In James City County, there are a number of businesses owned by hard-working groups of people but for African Americans the experience can be different.
“I was determined to start my own company,” said Howard W. Smith, co-owner of Oleta Coach Lines. “It was a challenge, no doubt, but that’s what propelled me. A fire was ignited in me to do this.”
Smith started his company in James City County 1986 when he said there were very few other businesses owned by African Americans. But when he decided to branch off and start his own transportation business, he found he was a minority in other ways as well.
He said he found himself struggling during that time to compete with big transportation companies not only to find the money to start his business but the state certifications. But being black put a different perspective on his work.
“There’s an image that people have of African Americans in doing things, that they do things halfway,” he said. “But it’s about the quality of things…[people] aren’t accustomed to seeing minorities have things that are decent.”
Smith’s business has grown to become one of the major transportation companies on the East Coast. But he said it wasn’t without overcoming challenges every single day, not just because he’s black.
Smith added he believes his work ethic and mentality are what brought him his success.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re African American,” he said. “People try to play on the race card—but I conducted myself as a person, as a man [and] as a business person.”
From then to now
Times have changed in James City County since Smith started his business.
In 2019, Henry Ranger opened The Prescription Shoppe in Williamsburg as a mixed-race business owner.
“It’s not something that’s been talked about,” he said. “It’s not something we put at the forefront of the business but…we do embrace it.”
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Ranger is the son of a white mother and African American father and he said growing up biracial gave him the ability to relate to a range of individuals.
“I always had friends of all nationalities growing up,” he said. “I was able to fit in with both ends of the spectrum and I took advantage of that. It allowed me to interact and formulate relationships in a special way because I’ve seen both sides of things.”
Ranger said he was raised by his mother and that it allowed him to feel comfortable in groups of diverse individuals. He added that people tend to gravitate toward others that look like them because they feel more comfortable but he never had an issue with being able to fit in.
As a graduate of the pharmacy program at Hampton University, he said he noticed there aren’t a lot of African Americans in his field.
“A lot of times, they’re not exposed to it when they’re younger,” Ranger said. “But now you’re seeing a wider variety of people becoming interested.”
He said careers in not only pharmacy but science in general are starting to open to a more diverse pool of people because it seems as though there is more social awareness for getting others involved.
As a pharmacist in James City County, he said his race hasn’t really ever been an issue. However, he does notice people tend to be more comfortable interacting with others that look like them.
“Unfortunately, just because of the way the world is, some people will feel more comfortable with someone that looks like them,” he said. “It’s just being able to see someone that looks like you or can relate to certain situations they see growing up.”
But for Ranger, being a mixed-race business owner is something that hits home as he presents a role model for his two sons. He said it’s important for them to have someone to look up to as a leader and especially in a field that might not have a lot of minority professionals.
He said he wants them to look at themselves and see someone who can achieve their goals because others like them have done so.
“It’s everything [to have that model],” he said. “It allows them to be something they can imagine as they get older. If you see someone of a different color doing something, especially for a young kid, they’ll associate these roles with the people they’re seeing in them.”