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‘We stand with you’ - Black-owned businesses in Forsyth County feel support from community
Popbar owner Charel Palmer serves one of the shop's all-natural gelato and sorbetto pops during the debut of Halcyon on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. - photo by Brian Paglia

It was hot Wednesday, and summer had just unofficially begun, so it was the perfect time for Charel Palmer, the owner of Popbar, a gelato shop in Halcyon, to bring her popsicle cart into the Westbrook subdivision for a neighborhood event. 

Most residents ordered their popsicles and walked back along Westbrook’s streets, past elegant homes with finely-landscaped yards, shaded by willow oaks in precise rows. 

A few, though, lingered. They had something to say to Palmer.

“We stand with you and your family”

“We hope that you are well and safe.”

“It’s time for us to do something different and leverage our voice as white Americans.”

Palmer is black, and the past two weeks, as the country has been embroiled in unrest over the killings of black Americans by police, have been “heavy,” she said. The deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in coastal Georgia have reminded Palmer why she doesn’t allow her two sons to wear hoodies in public and instructs Jamal, her husband, to keep his hand on the steering wheel if pulled over by law enforcement.

But there have also been “rays of light,” Palmer said. 

Palmer and other black business owners in Forsyth County say they feel uplifted by countless gestures of support from the county’s largely white community and motivated to help diverse businesses succeed in a county often still associated with its racially-fraught past. 

She has seen them in text messages and phone calls and residents tagging Popbar on social media.

“It has been insane,” Palmer said.

A reason to smile

Marion Smyser’s friend did it first. 

She saw it on social media, a list her friend compiled of black-owned businesses for people to support in Smyser’s hometown of Nashville.

The act resonated with Smyser. She felt it aligned with her beliefs as a Christian. It was also familiar to her as a social worker trained in community mobilization.

“I thought this would be a really great way to mobilize the white community to support our black brothers and sisters during this extremely traumatic time,” Smyser said.

Smyser mobilized herself — she searched on the internet and social media for black-owned businesses in Forsyth County and started contacting them. 

First, she found Palmer and Popbar, and Geaux Bikes, the bike-share company owned by Kristle and DeMario Pressley. Smyser asked them if they knew of more, “but even they weren’t aware of many,” she said. 

Geaux Bikes 4 060219 WEB
Kristle Pressley, left, and husband DeMario, created Geaux Bikes, a new bike share program in 2019. Bikes can be rented for $5 an hour, and all arrangements can be made from a smartphone app. They are shown here on the Greenway with daughter Delainie. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

Smyser tried to post in a local Facebook group to ask for help in finding black-owned businesses, but her post was denied three times, she said. 

Finally, Smyser posted in a local moms Facebook group and found more: an event planner, a restaurant, a bakery, a fitness center, a travel agent, a translation service, a hair salon.

Smyser compiled them — 24 in all — and posted the list on Facebook.

The gesture stood out to Kristle Pressley. The past few weeks have been a “rollercoaster” for the Geaux Bikes owners, she said. Kristle and her husband have felt anger and sadness. It has brought up bad memories of “blatantly being called racial slurs” when they first moved to Forsyth County, she said. It has reminded Kristle of why she counsels DeMario “to be careful how you display that anger.”

“So then you have to internalize again,” Kristle said, “and so it’s just back and forth.”

Then Kristle received Smyser’s message on Instagram. Here was a young, white woman from Forsyth County calling on the community to support black businesses.

“I was like, ‘These are the types of reminders that the world needs right now,’” Pressley said, “that there are people who care, and there are people who genuinely want to move forward.”

‘Come on’

Notoya James appreciated the gesture, too. An event planner and owner of Gleam Events and Gleam Events Hall, she thought Smyser’s act was a “move in the right direction,” she said. 

But James also lamented that the list wasn’t longer.

“There really should be more,” James said.

James thinks black business owners assume a largely white county like Forsyth won’t support them. Some of her friends have talked about opening soul-food restaurants, but always in Atlanta, never in James’s home county.

“And I’m like, ‘Why don’t you open one where I am?’” she said. “We don’t have any soul-food restaurants. We like to eat, too.”

Notoya James has run her event-planning business, Gleaming Events and Gleaming Events Hall, in Forsyth County for nearly nine years. (Photo for the Forsyth County News)

Born in Jamaica and raised in Brooklyn, James moved to the Atlanta area 14 years ago. After four years in an Alpharetta apartment, James and her family went house-hunting and discovered Forsyth County. The county had great schools, a lower cost of living and was less developed.

“Easy decision,” James said.

Soon after, James left her corporate job and started her business. Four years ago, she found her own event facility in a shopping center off Peachtree Parkway. James estimates 85% of her clients are white, but she has never experienced any prejudice from customers.

“I have never felt any way or had anybody walk into my building and be like, ‘Oh my god, she’s black, I don’t want to do business (with her).’”

James hopes that Smyser’s list shows others in the black community that a county that once drove out all its black residents now has several minority-owned businesses and a community willing to support them. 

“It’s been done, and it’s been working,” James said, “so come on.”

What’s next

Charel Palmer says she has been grateful for the support that Popbar has received from the community, not just now, but also when the novel coronavirus pandemic forced them to temporarily close and then shift their operations.

“It has given us hope for what’s possible,” Palmer said.

The support from the community has motivated Palmer to take more actions to support foundations and organizations fighting for racial justice and find ways to ensure minority-owned businesses can succeed in Forsyth County.

To start, she plans for Popbar to have a day where a percentage of their profits are donated to the George Floyd Foundation and an organization in the metro Atlanta area.

In the near future, she would like to see a group created that brings together a diverse collection of business owners and community leaders “to figure out how we can continue to build on the momentum that we have,” Palmer said, “so that Forsyth County can really thrive and celebrate the differences that we all have.”

Notoya James attended a prayer vigil this week and shared her family story of an uncle gunned down by police.

“The message is that we need change with the system completely,” James said. “Yes, support my business, but also support those that are trying to work for justice and get changes, permanent changes.”

Kristle Pressley and Geaux Bikes decided to participate in local demonstrations against racial inequality this weekend. They hope to “keep things calm” so their message doesn’t get overshadowed.

Palmer wants to encourage Forsyth County’s white community to continue showing the same support for its black community that it has these past few weeks.

“Their voice matters,” Palmer said, “and it means much more than what they even know.”

Black-owned businesses in Forsyth County

Here's the full list of businesses that local community member Marion Smyser compiled:

Popbar Alpharetta -- Popsicle shop
Geaux Bikes Forsyth County -- Bike-share program 
Special Event Factory -- Florist
Gleaming Event Hall -- Event venue 
Lorio's Wings-N-Things -- Restaurant 
Akilah Clarke-delgadillo -- Realtor 
Hollywood Lash and Beauty Bar, LLC - Beauty
Morris Fitness Wrestling -- Fitness 
Power Performance and Fitness -- Fitness
My H.E.A.L.T.H. Kick -- Fitness 
Anytime Fitness N Cumming -- Fitness 
CafeNoms -- Bakery 
Kingdom Destinations-Nakia Cole -- Travel agency 
Kingdom Kuts -- Hair salon 
CF Professional Translations, LLC -- Translation service 
Canari Craft Corner -- Home-based gift customization
Auntie Kim’s Pound Cakes -- bakery 
Cornelius Fisher -- Insurance agent 
CrossFit Ecstatic -- Fitness 
Flow Inspirations -- Decor 
Princess Glam Shop of Paparazzi with Princess & Stan Carter -- Jewelry 
Bbqhaven Haven -- Restaurant 
MA Towing -- Two truck service 
The Vacuum Doctor -- Vacuum sales and service 
Paint Fancy -- Face and body painting 
North Atlanta Concierge Doula Services -- Birth doula -- Cleaning services

Three Little Teepees -- Teepee party service