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Black-owned coffee shop fights gentrification and aims to reclaim coffee's African roots

Posted at 9:53 AM, Mar 24, 2022

MEMPHIS — Maurice Henderson II and Renata Henderson own a coffee shop in North Memphis. They say they’re trying to reclaim Black coffee - hence the name of their brand 'cxffeeblack'.

“The ‘x’ represents like both the nerdiness of always changing the temperature and going on size or whatever with coffee and then also the search to find like the heritage and the blackness and coffee as missing and like the joy of discovering that.

They say Black people today are often underrepresented in the culture surrounding coffee.

“Most of the places I was consuming coffee were like very Eurocentric, you know, Italian name drinks, cappuccino, latte, macchiato, espresso - a very white experience and so I was like ‘eh, it’s cool, but maybe it's not something that, like, I can bring my friends to because they probably think it was weird,” Henderson II said.

They find that odd considering coffee originated from Africa. Horticulturalist Sarada Krishnan is a coffee genetics expert and the executive director of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance. She currently works at Denver Botanic Gardens.

“As a plant, the plant originated in Ethiopia and South Sudan,” Krishnan said.

In Ethiopia, the birthplace of the plant coffee arabica, she says coffee has taken on a critical role in their culture. The Hendersons were able to experience it when they traveled there.

“They have a whole cultural ceremony surrounding the coffee," Krishnan said. "And it is a very profound thing. If you are experiencing it, you sit down and then roast the coffee, and it's a very communal event.”

That community element is what the Hendersons really admire. It’s now a big part of their shop called the Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club.

American University professor Derek Hyra researches the dynamics of neighborhood change and the displacement that often occurs when people of higher-income move into a historically underserved area.

“We have such huge racial inequality along income lines and wealth lines," Hyra said. "When we talk about gentrification and the movement of upper-income people to a low-income space, often that means racial transition.”

Hyra says places that never thought they'd see gentrification, like Harlem, are experiencing gentrification, and it's spreading across the country.

“What we've seen is there's been a real movement in the last ten years of gentrification coming to southern cities," Hyra said. "So it went from D.C. to Durham to Atlanta. We see Nashville has had a huge wave of gentrification, and we see that it's moving further south. So a place like Memphis is likely going to be a place where gentrification occurs.”

He says coffee shops aren’t to blame for causing gentrification. Gentrification has been happening because of the pandemic, the broader economy, and real estate investment trusts are buying up inexpensive single-family homes. However, he says coffee shops often signal that upper-income people are moving there.

“So it's the coffee shop and then the wine bar and then the beer garden, and then the bike lanes come in,” Hyra said.

However, he says coffee shops can become a space to prevent displacement.

“We want this place to be an environment that brings people together across differences so that we can work to build a political movement that may try to get more affordable housing or to get subsidies for small mom and pop businesses,” Hyra said.

That’s what the Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club is aiming for – a community organizing space that offers a free coffee program and jobs for underprivileged youth.

“Coffee is a $200 billion industry built on the labor of Black and Brown people," Henderson II said. "And so if we were to reclaim a space in that $200 billion, it could almost be like self-imposed reparations."