Houston White talks to guests at a pop up event at Martin Patrick 3 for White’s high-end Viictory sportswear collection in June in Minneapolis. Credit: Renée Jones Schneider | Star Tribune

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Houston White is cultivating Minneapolis’ Black middle class. But first he has to move a freezer.

On a recent hot afternoon, the multifaceted entrepreneur—hairstylist/coffee purveyor/fashion designer/real estate developer—was behind his barbershop/coffeeshop in the North Side’s Webber-Camden neighborhood.

White was overdressed for the task, in slim-fitting pants and a polo shirt from his sportswear line. But Dan Anderson, the owner of Dogwood Coffee Co. and White’s partner in their beverage business, the Get Down Coffee, had arrived with a commercial freezer and his teenage son. The idea was to heft the appliance from Anderson’s truck into White’s garage.

White’s businesses have been on a tear—Target sells his coffee and has carried his clothing, which is available at Martin Patrick 3. And his operations are growing. He’s about to replace the garage with an apartment building.

But he still hews to the entrepreneur’s playbook: A guy might golf with the governor, but he moves his own freezers.

Even an especially large one, which tilted precariously toward White as the trio inched it under the door.

“You got it, Houston?” Anderson asked.

“For now,” White responded.

White shoulders a heavy load as a Black entrepreneur in a state where people of color make up roughly 20% of the working-age population, but only 10% of business owners.

That statistic is one among many that reflect Minnesota’s gaping racial inequities in education, employment and income—which have gained national attention for being among the country’s worst. After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Minneapolis’ mayor convened a working group to propose solutions. Their suggestion: Cultivate a Black middle-class in a metro area where the median Black family’s annual income is less than half that of the median white family’s and that struggles to retain professionals of color.

For several years, White, 43, has been doing just that.

In 2015, he proposed rebranding Webber-Camden as Camdentown, the Mini-apple’s answer to Harlem: a Black-led, multicultural community for Black professionals to put down roots. “It’s tackling racial equity by building paths to generational wealth for Black people,” White explained.

Camdentown is about more than placemaking, he said. It’s about changing racial perceptions. It’s about getting white Minnesotans to do more than donate their way out of guilt, but invest in relationships and economic development with Black Minnesotans. It’s about shifting the white/Black dynamic from sponsorship to partnership. “My approach is market-driven community development,” White said. “So we’re not dependent on saviorism.”

Houston White had a meeting in his future barbershop in north Minneapolis. Credit: Renée Jones Schneider | Star Tribune

From barbering to building

At 7 a.m., White had begun his day as he often does, at the Columbia Golf Club, near his shop. He took up the sport as a teenager, around when he was named Best Dressed at Minneapolis’ North High School, and chafed at its bourgeois attire.

White sees his golfwear designs—sleek and sweat-wicking, with preppy flourishes—as a way to help diversify a sport associated with economic power. (A mere 3 percent of golfers are Black.)

“I’m here playing golf because I like the game, not because I got lucky as a Black man to work close to white folks, or play sports,” White said. “That’s always the mentality: ‘Oh, here’s the exceptional Black man.'”

On the gently sloped putting green, White tapped balls into holes as a way of centering himself. And as a reminder that the path to success is rarely a straight line. You have to read the contours.

White spent his early years in Mississippi, surrounded by relatives, including a grandmother who made his clothes. After White’s parents split up, his mom told him they were going on vacation to see her sister in Minnesota; instead, they relocated to north Minneapolis. From then on, White spent summers in Mississippi, working at his family’s drywall business. Being raised in both the North and the South, White says, helped him appreciate different cultures.

By 16, White had steady income from cutting kids’ hair in his basement and selling his airbrushed T-shirts. He understood that looking good was its own currency.

“In Black urban America, a haircut and clothing are the simplest, easiest ways to change your entire social status,” White explained. “I was naturally a hustler. I knew how to make money. I knew how to enterprise, and I was willing to work.”

Family and friends urged White to go to college, which they viewed as a safe path to success (the billion-dollar tech company emerging from a garage wasn’t yet an American icon). Instead, he went to barber school and became a partner in his brother-in-law’s expanding Plymouth Avenue shop.

“Back when I decided to be an entrepreneur, it was definitely not popular,” White recalled. “It was like, ‘You are going to ruin your life! What are you doing?'”

But the shop thrived. Vikings and Timberwolves players got their hair cut there. So did Keith Ellison. White took the pulse of his customer’s minds, whether they arrived via Bentley or bicycle. To him, the barbershop was the most diverse of socioeconomic collisions, the unifier of Black life, the Black man’s country club.

“Whether you’re Michael Jordan, Barack Obama or the kid struggling in school, you all have to come through that same portal,” he said.

Barbering led White to his next venture, after a client in the mortgage business encouraged him to buy a house. He renovated a North Side fixer-upper himself and started flipping and building homes.

But a few years in, the mortgage crisis of 2008 sent White into bankruptcy. He and his wife moved from a large suburban home to an apartment above a little brick building he’d recently bought, on 44th Street in Webber-Camden. The copper-stripped structure didn’t look like much, but it soon became White’s next business hub.

People lined up in the rain for burritos from Quince outside Houston White’s building. Credit: Renée Jones Schneider | Star Tribune

White’s building is one of the few commercial nodes in the relatively sleepy residential area north of Dowling Avenue. But in recent years, two major projects just blocks from White’s building—the North Market grocery store and new public library building—have increased foot traffic.

White never intended to run a coffeeshop—he didn’t even drink coffee until he was in his 30s—and initially asked Anderson to open a Dogwood location in his building. Instead, Anderson suggested launching a coffee business together, focused on wholesale roasting, which offers the greatest financial opportunity.

In the coming months, White plans to expand his corner to include a roastery overseen by CJ Porter Born, perhaps the only local coffee director who is Black. Before joining the Get Down, Porter Born rarely found racial diversity in specialty coffee’s retail side. “It’s a very white industry,” he said. “But every single coffee farmer is in a country that is not white.”

Shifting perceptions

On this day, White conducted his meetings from the barbershop’s swivel chairs. First, with two volunteers helping him launch the Camdentown Tennis Club. Next, with the Get Down staff, to sample cold-brew mocktails for an event (White approves: “The bitters is fly—we’re Gucci”). Then one call with Target and another with the architect and builder of his new apartments. Bringing people to the neighborhood is always on White’s agenda.

While all of his enterprises might seem very different, they complement one another by making people feel comfortable with themselves through their self-presentation, and helping them connect with others by creating vibrant places to congregate.

These things are especially important for upwardly mobile Black people in Minnesota, White explained, who face pressure to assimilate to the culture of the white folks who surround them.

“That damages your very being,” he said, describing the feeling of putting on a costume and acting a part. “It’s too much work just to live as a person.”

The issue is exacerbated by white Minnesotans’ tendency to frame Blackness in terms of lacking or brokenness, instead of abundance—something that extends beyond financial means.

“Guess what? I’m Black and I grew up as affluent,” White said. “Affluent in that my tribe took care of me. I never went without. I always had love. I always got hugs. I always was told I was smart.”

Hayley Matthews-Jones, the Get Down’s chief operating officer, has noticed this bias in expectations that the company has a charity component because it’s a Black-owned business.

“There’s always an assumption of the lens of a problem to be solved,” she said. “And it’s like: What if there is no problem? What if we build the dopest shit and everyone is just like, ‘I want to go there, I want to feel that?'”

Minnesota’s Nordic-adjacent “North” identity (“a slightly cooler version of the white Minnesota mythology that died long before Garrison Keillor’s career,” as one opinion writer put it) will likely be less relevant in a more multicultural future. To evolve, White suggests representing Minnesota with its diverse communities, such as north Minneapolis.

But that shift requires more of white people than posting a black square on Instagram or patronizing a Black-owned shop. For some, it means ceding control.

“I think white men are the biggest struggle,” White said. “They can’t share, can’t say, ‘I’ll step aside and assist.’ “

And yet White is close to some very powerful white men—Minneapolis’ mayor and the CEO of Target among them. These relationships are possible, White says, because he is not seeking their endorsement.

“Honestly, it’s why I’m friends with them, because I’m probably one of the most liberated Black men they’ve ever been around in the sense that I don’t need them,” he said. “We’re peers. So I can speak freely, and I think for a lot of them it’s refreshing.”

White has been flattening hierarchies for decades. When he was a preteen, the Big Brothers Big Sisters program paired him with Dan Connolly, a white 20-something just out of law school. Back then, Connolly was a mentor who matched White’s savings to help him buy his first pair of clippers. Their relationship evolved into a lifelong friendship: Connolly joined White’s family reunions, was the best man at White’s wedding, and comforted White when his wife died of cancer in 2018.

“Houston has always been willing to engage with people where they’re at, and he’s also somebody who takes down boundaries,” Connolly said.

White’s enthusiasm and interpersonal skills have drawn others into his vision, including Jared Florell, a recent college grad with a job at Target headquarters who sought out White to get involved in community organizing. White, who calls Florell the “embodiment” of the demographic he’d like to draw to Camdentown, tapped him to help launch the tennis club.

Florell described the neighborhood as “an incubator for culture and connectivity” and said Camdentown events offer an especially welcoming vibe in a state whose residents are known for their reserve.

White aims to bring $50 million worth of investment to create a commercial corridor and new housing. But already, Camdentown serves as a feasibility study for grass-roots revitalization.

On this day, like most, people of different ages, races and physical abilities gathered at the coffeeshop’s sidewalk seats. A pack of schoolkids tumbled past. White noticed one boy wearing a T-shirt he had designed. “Be the Change,” it read.

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Rachel Hutton is a general assignment reporter in features for the Star Tribune.