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Number of Black-owned gas stations in Detroit declines

Mobil Owner James Robinson and Shell Owner Vincent Davis, Jr.

By Marcus Wright
Special to the Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — Twenty years ago, there were 15 Black-owned gas stations in Detroit. Today, there are three; two Mobil stations and a Shell.

James Robinson, a retired Detroit Police Department (DPD) lieutenant, owns the Mobil station located on Woodward and Forest in the heart of Midtown. Robinson’s negotiating skills caught the eye of ExxonMobil executives and he was offered a unique opportunity: to become an ExxonMobil gas station manager in 1992. Robinson seized the moment and was ready to take it to the next level when ExxonMobil Oil decided to get out of gasoline retail sales. The corporation offered franchising deals for those who wanted to become independent dealers.

Vincent Davis, Sr. purchased the Shell station at Seven Mile and West Outer Drive 38 years ago. Davis, like Robinson, was a franchisee but now owns the station. A full-service station, a rarity these days of pump-your-own gas, Davis’s station includes a repair center. A full-service station, as was explained by Vincent Davis, Jr., is where gas is pumped by an attendant, who check tires and washes the windshield.

The other Mobil is located on the Northwest corner of Linwood and Davison. The owner wishes to be known only as John. In a telephone interview one week following the alleged assault and robbery of Rev. Marvin Winans at the Citgo station across the street, John said he grew up in Detroit.

He said when he first bought the Mobile station two years ago, he had problems with loitering, but not anymore. “When I have unruly people who don’t want to buy anything, I call the police and they vigilantly show up,” John said. “But mostly, it takes engaging residents in the community to prevent loitering or other problems.”

John says it takes mingling with citizens to develop business-community relations.

Robinson says: “Independent dealers own the land, building and equipment, but is required to contract with one or more suppliers designated by Mobil Oil. (ExxonMobil) created fuel oil distributors.”

A 1992 protest and firebombing at a Shell station located at Fenkell and Schaeffer was the incident where Robinson’s negotiating skills were made known to ExxonMobil. He mediated the conflict between the community and the station management. Not long afterward, he was contacted and offered the opportunity to become a station manager at 4661 Woodward. “It was worth it,” Robinson said. “I retired early to accept the opportunity.”

“We’ve become an integral part of the community and they show their appreciation by patronizing us, Davis, Jr. said. “We’re neighborhood, instead of corporate … very in tune with our community.”

In 1992, there were eight Black dealers controlling 15 locations. The 2001 Strategic Buying Campaign was organized by Rev. Horace Sheffield to increase that number. A list of Black-owned gas stations was provided to residents and they were encouraged to patronize those stations. “The ‘B Gas Campaign’ woke people up,” Robinson said. “African Americans were intent on purchasing gas from persons who looked like them.”

Detroit Businessman Charlie Grant and his Circle One Distribution Company sought to increase the number as well. Grant filed a 2004 lawsuit in Detroit federal district court.

It alleged “Exxon Mobil intentionally and with racial prejudice ignored and closed the doors of opportunity on the entrepreneurial interest of Detroit’s African American community.”

The suit said that in 2001 ExxonMobil made “repeated promises” to representatives of Detroit’s Black community to increase its number of Black-owned stations after a racial incident at one of its Metro Detroit stations.

Robinson said it is a challenge to go from having a position in a police department to being a franchisee to owning the station. “Suddenly you (have) a mortgage to pay, employees, utilities,” Robinson said. “You have to learn to take the money to the bank and pay your bills and employees and, if there is something left, pay yourself.”

The Davis’ own collision shops and tire repair shops, as well as the station, where 12 people are employed. Together they are called V&V Enterprise. Davis, Jr. said it is all about being persistent. “My father grew-up working in a gas station and loves doing what he does and so do I,” Davis, Jr. said.

Robinson said capitalization is part of the problem with African American dealers. “They are not prepared to deal with all of the contingencies,” Robinson said.

Another important aspect is service, Robinson said. “If you’re not receiving the kind of service you deserve, you should stop supporting that business. Safety is second. This is one of the safest stations in the city,” he added.

“We’ve watched the neighborhood rise and fall going through ups and downs,” Davis, Jr. said. “We’re still here and plan to stay here serving the community.”

Contact Marcus Wright at marcuswright@michigancitizen.com

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