| The Columbus Dispatch
Larry James has been a prominent lawyer in Columbus for decades, and is a former public safety director for the city of Columbus who once led the King Arts Complex board.
James knows the terrain, particularly that of the political and business worlds. For years in Columbus, that was a white establishment led by figures such as L Brands founder Les Wexner, the late Columbus Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe, developer Jack Kessler and Bank One founder John G. McCoy — people known as the Titans.
“Columbus is a small community. When you talk about major C suites at headquarters, it’s like a bottleneck to get to the top. There’s not a lot of great opportunities for anyone — fewer for Black folks,” James said.
“Diversity and inclusion, it’s hard to come by,” James said. “When people talk about ‘The Columbus Way’ what does that mean? It means we can work together.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Making changes for Black businesspeople in Columbus
“I see very good intentions over the years,” said lawyer Alex Shumate of the Columbus law firm Squire Patton Boggs. “We are still working on truly actualizing the kind of diversity, equity and inclusion everyone’s talking about.”
James and Shumate have long worked and been involved in the Columbus community, and have seen much over that time. The May 25 death of 46-year-old George Floyd, under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, resulted in protests across the country and here in Columbus beginning May 28, and forced public discussions of a racial reckoning in all walks of life.
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That includes business and the road to success in Columbus, which hasn’t always been easy for Black businesspeople.
James mentioned Steve Davis, who was CEO of Bob Evans Farms until he was removed in 2014 by the company’s board of directors after one of the company’s largest shareholders complained about its performance.
James said there haven’t been enough Black corporate leaders like Davis here in Columbus, people who have the ear of others, who can sway the discussion.
“One thing we always looked at here, if you’re not in the C-suite, you don’t control the purse and spending,” such as the resources to name a building at prominent local institutions such as Ohio State University or Nationwide Children’s Hospital, James said.
“We haven’t had that kind of presence or influence in any way, shape or form,” he said. And that also affects nonprofits such as the King Arts Complex and the Lincoln Theatre, he said.
Diversity has improved on staffs, in human resources departments and law firms, he said.
“We’ve made strides and improvements,” James said, but noted “that doesn’t give you the wealth to really influence a community.”
Company executives decide how much they should be involved in issues facing the community.
“You’re always torn between economic realities that people have to concentrate on their core business. It’s so competitive and the margins are so small. Do you have the luxury of turning to community affairs?” James said.
“It’s about the ability to do that, but it also has a risk factor to it. Are you willing to use your goodwill and brand to take a risk?” he said.
Relying on working class support, and not on the corporate community
James is general counsel to the National Fraternal Order of Police, and said he hasn’t relied on the corporate community for business.
“Working class Black folks, working class white folks have been the cornerstone,” he said. “Not the business class of Columbus.”
Shumate, now 70, has worked for his law firm for 32 years. He was hired there when it was Squire Sanders & Dempsey, after he served as a civil rights trial lawyer under Ohio Attorney General William J. Brown, who was elected in 1970 and served to January 1983.
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Shumate was managing partner at the law firm from 1991 through 2020.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a seat at the table, so to speak,” he said.
“The combination of being at Squire and being on the board of trustees at Ohio State presented me with opportunity,” Shumate said. “I met and worked with the so-called titans, chief among them, Les Wexner.”
Shumate called Wexner not only a mentor but a sponsor, recommending him for the Bank One advisory board.
“That’s really one of the keys in providing opportunity in order to fully participate,” he said. “It’s important to have those opportunities for full and complete participation in the leadership, and the economic leadership, of central Ohio.”
Shumate is now on the executive committee of the Columbus Partnership, a nonprofit organization of CEOs from Columbus’ leading businesses and institutions whose mission is to improve the economic prosperity and social well-being of people throughout the region. He said the partnership has established a diversity, inclusion and equity initiative, with the goal of having the central Ohio business community playing a leading role in inclusion.
Mentorship and opportunity for Black businesspeople in Columbus
Shumate and other Black business leaders interviewed by The Dispatch said that mentors are important. Shumate called the late Robert Duncan, the first Black person to be appointed a federal judge in Ohio, a mentor.
“Mentorship is key. Opportunity is key,” Shumate said, noting that it’s difficult to break into the circle without important mentors.
Curtis Jewell came to Columbus in 1972 after Robert Lazarus Jr. of the Columbus department store family and Jim Robinson, who is Black and was public affairs director for Lazarus, brought him here to become the first substance abuse director in the Uhuru nonprofit community drug program.
Jewell called both of them mentors, and said Lazarus and his wife, Mary, were like godparents to him.
Jewell, now 77, worked in Africa to recruit people to help build Nigeria’s infrastructure, then returned to Columbus and worked as a Nationwide Insurance agent before founding EXCEL Management Systems here in 1989. It grew to 110 to 120 full-time employees at its height, and 1,600 total, including independent contractors.
A mentor once told him that if he wanted to grow his business, he should do it outside of Columbus — as well as his banking, Jewell said. Otherwise, people here will know his business.
While much of his business has been elsewhere, Jewell said he has had contracts with the city of Columbus. “They weren’t chasing us seriously at the time,” he said of Columbus companies.
“Local businesses didn’t want to do business. It was too hard, the effort,” Jewell said.
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“It’s just frustrating trying to convince people that we were the best,” he said. “We hire the best. Don’t care what color they are.”
Jewell said his firm’s biggest contracts have been with the federal government, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and one at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. He has also partnered as a subcontractor with larger companies such as KPMG, the accounting, tax and financial services company.
Jewell has homes in Columbus’ Berwick neighborhood on the East Side, as well as Harlem in New York City and Palm Beach, Fla.
“Life’s good for me, man,” he said.
It’s been good for Kim Blackwell, too. She is the founder and CEO of the PMM Agency, a marketing and advertising company here. She has homes in Columbus and Atlanta.
Blackwell said she always had a good support system. She said James appointed her to the King Arts board. She is now on the board of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and has served on the YWCA board and was vice chair on the National Urban League.
Blackwell said she has looked to the Smoot family of Smoot Construction and the Moodys of the Moody-Nolan architecture firm as examples of strong Black business people in Columbus. And that’s important, she said.
While growing up in Cincinnati, Blackwell’s uncle was the first Black head of advertising at Procter & Gamble. She watched her parents and four other Black couples buy a Cincinnati radio station and later sell it to Radio One, a media conglomerate that owns urban radio stations.
“I always saw Black people by way of leadership positions and business,” Blackwell said. “So it became a matter of achievement, and attainable as a Black female.”
“I could see there is a way where African Americans could create wealth, do it in a way that was unapologetic, get respected by the other establishment. That became our model,” she said.
After she began her business here in 1999, Blackwell said she didn’t see that same collective Black power as she did in Cincinnati. However, she said Columbus has become a better place for Black-grown businesses.
“There’s a duty and responsibility that we as a Black community have to build for ourselves. I’ve had a whole bunch of people who do not look like me as strong advocates,” she said.
“It is not easy. Nothing we’re fighting for has been easy,” she said.
“Is Columbus changing? I’m hoping so,” she added. “There’s a lot more interest genuine interest by the larger business community, especially after last year.”
Dwight Smith, who founded Sophisticated Systems, an IT company based near John Glenn Columbus International Airport, said he thinks Columbus and central Ohio are, have been and will continue to be inclusive in nature.
“That does not mean we have achieved perfection because it’s always a journey,” Smith said. “I sense fairness. I sense hope. I sense commitment. I believe that the business community, black and white, are committed.”
The economy “runs better when it’s an economy of all people. That’s the journey we are on,” said Smith, who is chair of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
Smith said he has had several important mentors in business, including Lewis Smoot Sr., the founder of Smoot Construction, who is Black, and Tanny Crane of Crane Plastics and Bob Weiler of the Robert Weiler Co., who are both white.
“I’ve known them for a long time, and they’ve always given me great counsel and advice,” he said.
Smith wants to do the same. “I want to mentor young people, and I’m proud,” he said.
But his concerns go beyond business. Smith served on the governing committee of the Columbus Foundation for nine years.
Smith said the community needs to address the education gap for Black children.
“What keeps me awake at night is our future. I’m talking about our children — the best commitment we can make in our community and society,” Smith said.
“If you don’t get a high quality education, it limits your opportunity, you can’t deal with wealth gap and income issues.
Smith said words really do matter.
“Words can help us break down barriers. Words can also be used to construct barriers,” he said.
“If we change the words we use, we can change the conversations we have, change behaviors and change the world.”
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