While much of the country was suffering during the Great Depression, Nathan Garrett’s family found a safe haven in Durham, North Carolina. At the time the city was fertile ground for the African American entrepreneur, and the Garrett family ran the local pharmacy. Nathan learned the ropes of running a business, and he fondly remembers a community that was proud and self-sustaining. He eventually left Durham to attend Yale University, where he was part of the largest influx of African American students the university had known: a class of four.
As Garrett looked for the next thriving metropolis to call home, he found Detroit, which was a great city for his social life, but a hard place to thrive professionally. Despite his ivy league education, he was relegated to selling bowling equipment at the local department store. He eventually found a mentor who helped him get the experience he needed to take the CPA exam.
After meeting and marrying his wife, he took his business acumen back to Durham and later became one of the first CPA-certified African Americans in the state. Later in his career he served as the CFO for the North Carolina Fund, a cutting edge wealth and education program conceived at the request of former Gov. Terry Sanford; founded the Foundation for Community Development; and rebuilt his firm. Garrett tells his story in the 2010 memoir “A Palette, Not a Portrait: Stories from the Life of Nathan Garrett” (iUniverse/2010). He returns to the State of Things to talk with host Frank Stasio about his stories of growing up on Black Wall Street, his desire to run a business, not a black business, and how he passed the entrepreneur gene down to his children.
On why his father relocated to Durham during the Depression:
He discovered that the income to African Americans in Durham, [and] the access to debt capital in Durham was a lot better. And [he] decided this is where he could make a better living for that family that he had.
On his roommate's mother wanting her son to switch rooms at Yale:
One of the officials at Yale said that if he insisted on a room change because he was with an African American … He would make sure that he would be asked to leave Yale, ‘cause they didn’t want people who felt that way.
On his trouble with finding a focus at Wayne State in the Late-50s:
I tried a whole lot of different disciplines in the area of business and was told by the faculty members that I encountered: Wow, Nathan you’re one of my best students in this. It was economics. It was business management. It was what we knew about technology back then … Unfortunately … There isn’t an offer available to you in Michigan for any of this.
On the difference in racism in Durham compared to Detroit:
The South had an advantage … You knew darn well that that’s what you were facing. You couldn’t do this. You couldn’t do that because of your race. Detroit didn’t have those regulations and laws and so forth, so you didn’t always know what to do. And that’s worse than having stuff out in the open.
On the decline of Black Wall Street:
When the anti-discrimination laws and regulations were passed in 1964 in that area [during] Johnson’s presidency, I thought it was a good idea. And then within a few years, I realized: Wow, these people are losing customers. They are going to those stores where they could not go before. They were going to theaters where they could not go before. The theaters on our part of town were suffering from that because people were not coming in from the white communities to do that. And they didn’t come to our restaurants and so forth. So the problem was there was just a huge loss of customers.