Celebrating black entrepreneurs: James Smith and J&E Grocery, 1964-2001

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Here and across the country, black entrepreneurs have historically struggled to get business loans. But nearly 60 years ago, James Smith persevered.

He wound up with one of Rochester, N.Y.’s longest-standing mom and pop supermarkets, made famous by ads on TV.

In the 1980’s, those 30-second ads brought Smith and his store a life-time of recognition. The store — J&E grocery — a fixture for nearly 40 years on Rochester’s west side. Against all odds, Smith opened shop in 1964.

In the 1950’s, black men and women moved to Rochester by the thousands for the promise of new opportunity, only to be locked out of jobs. Smith spent years working the farm fields outside the city, served in the U.S. Air Force, then settled in Rochester for good.

He dreamed of selling foods he grew up with in the deep south but the banks would not give him a loan. That changed after the racial upheaval in 1964 and years of organizing by the black community.

By the time News 8 interviewed Smith in 1987, he’d become well known for the TV commercials and respected for his leadership in the community. Smith started scholarship funds for black students and promoted other minority owned businesses. His grocery, with its specialty meat shop, drew customers from all over the region.

When Smith retired in 2001, he sold the store, but his commercials still attract attention on the internet.

To this day, he’s a role model for black entrepreneurs, for the store he owned with pride and ran for decades in Rochester.

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