By Maggie Miles
In a unique moment in American history, citizens are forced to deal with a pandemic that has no cure, while confronting racial justice issues that have plagued the country for centuries.
The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, along with the deaths of other African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers, sparked protests and calls for justice that spread nationally and around the world.
Support of the movement has taken many forms. Some people chose to protest. Some chose to donate to the memorial funds and organizations on the front lines. Some called elected officials and demanded action.
Locally, people often wonder what they can do to show support and effect change. Dare County’s African American population is 2.8 %, a little more than 1,000 people among the county’s 37,000 residents, according to 2019 U.S. census figures.
Black entrepreneurs and Black-owned businesses are part of the fabric of the Outer Banks, and supporting those local businesses encourages economic growth, their owners and their family legacies. They provide distinctive and, in some cases, unique services. Some are relatively recent; some have plied their trades for many years. Their dedication to their customers and community is every bit as strong as their peers.
Here are several Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs who exemplify hard work, grit and passion for serving the community. They are the Outer Banks.
Peace Garden Project
Manteo native Michelle Lewis, the founder of the Peace Garden Project, is on a mission: to bring as much fresh food as possible to people who don’t ordinarily have access. And to teach children how to make the world a better place in the process.
She got the idea for the organization when she was a law enforcement officer for the National Park Service, she said. She was one of only two Black women among just 10 Black officers in a force of 3,500.
Lewis, 41, recalled that people sometimes stopped her and said, “Wow, we’ve never seen a Black park ranger before, can we take your picture?”
She joined the park service while attending Elizabeth City State and spent 12 years with the organization. She began to think about ways to help communities and wanted to broaden her educational reach.
Through sheer chance, she met a recruiter from Yale University while in Atlanta who encouraged her to apply. She was accepted and eventually earned graduate degrees in environmental studies and divinity.
As part of her ministerial calling, she started the program that’s now the Peace Garden Project in New Rochelle, New York. She decided to move back to Manteo to be closer to family and started a branch of the program locally.
Families lend their backyards for gardens and youth leadership retreats. Lewis and others teach middle and high school students about food insecurity, social injustice, racial inequality, and how they can make a difference — all through gardening and providing food to those in need.
“Our gardens are spaces where all people are welcome, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, gender expression, faith,” Lewis said. “We’ve worked really hard to create a community and a culture that welcomes all people.”
They’ve welcomed Christians, Jews, Buddhists, people who are spiritual but not religious, and people who just wanted to improve their community. They work together to bridge gaps, build relationships, and provide food. They want to take away the shame of food insecurity.
“We don’t just grow healthy food, we grow healthy community,” Lewis said.