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.
Duck ‘N’ Sons
Donald “Duck” Etheridge found his passion for detailing cars when he was a young boy. When asked how he discovered the business, Etheridge recalled that his uncle would let him drive his car around his yard only if Etheridge kept it clean.
Without the array of cleaning products available today, he had to be more resourceful.
“We used grape soda and brake fluid to make the tires shine. Clean windows with vinegar,” Etheridge said.
The Manteo resident moved to the Outer Banks from Currituck County, and started cooking at the iconic Nags Head hotel, The Carolinian. Soon after he was trained, both head chefs got into a motorcycle accident and could no longer work. So, Etheridge, at an astonishing 12 years of age, suddenly was in charge of cooking, he said.
Etheridge, 62, met his wife at the hotel, he said, and eventually became the head chef at RV’s Restaurant where he worked for 35 years, the site now known as Sugar Creek Seafood Restaurant. All the while, he detailed cars as a side gig.
In 2016, he decided the restaurant business was changing and wanted to make car detailing his primary occupation. The first couple of years were a struggle, he said, but through word-of-mouth, business expanded, and he is now in high demand.
Etheridge does pick-ups and deliveries, and he’ll travel as far as Moyock and Chesapeake, Virginia, and south to Hatteras for work. His car has a huge duck on it, which reminds people to call and make appointments.
Duck ‘N’ Sons is a family affair. His three sons, Andreas, Antron and Donald (“Lil’ Duck"), all help out in their spare time. This is something he is very proud of.
“It makes me feel so good, you know?” Etheridge said. “It really does. When I can go to a job site and I can say, this is my son.”
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.
Necy’s Baby Cakes
For Deniecse “Necy” Morris, her cake business started by accident. Years ago, her husband told her that he’d told his friends she would bake something for them for a Super Bowl party.
“I was like, ‘No! You didn’t ask me,’” she said.
But he told her that he had committed her and she couldn’t refuse. Reluctantly, she agreed to make something. She whipped up a cake batter and then folded in various ingredients and flavors, even using a couple different beers and liquors. She mixed it up and baked cupcakes.
“And, oh my God! They loved it!” she said.
From then on, Morris started experimenting with flavors, and requests started pouring in. Cupcakes were popular at the time, so everyone wanted those. After that, people started asking her for larger cakes. So, she taught herself how to make cakes: layer cakes, tier cakes, fondant cakes, center cremes.
“And so, I stumbled a lot along the way,” she said. “I learned a lot along the way.”
Now, she’s in high demand. Children walk past her house and say, “Ms. Necy, you got any cupcakes?” A teacher at Manteo High School, she said students are always asking for cupcakes. In fact, the school valedictorian even talked about her cupcakes in her speech this year.
Morris said chocolate peanut butter is her signature, but strawberry is the most popular. She said that she routinely uses 17 to 18 flavors, and she’s always game to work with customers on specialty-themed cakes.
“I just go in my kitchen and just go for it,” she said. “I think if you have that creative bone, then you are always looking for the next thing.”
James Melvin moved here with his family from Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1981. He had been working in sales but always had a passion and talent for art since he was a young boy. He earned a bachelor’s degree in art education and design from North Carolina A&T State University.
Melvin visited a friend on the Outer Banks and fell in love with the island. He felt it was a welcoming, inspirational location for artists, and he was ready to make the move from his stressful sales job into the arts. Now he has made a successful career here for over 40 years. Some would call him a local celebrity.
A deeply faithful man, he feels that he was spiritually led to the Outer Banks. He believes that his life unfolded as intended, and that will happen for people if they follow their passion.
He said that was the case for him, when soon after he moved to the Outer Banks, he met author Suzanne Tate, and began illustrating their successful line of children’s books about marine life. She introduced him to various art shows that broadened his audience.
From there, Melvin’s career took off, and he now has a beautiful studio in Nags Head where he sells his paintings and portraits. He works with pastels, oils, acrylics and colored pencils to create a variety of coastal art scenes. The coronavirus has curtailed his regular gallery and art show appearances, where he usually sells much of his work, so he instead relies on appointments and displays at his private studio. Samples of his work are available on his website, melvinsstudio.com.
“I find life is interesting,” the 71-year-old Melvin said. “If you relax in life, it’ll just move for you in the direction it’s supposed to move. You don’t have the stress that people get. Just relax and trust in your maker because he has a plan for your life. That’s what I found out.”
Tomato Shack Produce Market
According to Carlton Winslow, owner of the Tomato Shack in Duck, produce is in his blood. His father, Howard Winslow, had a fresh produce delivery truck in the 1980s and ‘90s, and Carlton and his siblings grew up delivering fresh produce, door-to-door from Southern Shores all the way to Corolla. Now he is carrying on the tradition with his adorable bright turquoise-and-orange market stand that people stop in the street to take pictures of.
“It’s one of those things, I cannot mess up on it, because my dad taught me, only one way to do produce, is to do it right,” said Winslow.
When you talk to Winslow, you can hear the passion he has for providing fresh, local produce to the community. He, his wife, Jeannine, and three children — Tyler, Madison and Brianna — all help at the market. His produce is grown by friends and neighbors who live nearby him in Currituck. He and Jeannine make the jams, jellies and salsas.
But they don’t stop at produce. They also sell local sausage, local bacon, fresh eggs, cheese and milk, and have a fresh herb garden with mint, chives and basil cut fresh to order. But for Winslow, it all comes down to the tomato.
“With produce, if you don’t have a good tomato, or a good peach and corn, you have nothing but a grocery store,” he said. “You can get everything else at the grocery store, but everybody in the summer is looking for a good peach, tomato and corn.”