Funding Black Communities From Oregon To Florida

One of the most important women in the country sat down last week with two of her close colleagues and had a conversation about service, philanthropy, Black wealth, and community impact. Not waiting on white saviors, Dr. Johnetta B. Cole is using a multimillion dollar impact fund to vitalize communities in Jacksonville, Florida. Her great grandfather, the famed A. L. Lewis (the fund is named in his honor) was a wealthy Black businessman, man of service to others, and philanthropist.

It was a who’s who of Jacksonville in attendance at an event that educated many about the A.L. Lewis Black Opportunity & Impact Fund Grantmaking. The event included the most powerful conversation one would ever see among women entitled, “A New Way to Enter: A Conversation.” Dr. Celest M. Watkins-Hayes moderated the talk with Dr. Cole and Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall.

The City’s first female mayor, Donna Deengan, gave Dr. Cole the key to the city as District 10’s councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman looked on from a festive table of supporters. The event held at the WJCT Studios had multibillion dollar companies in attendance with proceeds going to support the fund.

Black owned businesses were hired to create the successful event. It was clear that the fund’s organizers understood the importance of including opportunities for Black companies to truly realize a significant impact. This publication has been covering this very topic for a couple of years now.

In Oregon, we compared the treatment of Black owned, prime construction company Raimore to Jacksonville’s use of waivers by large white companies to get around providing nonwhite subcontractors with lucrative opportunities. Abraham Lincoln Lewis was a powerhouse of a man who seemed to never allow these types of racist  strategies to stop his movement. He was also organic about connecting with strong Black women to solve problems. 

A. L. Lewis was a local entrepreneur, humanitarian, and philanthropist who became Florida’s first African-American millionaire. Some will remember hearing about wealthy Blacks owning multiple properties on a Florida beach. Well, that was American Beach, founded by Lewis.

In Oregon, Raimore Construction did not feel any need to ask anyone if it should hire Black companies as subcontractors.  Individuals receive living wage jobs as the Black-owned company secure millions upon millions in construction contracts. Some of these contracts provide years of stable work. This allows real people to take care of their families instead of just surviving. This is how impact is created. Economics have a direct impact on poverty and crime.

Dr. Johnetta B. Cole brings confidence that the fund will raise money and do what it says it will do without fear or political apologies. Her time at Spelman saw fundraising records unmatched for colleges similarly situated. The women that came out of Spelman during Johnetta B. Cole’s leadership are special. Look at Howard University’s law school during that time. The Spelman sisters took over.

The city of Jax’s historically Black areas are in major need. Cole is right on in establishing this type of funding vehicle. It was started by 22 community stewards in 2020. These types of funds provide huge tax benefits for companies and individuals. Corporations can place their millions in capital gains into the Black-owned fund, get a larger than normal tax benefit, and receive a return on the original investment. This happens all while changing and revitalizing communities that are often left out by developers and city leaders. 

The fund focuses on economic development, education, and healthcare. In these areas, the A. L. Lewis Fund looks to be the “solutions that target eliminating social, racial and economic barriers to achieve optimal health and well-being in Black communities.”

Johnetta ‘s father, John Thomas Bestch, was a business analyst for Howard University. Sadly, he died in his 50s (51). In the Florida Star‘s 20 part series on the life of Bessie Coleman (Bessie Coleman Flying the Blues, we saw John Betsch’s name as the 25 year old fresh out of Howard University. He brought the pioneering aviator to Jacksonville in 1926. That airshow was sponsored by the Negro Welfare League. John T. Bestch saw Queen Bess fall from the plane a day before the airshow.

John Betsch’s name should be raised. After all, he produced the beloved Beach Lady and the woman that is now putting millions of dollars together to continue her family’s legacy of service to others in Jacksonville, Florida. 

[ Find our more about the A.L. Lewis Black Opportunity & Impact Fund Grantmaking at ]