'The Black Excellence Project' to shine light on Cheyenne's Black entrepreneurs

Jan. 21—The number is 39.

There are at least 39 Black entrepreneurs in Cheyenne — many of them business owners — something JazMinn Jackson, owner of The Louise Event Venue, didn't know until "The Black Excellence Project" began to take shape.

Cheyenne is a different place for small business owners than when Jackson was growing up. There's more opportunity, and even in the past two years, a number of businesses have opened under more diverse ownership.

"There (was a) very prejudiced, racist type of feel growing up," Jackson said in the lobby of the Louise Event Center on Thursday. "Back then to today, it's like Black people can't do what we are doing. It is very important to me (to show) that I can do what you're doing, you can do what I'm doing — we're all trying to make it.

"The color of my skin doesn't make a difference."

She initially spent eight years working as a preschool teacher, then about four years as an event planner. In 2019, she opened The Louise, a venue where she could do what she wanted, whenever she wanted.

This freedom was almost immediately revoked due to the impact of pandemic restrictions established in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. For a period of time, she began to second-guess her decision to open the venue.

But this adversity did little to hinder her vision. Since The Louise was founded, Jackson has offered some of the most unique events in Cheyenne, with possibly the most impactful entry coming on Feb. 4.

"The Black Excellence Project," a free display that features the portraits of 39 African-American entrepreneurs, will bring recognition to the lesser-represented musicians, event planners, hairstylists, chefs and business owners who operate in the Capital City.

"It's not that we're not noticed," Jackson said. "But the goal is to be noticed more."

Jackson envisioned this project about three years ago, but at the time, she struggled to formulate a method of assembling businesses. After last November's "We Are Downtown" exhibit, organized by WYOmusic owner Danica Mrozinsky, Jackson realized that it was an attainable concept.

She took to social media and spread the word.

"I just kept getting notified like, 'What about this person?'," she said. "It brought me to tears. I'm still in awe. I wanted to host this event to let people know about us, and I definitely wanted to do it at the beginning of Black History Month."

As a Black business owner herself, the project carries a personal weight that reminds her just how hard it is for those of different ethnic backgrounds to get their footing in a state that is 92.4% white (the fifth-highest percentage in the country) and 1.2% Black (the third-lowest), according to the United States Census Bureau.

Cheyenne is only a little bit higher, with Black people making up 2.8% of the population. So, when Jackson says that there's "not a lot of Black people here," she's absolutely correct.

This reality manifests itself in some lesser-recognized ways, like in the field of cosmetics. Tiffany Diaz, owner of A Shade of Vintage Hair Salon, has one of the most successful salons in Cheyenne.

With nine stylists on staff, Shade of Vintage provides services to all kinds of hair, but the majority of her clients aren't Black. Diaz emphasizes the importance of Black-owned hair salons, especially in connection to the diverse population of airmen that are stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

In short, having a salon that understands how to work with different kinds of hair is critical to the cultural representation of a city's population.

"People think that just because my main clientele is not Black that I don't serve that in my community," Diaz said. "(It's important that) there are people that are similar to you and work with hair that's the same as yours.

"There are people that are gonna look like you when you walk into this space. That can be hard — to come from a diverse culture that is now a subculture."

This isn't a reality that selectively pertains to African-Americans, as Diaz points out, but to other minority groups in Cheyenne, as well.

Though local Hispanic holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos are celebrated to offer cultural representation that everyone can enjoy, there is still the need for more cultural acceptance. For example, some still might not understand Juneteenth, recognized as a federal holiday in 2022, though it has been officially celebrated in Texas since 1866.

The importance isn't to just support Black-owned businesses — Diaz emphasized supporting all small businesses — but to support a diverse culture throughout the city as a whole.

Jackson hasn't personally received any hatred from the community as a Black business owner, but she knows of other businesses owners that have. Events fueled by racial biases were reported to have occurred over the past year, including toward military members and their children.

She said that her daughter is going through such struggles now, as well.

Jackson has never been a complacent person, and her business's track record is enough to show it.

"The Black Excellence Project" is an entity of her creation that lies closer to the heart. Regardless of ethnicity, everyone has their own struggle, Jackson said, and this project is there to shine light on the perseverance of one group.

"I'm just so blessed and excited with every event that I do. I get hyped up about it and everything, then when it comes time, I'm like 'This is stupid, when is it over?,'" she said, laughing. "But I don't feel that way with this one.

"I don't want it to end, and I've never felt that way about any other event."

Will Carpenter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's Arts and Entertainment/Features Reporter. He can be reached by email at wcarpenter@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3135. Follow him on Twitter @will_carp_.