A Look at a Multigenerational, Black-Owned Business in D.C.
By Elaine Elrod
This is Part Two of a series of blog posts that show how the Greater U Street Historic District in northwest Washington, D.C. is a model for healthy black communities. In this second post, we are looking at one of the black-owned businesses on U Street that is still around today, Lee's Flower and Card Shop Inc.
You can read Part One to find out more about the history of the U Street neighborhood and the black community.
To find out about how the store has been a prominent part of the U Street community through three generations of owners, I spoke to Stacie Lee Banks, who is President of the business. She is also co-owner of the store, with her sister, Kristie Lee Jones.
Stacie and Kristie are the granddaughters of William and Winnifred Adele Lee, who founded the store in 1945.
Stacie Lee Banks has the perfect strengths and qualities for a business leadership role that requires dedication to and honoring of a legacy. As she explained to me during our half hour interview over Zoom, she had many meetings scheduled for that mid-January day and was already immersed in preparations for Valentine's Day. But even with her drive, efficiency, and focus; it is apparent that she is a friendly, welcoming presence in the store. She has a warm laugh. And I imagine that her wistful, sometimes ironic sense of humor would help make the day-to-day running of the shop a little bit lighter for everyone involved.
Stacie has worked at the store for over 40 years and studied Business Management at Howard University. Kristie grew up working in the shop but then worked as a manager at Verizon for a decade before returning to the store.
Stacie and Kristie's father, Richard (Rick) Lee, took over the shop from his parents and also inherited ownership of the building. In 2012, When Rick Lee was ready to retire, his daughters began making monthly payments to purchase the business from him. The fact that their father owns the building has made it easier for the business to survive in this gentrified neighborhood, where property values are so high. Stacie and Kristie are able to pay their father rent at below the market rate. And the payments they make for the business plus the rent have helped finance Rick Lee's retirement.
What does it mean to you to be running a business that your grandparents, William and Winnifred Lee, founded in 1945?
"To me, it gives us something to live up to. To make them proud. To carry on their legacy . . . . And you don't see that longevity as much, and especially in the African American community where folks will start a business but then the kids will become doctors or lawyers . . . . So we feel proud that we're carrying on the business.
Laughing wistfully, she adds "We hope that our kids will do the same."
Stacie's daughter Samarah and Kristie's daughter Joi have both worked in the store. They are now exploring other pursuits. However, both plan to return in the future. So that means potentially there will have been four generations of the Lee family running the business.
Why is it important in the African American community for the legacy to be carried on, in terms of those businesses?
"I think it gives our community something to be proud of because I hear it all the time . . . ‘I'm so proud of you, for, you know, sticking to it and carrying the business on.' We want to have businesses that we can support because . . . you don't see that many. And it's important, just as it is important in the whole community . . . family businesses and family legacies like this."
Could you tell me, is there a story that sticks out for you that your grandparents told you about the sense of community back in their day?
"My father always talks about the sense of community that he felt back in the day. One story that he always tells is that when he was a little boy, they used to get him to make deposits at the bank, which is right across the street. That's Industrial Bank, and that's an almost 90 year old business. They were started in 1934.
"So he used to make deposits at the bank, and his favorite teller was this beautiful lady, who was Virginia Ali, who is the owner of Ben's Chili Bowl. And he had a crush on her and would always go to her teller line.
"[W]e all kind of grew up together. Doyle Mitchell, [Jr.] who's the President now [of Industrial Bank] and Kamal and Nizam and Sage [at Ben's Chili Bowl]. We all kind of grew up in our [parent's] businesses, and now we're all carrying on the legacies of our businesses . . . . And whenever we need anything, we always call each other . . . .
"And my husband works at another bank. But I met him at Industrial Bank. He was working there when I met him . . . .
"There's just a big sense of community here with the three businesses that have been here a long time."
And were you all actually living close to each other? Or was it just the [U Street] neighborhood that kind of . . . .
"It's the neighborhood that we all came to during the day, during our working hours. I think we all live in D.C. Yeah. We all live in D.C. proper."
So I saw on Instagram and also there was a WHUR video from your Grand Reopening and just various other sources - all these stories of community. I have a whole list of them, including the re-opening and the flower wreath on the fence between Lafayette [Square] and Black Lives Matter Plaza. And there was a singer in front of your store . . . .
"We used to have the Flower Power Happy Hour on Friday afternoons. We just called it"happy hour" because the flowers were half price. And so we would pay local artists . . . and just, you know, give them exposure and also draw people into the shop. And that was before the pandemic, of course.
"And we also had local artisans come in and sell their wares. For free, we would let them come and do pop-ups here or trunk shows."
How did the pop-ups work?
"Well my sister Kristie curated those, where she would [find] local candle makers, jewelry makers, any kind of locally made things . . . . They could put it out on Instagram that they would be there . . . . And so they got exposure to our customers. And we got exposure to theirs. So it was a win-win kind of situation. That created a lot of community when we had those."
In what way did it create community?
"Well, people would come in. . . . it just felt like community. We had regulars that came in. So it felt almost like a real happy hour.
"It originally started out as getting rid of older flowers, but we would have to buy flowers just to sell at our party. So it ended up being . . . not a loss leader, but we probably didn't make more money because the flowers were half price . . . . It brought a lot of people in the store."
And how long did you do that?
"We did it for about five years before COVID."
I've been reading all about your shop and about your history . . . and I just find it really heartening that even after gentrification, it seems like there's really a sense of solidarity and community in the [U Street] black community.
Could you just give me your thoughts on that?
"Well, I guess you're thinking about the social justice movement of 2020 and then with COVID . . . . That was really a tremendous time for us. We did get to see how the community still rallied around us. And not just the African-American community or black community but the whole community of D.C. and all over. People have really supported our business during that time and sent money to us and ordered flowers, just because they wanted to support a black-owned business. So that was really, how you say, heartening. That was really tremendous and made us really feel valued to the community . . . . It gave us the push to keep on going."
Stacie and Kristie are two sisters who have chosen to spend their careers building on the legacy of their family business. It's not just about a store but about carrying on a tradition and sustaining an institution that is central to the people who have ties to this historic black neighborhood. Both their father and the customers tell the sisters how proud they are. Lee's Flower and Card Shop Inc., Ben's Chili Bowl, Industrial Bank, and many other places and sites in the neighborhood are what still make the Greater U Street Historic District a living model for healthy black communities to this day.