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Krystle Robinson-Hershey

CEO of Sage & Elm Apothecary

Highlights: During our conversation over the phone, we discuss the culture of the Oklahoma City Black business community, cultural erasure and historical preservation in Deep Deuce and Oklahoma City, the problematic structures of the local education system, and how the OKC Black community continues to persevere despite failed leadership and support.

jUNE 28, 2020

Anna: Can you tell me about your business?


Krystle: Sage Apothecary is almost 2 years old. I’ve been making products for 7 years. I developed Sage Apothecary as a tool for a lot of people to introduce self-care to themselves and for others. It gives people time for themselves. It’s necessary to their mental health journey.


It’s important to me that all of the herbs I use, that they all have different cultural meanings, history, and ability. I use those to connect to others, to help them on their own journey of self-care and relaxation. And, also, for their spirituality, who they are, and who they are destined to be. Those things are very near and dear to my heart; it’s been really successful for others who have worked with me. I spend a lot of time with them, one-on-one, and really discuss who they want to be because it’s really important to me that the individuals lead their own journey. The journey is designed to be theirs, and I’m just here to help them along the way. Whether that’s people are really stressed and having a hard time or whether it’s helping someone have a healthier lifestyle, it’s just a part of the journey.


Anna: What, to you, is unique about Oklahoma City?


Krystle: I think what’s unique about Oklahoma City is the fact that people here are very invested in the success of others and they want others to be successful. Also, very family-oriented. It’s a great place to learn and grow as a child and as an adult.


Anna: Would you say there’s two sides to this idea of investing in others in Oklahoma City? The last time we spoke, we talked about Deep Deuce a bit, and how you felt like Black businesses weren’t welcome there. Can you tell me more about what you’ve seen?


Krystle: I noticed that a lot of businesses that were either in Bricktown or Deep Deuce were pushed out. Whether that was through rent increases, just modifying the area—they weren’t allowed to stay. Prices weren’t affordable or there were complaints on things like, a noise complaint, for example. But if you have bands playing at a facility, then it’s not going to be like a little quiet place. And I think that removing the culture from Deep Deuce was important. And that meant making it look more suburban, including the noise level, and the type of people they decided they wanted to be a part of Deep Deuce. And I think that’s unfortunate because it takes away from the culture. Kinda like going to New Orleans and just seeing pictures of jazz musicians and not hearing jazz music in the streets.


Anna: What does it mean to you for a space to be whitewashed or white-centered? What differences can be seen between a whitewashed space and a space that isn’t whitewashed?


Krystle: I think the difference is, when a business is whitewashed or white-centered, you know, the pictures on the wall, they’re not of people of color, or the pictures on the wall are of people of color, but people of color don’t work there. They don’t live there or conduct business there. You give the illusion of being inclusive without the tangible effects of inclusiveness. It’s like loving Black culture but not Black people.


Anna: Do you think whitewashing is a problem in OKC? What are the unique ways it’s happening here?


Krystle: Oh yah, absolutely. Deep Deuce is a great example, so is Bricktown. There were a few businesses that have opened in Bricktown. Over time, they were all forced to close because they either were told that, you know, they weren’t allowed to be there because of the patrons they had coming into their business or things like that. So, over time, there would be these laws or rules created, these unspoken truths created, in areas that push citizens of color out.


Anna: How can historical preservation of an African American neighborhood be done better and more authentically in your opinion?


Krystle: It should, and have to, include businesses of color…It’s like taking Greenwood in Tulsa and turning it into an all-white neighborhood and area, when historically that’s not what Greenwood was. Same thing with Deep Deuce is what’s happened. I think that businesses of color should be allowed to be there. I think as far as that plan, there should be rent on loan purchase agreements that are much more flexible and affordable in the purchasing of those options for those tenants. Because if you raise the rent an exuberant amount, for example, $5000 a month, but you have forced them to take their business elsewhere where they can’t generate that kind of revenue fast enough to meet the rent, then how can they survive? And [survive] well? I think there should be a financial break there and give them a chance to grow in order to be successful.


Anna: Can you talk a little more about the ways you feel like the city or the state has created barriers that have set up failure for businesses of people of color? 


Krystle: For example, on 23rd [street], you are no longer allowed to sell things on the side of the road, whether it be potatoes, you know, it’s on 23rd. I believe it’s from Broadway all the way to almost, or past, Grand. With that being said, if those types of rules are put in place that people of color, in areas where they've always sold things openly to one another, whether it's cabbage or spinach or potatoes, or anything, and they've always done that, and there's rules put in place to quote-on-quote "cleanse the area" to make it more palatable for others who want to come in and purchase. I think those things are disheartening because there's people in the community trying to make a living. Closing things like grocery stores; it makes it difficult for other grocery stores to come in when you allow an abundance of dollar stores to come in. Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General. The problem with that is once those dollar stores come in, it dismisses or deters grocery stores from wanting to come into our neighborhood because people often times will go and shop in those dollar stores for their immediate needs, which impacts the grocery store. The real question is why are so many of those type of stores being allowed in Black areas? 


Anna: Oklahoma City has a long rigid history of creating very clear segregation lines, and I think a lot of people don't realize that Oklahoma City is still extremely segregated in a lot of different areas. Especially when we look at education and the different kind of communities and neighborhoods—segregation is still happening a lot. Can you share some experiences that you have witnessed in the city where you feel like segregation has been upheld around you?


Krystle: I think you see quite a bit in the school districts. For example, when you have a better school district on one side of town than the other, people, no matter what their ethnic background, will drive to those places in order to give their children the best education possible. In Oklahoma City, finding a school district that has great values and, you know, diversity among educators, can be very difficult. So, parents went to other districts to get their children in better schools and the treatment from those schools has been very very stressful. It's been very very disrespectful, culturally insensitive. It's sad because they were driven out of their neighborhoods where different things were not enforced—the safety of the police coming into a classroom if needed and not harming people further in the situation. The schools are being so poorly financed and don't have textbooks. There are a lot of holes in the system. And so, that all by itself is how you suffocate a community. And once you suffocate a community, and you make it where they can't breathe, they can't live well, there's no grocery store—then nobody lives there, and it makes an open market for investors. Which is just unfortunate. If people were just given more opportunity to shop, buy, and build their neighborhoods, they would. But you can't strip all the resources from an area. 


Anna: I think we're seeing that with the recent protests stemming from George Floyd's death. They are bringing up all of these other problems occurring in Oklahoma City. For a lot of people, it feels like the area is improving and progressing. We see the use of the words like "revitalization" a lot, but on the other side of it, there's these communities that don't have as much of a mainstream platform to talk about what’s going on in their communities. Do you feel like that speaks to the cultural erasure that's going on in the city as gentrification progresses?


Krystle: Oh yah. Gentrification really feels like it was designed to bring a certain level of individuals into the fold of the community and leave others out. When you look at the places downtown, how often do you find that people of color are able to afford those places to live? So, often times, depending upon their social and economic level of development, they can't. It's interesting because if you dig a little deeper, their grandma and their great grandmother lived in those areas. Or their property is taken over by eminent domain. So, it's really really just sad, it really is. Even if you look, not just downtown, but if you look a little further over, where OU medical center is, and how slowly but surely they bought up so much rich historical property—neighborhoods that once people frowned upon to live in, and now they're flocking to buy property that very same way. It's near the hospital, there's medical students, it's a great place to live, you know, but prior to that, in the Black community, they're looking for other forms of support for home ownership in the area, improving their schools in that area—those opportunities aren't shared.


If you look at schools like John Rex and you look at the demographic of John Rex and look at boundary levels—look at how light it is. It's amazing that John Rex, a brand-new elementary school here in Oklahoma City, just recently built in the last few years, sits on the Eastside of Oklahoma City, but does not serve very many minority students of color. How many Black kids do you see at John Rex? Not nearly what it should be. 


Anna: How do you think that the overall cultural erasure links to the results that we're seeing with the highly segregated schools and not hearing about what's going on?


Krystle: I think, number one, is who is talked about. Then what happens, the media's involved, and they promise they're going to do something, and two weeks later there's nothing really happening. And that's a common cycle here in Oklahoma City and it's unfortunate, but, often times, those in power say they want to do something and give to the communities but when you look at what's actually happening and those who are involved and can help bring change, you see that somewhere in the bureaucracy and what it takes, that's where things get left behind. It's very unfortunate and very sad that some of the areas of Oklahoma City are neglected to the level that they are. People are not having difficult conversations because people want to avoid accountability. 


Anna: It's a willful ignorance because it's difficult to face the truth of what's actually happening. 


Krystle: Absolutely. Who wants to be accountable for not ensuring there were enough funds that went to a local elementary school where they don't feel there's enough parent attentiveness and activeness? Often times, when a school district is looking at closures, they look at their PTA rates. How active is the PTA in the school? And if you go to a low-income or urban school where, maybe in those areas, the parents work a lot of shifts at work, maybe they work in a hospital or work until midnight—if you look at that, will those parent's attend PTA meetings? So, how likely are those parents to become members of the PTA? So, before they know it, they look up and a local neighborhood school has them basically wiped away because secretly, people moved out and the school was taken, and then it lays dormant for a while, for years. So, it is just sad because a lot of parents don't realize that now they need to be more active as a parent in the child's school just to be accountable and to be helpful. It's a partnership. A lot of them don't realize the game is so much bigger than just their child attending a school. 


Anna: In the 20th century, when experiencing white flight, so many people rushed to areas like Edmond and the media put a lot of that blame on the individual instead of those in power. What have you witnessed that speaks to the argument of individual choice vs governmental/leadership responsibility?


Krystle: One of the things you see often times when parents are trying to move to a better school district, when they try to get a transfer, they'll look up and all the sudden, where if they went to the district one year and the parents both have the same address, that they we're allowed to continue attending that school. Well most of the school districts now are creating policies that parents have to reapply every year and there's no guarantee that their child will be able to keep attending that school district if they don't live in the district; so, the ability to even get a transfer has become more difficult, which is sad because all people are wanting is a meaningful education for their children. People in power know the importance of a quality education and, so, when their children are going to private schools or not going to neighborhood schools where they live, there should be a special bond because if it's not good enough for their child then it's not good enough for ours. 


Anna: Can you speak on the culture around being a local Black business owner?


I think that as Black business owners, we try to really make sure that people in the community and children in the community see us out and about, talk to us, feel like they can approach us and become business owners. I think that's important because people often times relate to, or aspire to be, what they see. So, in the community, we really try to be focused on bringing those efforts to children and to young people and giving them guidance because we want them to know that they can be a business owner too. You can do this too. The opportunity is yours as well. So, it's hoping that they are inspired enough, despite what's in front of them, to still know that they have opportunities and our community will always try to share.


I've worked in a lot of schools. I've had students of color, I worked in the education system for a long time, and students say, "what do you do now?" and I say I'm a business owner and they say, "You do? Well what kind of business. What do you do? You can make money doing that?" They didn't know! I tried to always encourage them to know that opportunity is here for you, and you can create an idea as a kid. What is something that you think that people will really like? You have to be able to have those conversations with them and show them. We're all trying to extend a hand to young people and I think there are a lot of opportunities for businesses of color, but a lot of them feel stagnant and they feel stuck in having questions concerning resources and opportunities and being approved for things. It's getting the knowledge into the hands of people that matches their interests and level of opportunity. They want it. They just don't know how to go get it. 


Anna: You mentioned before how a lot of people in the Black community are close and feel very connected to each other. Would you say that part of that strong connection is from having a lack of support on a larger scale from the city? 


Krystle: I think we're close because we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals. We do a lot of collaborating, a lot of talking, a lot of sharing. A lot of bridge building. We have to be the resources for one another that we often times can't get from the area that we're surrounded by, whether it be the city or other things. We try to really bridge a gap for one another and become allies. Not everyone's going to be the best business owner. There's some that are great, and some that are growing. We just really try to be there for one another. What makes it unique is that we are here to support. We are supporting and sharing, we're asking questions among one another. It's just, it's a movement. That's how we make sure we stay afloat and support one another.


Anna: You described it as a movement. Would you say that the way the Black business community operates is a continuation from the days of Deep Deuce or is this something new? 


Krystle: This is the norm in the Black community. That we go out and work hard to support one another. Nobody else shops and supports us. We know that we have to support each other in order to stay open and thriving. We encourage others to spread their wings, you know, in our community and beyond our community for longevity. If you have a great product or business, people are going to love your business once they get exposed to it. We try to really give one another exposure. We try to share. I think that has trickled down from other historical areas and individuals who had businesses here in Oklahoma City for a long amount of time. You know, they're kinda your business ancestral parents. There's those who can support you that can tell you about different practices and different things and different buildings and what they used to be, and try to really remind you what culture is really about and how to bring culture into everything you do. 


Anna: Understanding that Oklahoma City, as well as the rest of the nation, didn't make any effort to preserve African American history until around the 1960s, how have you witnessed the community preserve their own history and how has it been preserved differently than White history, which was able to be preserved in a more "official" way? 


Krystle: We preserve our history by telling each other stories that have been passed down for generations and taking our children to different cultural spots or places of business and showing them, maybe, wonderful pictures that's on the wall. Telling them why we choose to eat or shop there. What it means to our community. I think that we work hard to preserve our history a variety of ways. Through education, storytelling, and passing down, even fighting for one another to ensure that we can continue to grow together. 


Anna: I feel like, when you state that history is preserved by going to businesses and seeing pictures on the wall, this shows in a big way how big of a problem it is that Deep Deuce is claiming they are preserving history, yet, not including the authentic methods or tools of historical preservation that you described. 


Krystle: Yah, I mean if you look at it, what's on the walls there? Nothing. If we didn't have historical papers and historians, like the ones at Langston University, giving us the information we need, we would not always know the stories that we share with one another. It's almost lost at times.

Anna: Trying to find information online about the history of Deep Deuce has been very difficult. It definitely doesn't feel accessible even though it was such a big part of Oklahoma City's history. 


Krystle: It's awful actually. It's really disheartening and that's why it's important that we preserve our own stories whether it's newspaper articles or a brochure or pamphlet. We keep those things in our culture, within our homes and families, so that we have documentation and proof that it exists. If you're depending on, perhaps, an entity that doesn't have any interest in telling the story of Black businesses, then you're never gonna get the information you desire because why would they want that to be told? 

Anna: You stated you worked in education. Can you tell me about the education system in predominantly Black schools and how it relates to other local schools?  


Krystle: When I worked in education, especially public education, it was my personal goal to always work in predominately Black schools. I wanted children who look like me to see a person like me. To see a person in advanced education, you know, come into their world and be an educator. And so, one thing that's really unique, if you have ever attended a school that's predominately Black with predominantly Black educators, is the amount of culture that is embedded in the classroom and in the educators because they can relate. If you are at a school where it is predominantly Black, if a little girl has her hair in beautiful African braids, it is not a problem. That little girl is never asked to go home; she's never asked to take her hair down because it's a potential distraction. We don't have those kinds of problems and it's not a distraction. It's simply a part of our cultural identity. It's things like that.


Even in History [class], you know, we tell all the students, “so of course we're going to use the textbooks that are given, but we know those textbooks are flawed.” And so, what's beautiful is the rich culture that we see in schools where there are Black educators involved and Black children. And so, that was one of the things that I wanted to be a part of when I worked at places and I loved it. I asked them to do research on their own, and "let's talk about it. What did you see, what did you think?" I think that often times that's missing and that's one of the beautiful things about having educators of color so that children can see themselves and see others that look like them and see the positivity because no matter what you look like, if on the news every day you see that the people that look like this are bad people, you're going to assume it's true even if it's not because that's what you see.

Anna: Are there any stories that you can think of that express the culture of Oklahoma City from your experience of being here? 


Krystle: Yah, we hear, there are beautiful places around Oklahoma City that are no longer open. There used to be, like, a Black social area that had an amusement park. This is where Metro Tech is. There used to be an amusement park out there. Down 23rd, right after Grand, there used to be a skating rink and bowling alley. There was an indoor social hangout place. It was really really cool. When you meet others in the community who were children at that time, they tell you about all these cool things that used be on the Eastside for people of color to go out and socialize. It's really sad. Those buildings still exist but the businesses are long gone, you know. There used to be grocery stores, convenient stores. There used to be a variety of clothing stores because we weren't allowed to shop with others. We had to create our own community so as our communities were stripped of everything little by little, the people began to flee in an attempt to have a better life, and this is what's left. We're trying to bring back, not only the culture, but the beauty of what's here. You see that a lot here in the city, but we're taking it back. We're opening up more restaurants and more businesses whether it’s with my company or it’s with a local bakery. Or a barbershop or a doctor’s office. It's just, it's beautiful. We still all work together to bring those things to our community and we've stretched out what our community really is...because we don't all live in the same area anymore. We're constantly sharing about how to make our community proud and how to rebuild it. 


Anna: Do you think your community has the tools to get it back to how it was before on your own, or do you think there needs to be some changes by those in power, those who make policies and are in charge of historical preservation, that really need to change before you feel like you can achieve the goals that the community is wanting to reach?


Krystle: I'll be honest. I don't think that the community has all of the resources that it deserves. I don't think that they have access to all of the knowledge that they would need to be successful as quickly as they need. I think that is unfair. I think that it's going to take a lot longer to get those things done. Such as, you know, during COVID, getting PPE. How many businesses of color we're actually given money in the first round? How many businesses of color, you know, really and truly understood what they needed to have ready and available on a timeline to be successful? The information was not given in a timely manner. And that's what you see a lot in this community. You see the information and resources not be in place out openly and so if you don't know where to go get it and how to go get it, often times we're left behind. 


Anna: With the recent protests after the death of George Floyd, do you feel like protesting is going anywhere with making the city recognize what the community is asking for? Do you think a cultural shift is happening?


Krystle: Mmmmm, I see a cultural shift happening other places but I don't know if there is necessarily a cultural shift happening here. I think that if you see one, it's very slow. I think that people feel sad and people feel bad, but I don't see anything actually taking place to ensure that the community has what they need. Once again, the Eastside is a food desert and doesn't have a grocery store. That alone speaks volumes and it's been a problem for a very long time. I feel that people have all these questions on what we should do but they aren't as motivated to put words into action. "I wanna do something but I don't really wanna do anything to make a change because it might take away from plans for something else. And that might be an inconvenience." And I think that is why people are becoming more frustrated and they're really called to justice because it's time to even the playing field. 


Anna: Do you feel like the younger generation is wanting to be more proactive in making demands and getting involved in activism? 


Krystle: Oh yah! They're more involved in the community, they have questions, they're asking the hard and heavy questions. They are pushing forward and they're not as patient because they feel that patience has not gotten them where they think they deserve to be. And so, I feel like that's beautiful and that's the energy and snap of young people. And we have young people who have been through so much. They've been through economic depressions and countless decades of social injustice and so they're looking back and they have a long history of hearing stories...and so they're tired. And they are demanding change. And they seek to be the change they want to see. And I think that scares a lot of people who are comfortable where things are. 


They're being more active and looking for more change. I think they're even calling people in office with questions about their policies, on their partnership, and on their push for change. I think it's important that people get a really firm history lesson on a system as a whole. So, I think it's easier when you're only looking at the system from your point of view. You have to look at a system as a whole and look at why it was created, and how it was put into practice, how it was executed, and you have to continue up until the present day, you know. I think when you look at a system as a whole that way, you get a better picture of what needs to be done. If a system was designed to dismantle communities, whether it's through housing, or finance—talking about people of color not being able to get loans from banks—or things like that, then that is a dismantling of a community. So, I think we need to look at the system as a whole. Look at the history of this country, look at each system, look at how it is broken, and make sure this isn't a band-aid when you need surgery...It is broken. 


Anna: What language do you hear being used to talk about gentrification and justify it?


Krystle: You hear words like "urban." Words like "revitalize." Words like "refresh." Words like "develop," or "partnership." But nobody has even started asking the question, "well, who were the partners at the table?" You hear a lot of things like that, and so, you hear that people are teaming up and collaborating. "In the community we’re going to have this brand-new partnership." And the question is, well who are the partners? Often times the partners don't include people of color and so, well, who were the partners deciding who the partners were? You hear words like that in our community a lot. 


Anna: Is there anything else you would like to discuss?


Krystle: I think that one keynote is to know that businesses of color deserve to exist all around the city and the surrounding area, and not just be in the Eastside. It's important that money is set aside for the historical preservation of the Eastside and businesses of color on the Eastside. There should be funds allocated just for that so that the area can thrive. I think that what you see happen often times is that the resources aren't available...we're going to fight for it. 

Anna: That's all of my questions, thank you for your time and having this conversation with me.

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