities initiatives in the CSUF history department and is the director for the Mapping Arts OC project — a digital map of public art and underrepresented artists in Orange County.

    Pewu decided to engage her students in the research project, which they called #Networked OC, to document the past, present and future of Black-owned businesses and community organizations in Orange County. They quickly discovered that traditional methods of research don’t often apply to Black history.

    “When they started this project, students were used to going to the usual sources. They went to the library, to the archives, to the databases. And they kept coming back saying, ‘There’s nothing. I can’t find anything,’ ” Pewu said. “And that is very much the case — there isn’t much in the usual archive that tells you about Black Orange County.”

    So they began collecting their own data. “We started off doing interviews with current business owners,” Pewu explained. “Then we did some historical research looking at census records. And in the spring, the 1950 census was released in full, where we could track people right down to the city block that they lived on.”

    The project investigates the progress and history of Black-owned businesses in Orange County. (Courtesy of CSUF News Media Services)

    They looked at the Little Texas community in Santa Ana, “the hub of Black business and Black community in that period,” Pewu said. Her students are creating a 3D map of the area to visualize what residents’ lives were like at that time.

    Students also delved into oral histories taken earlier at Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History.

    “We had these loose strands of data from my predecessors in the History Department, such as Lawrence de Graaf and others, who studied Black suburbia with a particular focus on Orange County,” Pewu said. “What I try and do is take in all of those stories, and then look for the data to help us understand it,” she said.

    They found that “historically, the business communities were growing out of the community organizations,” Pewu said. “And people were finding alliances and opportunities to connect socially, and then going into business, or then supporting one another’s businesses,” she said.

    Black-owned businesses don’t often get venture capital funding. “They don’t get a lot of bank loans,” Pewu said. “So, people end up funding a lot of their business from their own pockets.”

    This means their businesses are more vulnerable during sudden shifts in the economy, such as during the pandemic. Additionally, Black people are disproportionately unhoused and arrested in Orange County.

    The Black population in Orange County is 2% of the total 3 million population, and Pewu and her students discovered many connections among the people they reached out to for interviews.

    “We have a three-pronged approach to the oral history, which is interviewing Black-owned businesses, interviewing Black-serving community organizations, and interviewing longtime residents,” Pewu said.

    Interviewing Black people has to be done with sensitivity, she said. “One of the things that is true of many communities of color — and OC’s Black community is no different —  is that if you’re going to approach people, and you want them to tell their story, you have to have your stuff together because they’re so used to people coming in with these grand ideas, and talking about them, or to them, but not really coming alongside,” she said.

    “And so, it’s just really important that our approach be different, and that we don’t create a project that is a burden to the community. We’ve taken a much slower approach to building relationships versus going really all-in just collecting data.”

    Pewu said that the project also actively supports and advocates for Black businesses — some have been hired as vendors for campus events.

    “This is a big deal because CSUF doesn’t currently have any Black-owned businesses on their pre-approved vendor list,” she said. As the project continues, she said, “Our goal is to create a Black-owned sound map that integrates our current business data set with oral interviews so that people can begin to connect with businesses through the stories they tell about themselves.”

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    ​ Orange County Register