📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
The scene is downtown Hendersonville, North Carolina on January 18, 2018 the week of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Javier Naranjo, a brewing assistant at Black Star Line Brewing Company, was in the basement when he heard someone entering the building. Assuming his coworkers had arrived for the day, Naranjo made his way upstairs. He was met by Black Star Line Brewing Company's landlord, Luther Smith, from the company Lupri, LLC, which owned the brewery's building. Smith informed Naranjo that Mountain BizWorks, the brewing company's lender, had instructed Smith to change the locks and post the following notice: "Black Star Line Brewing Company WILL NO LONGER BE IN OPERATION AT THIS LOCATION."
Without notice, Black Star Line Brewing Company, the first and only Black-owned, queer woman-owned brewing company in North Carolina, was evicted.
By the time L.A. McCrae, the founder of Black Star Line, arrived at the scene, staff from Mountain BizWorks were present. So were the police. Onlookers from neighboring businesses stood by recording videos, taking pictures, and watching as McCrae and staff loaded their personal belongings and as much equipment as they could into their cars. They were given 15 minutes to move out.
The closing of Black Star Line is not just a loss for a North Carolina community. It also provides a concrete example of white supremacy at work. It is easy to acknowledge the existence of white supremacy when it manifests as an act of violence, a physical threat to people of color. It is more challenging to recognize and interrupt the quotidian aspects of white supremacy: the unequal bureaucracy of lenders; the silence and passivity of white onlookers who witness and record, but never intervene; the omission of race in the telling of a story.
Black Star Line Brewing Company (BSLB) began as a dream in the mind of L.A. McCrae while they were a teenager growing up in Bel Air, Maryland. As an adult living first in Knoxville, Tennessee and then moving to Asheville, North Carolina, McCrae felt called to create space and community for those who have been historically pushed to the margins and disenfranchised. Over three years, BSLB went from a dream to a "baby brewery" in a friend's basement in Lake Lure, then finally made its full-fledged home at 131 3rd Avenue West in downtown Hendersonville, North Carolina, in October 2017. Operating for just three months at its Hendersonville location, Black Star Line specialized in sweeter, less hop forward beers than the usual craft brewery staples. The beerscarried names inspired by Black ancestors, like Stokely Stout and Baldwin's Brew, and thecompany culture and physical space centered a Black liberation perspective. In alignment with its social justice mission of intersectionality and collective healing, Black Star Line hosted events featuring Black, queer, and Latinx artists, a "Noche Latinequis" dance party, and queer-friendly gatherings, making it an important social hub for historically marginalized communities in a rural part of Western North Carolina.
McCrae describes Black Star Line Brewing Company as "a grassroots, family-centered brewery launching a social movement rooted in self-determination, social entrepreneurship, collective economics, and our collective healing, and liberation."The brewery adopted its name from Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line steamship corporation, which operated from 1919 through 1923. The original Black Star Line would ship goods across the African Diaspora and engender a global Black economy that was self-reliant and sustainable. Garvey saw the corporation as a concrete step toward Black self-determination and liberation from economic oppression, not just for Black Americans in the United States, but for Blacks globally. Similarly for McCrae, Black Star Line Brewing Company is meant to be not just a brewery, but a vessel for collective economic liberation.
Not long after Black Star Line opened, a patron posted this review on Google:
Aside from the beer itself the atmosphere made me slightly uncomfortable. I did not realize it at first but there was a lot of poking at calling white people racist. Not to say that there aren't still people that are like that but the advertising and merchandise singled them out to say they did not like people that look like me. I am sure it was not entirely intentional but it certainly did not make me feel welcome.
The individual who wrote this review was likely uncomfortable with the brewery's unapologetic celebration of Black culture and history, which is inseparable from the reality of white anti-Black racism, past and present. This discomfort with the presence of Blackness is not unique to Hendersonville, or to patrons of Black Star Line. It is a common reaction on the part of white people, especially those who would characterize themselves as liberal or progressive individuals who "don't see color."
I spent an afternoon in downtown Hendersonville with Alan Ramirez, a long time resident. Ramirez is a member of Black Star Line Brewing's Advisory Council, a committee of community members that McCrae assembled to guide the company in achieving its mission. Born in La Puente, California, Ramirez's family came to Hendersonville when he was three years old. Now, in his early twenties, he works with Southerners on New Ground and spends much of his time in Hendersonville, organizing with other members of the Latinx community around local law enforcement's partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Ramirez and I met up at Black Bear Coffee Co., where we grabbed a couple of iced coffees and set off on a walking tour of the area. Let me tell you something: Hendersonville is cute! The city center has a quaint small town vibe to it. Mom-and-pop stores, breweries, and coffee shops span several blocks. It is also very white.
We spent a little over an hour walking through downtown. Ramirez took me to Black Star Line Brewing Company's former location, which now stands empty. It's a small, unassuming space in a red brick building with a green awning. There is a framing and art gallery a couple of doors down, and another bar across the street. We continued further up the street to the local library, where we found a study room to talk about the brewery and its place in the local community.
"[Black Star Line] was very D.I.Y," Ramirez said, laughing a little. "There were lots of books in the space about Black history and abolishing systems of oppression." He added that "there was an altar, and pictures of L.A.'s family on the walls, and posters of Black activists. I would say that it was very much a Black space."
The posters included images of Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, and the James Baldwin documentary, "I Am Not Your Negro." "We got a lot of complaints about that one," said Ramirez.
What was it about the phrase "I Am Not Your Negro" that made some white people so uncomfortable? It seems that for some Black Star Line customers, the very use of the word "Negro" was offensive. Or, it gave rise to a sense of defensiveness that can only come from one who has not consciously confronted the myth of a post-racial United States.
That defensiveness showed up in the Google review above, written by the white patron who was unsure whether a Black-centric space was an attack on whiteness. But reading more of BSLB's online reviews, it becomes clear that for the most part, people enjoyed Black Star Line.Many of the brewery's patrons were white folks who were happy to see that a place like BSLB existed and were excited to support a Black business.
It is easy to acknowledge white supremacy when it manifests as an act of violence, a physical threat to people of color. It is more challenging to recognize and interrupt the quotidian aspects of white supremacy.
And there is deep meaning in white folks intentionally supporting a Black-owned business. McCrae, who responded to my questions via email, called it "grassroots reparations." "It's an invitation," McCrae writes, "for those who are descendants of slave masters, settlers, missionaries, pilgrims, and colonizers to engage authentically with people of color on this land."
BSLB was also a place for queer folks and undocumented young folks to gather and socialize without fear of harassment. The company's calendar was continuously packed with events like open mic nights, potlucks, and dance parties.
Once such event was "NocheLatinequis," which Ramirez helped organize. "It was the first one of what we hoped to be many," said Ramirez. "It was a way for people who were Latinx or who liked to dance to that kind of music to access it in Hendersonville because there's no other place to dance." Ramirez recalled dancing at BSLB until 2:30 in the morning, to music from an Asheville DJ who was undocumented.
Black Star Line, which currently operates without its own physical brewery headquarters, remains the first Black-owned, queer woman-owned craft brewing company in North Carolina. And its previous Hendersonville location was one of only a handful of Black-owned breweries in the country.
There are no official statistics regarding racial demographics within the craft brewing industry, but the lack of diversity is no secret. The Craft Brewers Association has recently elected a diversity ambassador, J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, who is tasked with helping association members do more than sell beer to "white dudes with beards."
To break into an industry dominated white, cisgender men, Black Star Line relied on wide support and its own fierce commitment to community and relationship building.According to McCrae, "When we set up operations in Hendersonville, we had the support of many local organizers and activists. Locals and community members came by and called our place 'home.' We approached building community one pint of beer at a time and were radically honest and transparent about who were are and being open and accepting of everyone."
McCrae also credits Joe Dinan and Lisa McDonald of Hendersonville's Sanctuary Brewing Co., who provided crucial support and mentoring, and who helped BSLB to perfect its brews. It was because of the strong connection with Sanctuary that BSLB attempted to make Hendersonville its home after searching all across the state.
"There have been so many people in the brewing industry who've lended a hand and really been with us every step of the way, like the Asheville Brewers' Alliance and the NC Brewers' Guild,"McCrae said.
Even with the support of the broader brewing community, there was still the issue of money. Operating a small business is a challenge for anyone, and being a minority business owner creates additional hurdles. Historically, minority entrepreneurs have much less access to capital than their white counterparts. To launch Black Star Line, McCrae invested about $20,000 of their personal capital into the brewery, and the BSLB team was able to raise a little under $3,000 via crowdfunding. The rest of the startup costs would have to be met by loans.
Minority-owned businesses are less likely to receive loans than white-owned businesses, and women are less likely than men to get loans approved. Generally, loans approved for women and minorities are of lesser value, and carry higher interest rates. A recent study released by Minority Business Development Agency (an office within the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) found that the average loan amount for minority-owned businesses is $149,000, while the average loan amount for non-minority business is $310,000 – more than double. That discrepancy exacerbates existing disparities in wealth and capital.
There are efforts to change these disparities in the world of small business loans. Enter Mountain Bizworks, a Western North Carolina-based Community Development Financial Institution that loaned Black Star Line the money to open its Hendersonville location. Mountain Bizworks provides small business loans, ranging from $1,000 to $250,000, to business owners from communities that traditionally have been unable to access funds from banks and other traditional lenders – mainly low-income, minority, women, and immigrant entrepreneurs.
Although Black Star Line Brewing applied for a loan of about $76,000 to meet startup costs, Mountain Bizworks approved a $50,000 SBA loan for the company. McCrae said that like a lot of Black-owned businesses, BSLB was underfunded from the very beginning. But with the loan signed, Black Star Line was able to get off the ground and open its doors.
Black Star Line Brewing Company opened the brewery in October 2017. For a brief time, it seemed like things were going fine. But shortly after opening, the brewery started receiving hate messages left as comments on the company's website and social media. Then the stream of messages escalated to a death threat. In mid-November, BSLB received the following email:
From: N_____ Killer
Message We are just getting started N_____. GAY QUEER N_____. Only good N_____ is a DEAD N_____. We hate N_____. Especially gay, men hating N_____. We still coming. Die N_____ die.
Two days later, the first break-in happened. The intruder(s) damaged or stole crucial components of Black Star Line's brewing equipment, effectively making the brewery inoperative for almost two weeks, and resulting in a significant loss of revenue.
Recalling the incident, McCrae wrote, "We were overwhelmed by the support, love, and affirmations from the community. However, officers from the local police department were less than supportive and alluded to us bringing this violence on ourselves and staging this as a publicity stunt. We were traumatized and numb." In response to the these events and other incidents, such as patrons walking out of the brewery without paying, McCrae worked out of the brewery's basement, avoiding the taproom. Discouraged to learn that some community members viewed the break-in as a potential publicity stunt, McCrae tried to stay out of the public eye while working.
Though production did come back online thanks to an outpouring of community support and equipment donations from other breweries, business apparently didn't bounce back fast enough. Black Star Line Brewery fell behind on its rent payments. "Without a doubt, we take responsibility for our actions and the ways in which our inexperience contributed to the situation," wrote McCrae.
This brings us back to January 18th, 2018, the week of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, when Black Star Line was evicted.
According to a legal complaint filed in mid-April by McCrae's lawyer, McCrae was in regular communication with the landlord, Lupri LLC, throughout December and early January regarding late rent payments. At no point in those communications did Lupri officially provide written notice that the tenant, McCrae, was in default under the lease. On January 8th, 2018, McCrae emailed the landlord asking to know if the business was in default. Lupri did not respond. On January 15th, McCrae's lender Mountain Bizworks offered to pay all rent that was past due, along with four months of extra rent. Lupri did not accept the offer. On January 16th, Lupri sent a letter stating that McCrae was in default and had until January 31st, 2018 to vacate the premises.
But on January 18th, just two days after the written notice of default was sent, representatives of Lupri LLC entered the building, changed the locks and security codes, and informed the police that McCrae was not allowed on premises. Mountain Bizworks staff were also present at the eviction. When I askedPatrick Fitzsimmons, Executive Director at Mountain Bizworks,if this was typical, he replied, "We showed up in this case because the business assets were collateral for the loan and landlord notified Mountain Bizworks that the tenant was being evicted." Representatives of Lupri LLC refused to comment or clarify whose decision it was to evict Black Star Line, or why the eviction happened prior to the deadline McCrae was given.
McCrae said they didn't even know what was happening until the call came from Javier during the eviction. BSLB staff managed to retrieve some of the beer they had already kegged, and Sanctuary Brewing let them store it in coolers at their brewery. Then the Black Star Line brewery doors were locked for good, with equipment, books, art, and other personal belongings left behind. Among the lost property were irreplaceable heirlooms from McCrae's family, spiritual items, and gifts from the community.
As if to add insult to injury, the brewery was broken into a second time, on January 19th, the night after the eviction. A local newspaper, the Hendersonville Lightning, reported that the brewery was vandalized by intruders who "wrote racial slurs on the tap room walls."
What makes white supremacy so insidious is that it is so quotidian in nature, it recruits even ostensibly anti-racist individuals in its work, by encouraging them to un-see harm to people of color as simply 'the way it goes'.
A couple of doors down from the now vacant Black Star Line Brewing Company sits a small gallery and framing shop called Framing Arts Gallery. While I was visiting Hendersonville, I stepped in for a moment and briefly spoke with the owner, Heather Barker. "Do you know anything about that brewery a couple of doors down? I heard that it's presence here was pretty controversial."
"I never had any controversy with them," replied Barker.
"I see," I said. "I never got a chance to check it out. Did you ever hang out there?"
"Yeah, I had a beer there once."
"What was it like?" I asked.
Barker shrugged, "It was a bar like any other."
I asked Mark Lowe, the owner of Brooks Tavern, which sits directly across the street from the Black Star Line site, the same question.
"It was pretty laid back… relaxed."
When I asked if he knew what happened with BSLB, Lowe just shrugged and snapped his fingers, "It was there one day, gone the next."
"Well, it sounds like folks had some pretty mixed feelings about the place," I prodded.
"I don't know the truth so I'm not going to speculate. I've heard so many rumors."
"Did you hear about the break-ins?"
"I've heard so many rumors so I'm not really gonna comment on that."
I also spoke briefly with Fitzsimmons at Mountain Bizworks. His tone on the phone was formal and polite, though sometimes irritated. "We were pleased to help out a female-owned, Black-owned brewery that no one else was supporting," he said. "We put a lot of energy into them being successful."
I asked Fitzsimmons if racism had any impact on the failure of the brewery in that location. "I don't know," he responded. "I certainly would not be surprised if it did."
I also asked Fitzsimmons if he thought there was anything the lender could have done differently to help Black Star Line stay open. "Mountain Bizworks was fully invested in Black Star's success," he said. "Their business failing is counter-productive to our interests as well as theirs."
What struck me most about these conversations was the complete absence of emotion about the eviction. These white folks stood on the sidelines and didn't communicate righteousness or pleasure about the closure of BSLB, but neither did they communicate anger, disappointment, or even curiosity. Instead, they positioned themselves as passive and unknowing. Even when I mentioned the break-ins, they remained impassive in their responses. They knew nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing, and felt nothing.
Of everyone I spoke to, Barker was the most forthcoming with knowledge about the break-ins, treating them as real occurrences rather than rumor. She knew that there had been two, and she knew when they took place.
When I asked if break-ins were a typical occurrence in that area of Hendersonville, Barker replied, "No, not typical at all. It was very disconcerting." She said that they at the framing shop had taken steps to ensure their own business was secure. Though it was clear that the incidents that took place at Black Star Line were racially motivated, Barker seemed to act as if race wasn't a part of the story. In fact, the only time that race even came up in these conversations was while I was talking with Fitzsimmons, when I brought it up myself.
It is possible that as small business owners, Barker and Lowe figured that BSLB just couldn't make it work. And perhaps others felt similarly, chalking it all up to the company's inability to pay the rent. Perhaps, for many observers, race didn't factor into the story at all.
But there is something disconcerting about the way white folks consistently ignored the ways that race and racismdid play a role in this story. And therein lies the key to white supremacy's effectiveness. What makes white supremacy so insidious is that it is so quotidian in nature, it recruits even ostensibly anti-racist individuals in its work, by encouraging them to un-see harm to people of color as simply 'the way it goes'. When white people ignore race in the telling or understanding of stories like this one, it allows white supremacy to work in exactly the way it was meant to – by normalizing the experiences of white people, and presenting others' experiences as anomalies. The ability to erase race from the story is a privilege afforded to those for whom the system works.
As a Black and trans person going to Hendersonville to interview people, I cannot take race out of this narrative. To acknowledge that racism played a role in Black Star Line Brewing's story, from founding to closure, is to recognize that racism is not an anomaly in our daily lives. Racism is absolutely a part of this story, from the underfunding, to the discomfort of white patrons, to the racist and homophobic death threats, to the forced eviction and distancing by white allies.
For McCrae and Ramirez both, the emotional losses far outweighed the loss of the physical space, inventory, and even personal items. "The most devastating loss," said McCrae, "is the loss of our community, our friends, and people we considered family. It was the silence and ostracization that made us realize the truth in the words of spoken five decades ago by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: 'In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.'"
In a recent communication, McCrae noted that BSLB has lost touch with the team at Sanctuary Brewing, which had previously been so supportive of the project. To the founder of BSLB, it feels like Hendersonville "discarded" the brewery too easily.
But for all that Black Star Line experienced during their time in Hendersonville, it is only one chapter in the company's story. The closure of the brewery is not the end of the business.
While McCrae has returned to their home state of Maryland, Black Star Line continues to push forward their mission through community-building and collaboration. They are planning to open a flagship location in the D.C. area. This spring and summer, Black Star Line released two beers, Vegan Chocolate Dreamsicle Milkshake IPA and Amber's Ale, in collaboration with Preyer Brewing and Ponysaurus Brewing, both based in North Carolina.
"We're not just a brewery," McCrae said. "We are a reflection of all of those before us who never gave up on their dreams."