For Black Business Owners on the North Shore, Perseverance Pays Off

Two black entrepreneurs share their journeys starting businesses in the coastal town of Newburyport

Tye Burrell

Tye Burrell was working as a registered nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 2000 when her life changed forever.

As she was doing rounds that day, she saw a patient who she knew to be at risk of falling and hurting himself trying to get out of bed. Instinctively, Burrell ran to break his fall, but he ended up falling right on top of her.

The accident left her with a back injury that ended her nursing career. But the unfortunate incident had a silver lining.

Burrell, now 44, recovered with the help of massage therapy. Not only did it help her heal, but it inspired her to go into the field of bodywork.

“There were a lot of roadblocks," she said of her recovery and finding her career path. "I would get so close and something would happen and I’d have to put it off. It was just timing when I actually started,” said Burrell. “Most people would have probably given up.”  

Now the owner of Sankofa Massage and Bodywork, Burrell is one of only a handful of Black business owners in the affluent, touristy town of Newburyport. While Burrell said a lack of diversity in the area can be a challenge, she said her resilience has paid off and she has found a home on the North Shore.

Eunice James, 61, owns a fitness studio in Newburyport, Eunice D. James Studio. She is also very aware of the lack of racial diversity in the city, but hasn’t let that stop her from forging a path to success.

Eunice James working out at her fitness studio

Prior to starting her business, James was an iron worker for 13 years, a difficult profession that requires immense physical strength. Throughout her career, she frequented the gym and eventually decided to participate in bodybuilding contests.

Once she made the decision to end her iron-working career, she knew she wanted to help others achieve their fitness goals.

Looking for a change of scenery from the bustling city, James decided to take a trip to Newburyport -- where she has remained for over 30 years. In 1992, she opened the doors to her fitness studio.

“I took a trip up here and rode around on my bike and I said, ‘This is a nice place,’” said James. "There were a few other iron workers here as well so I felt if they could live here so could I.”

'There aren't a lot of us here'

Burrell said she has found a home on the North Shore, but sometimes feels underrepresented as a Black business owner.

“There aren’t a lot of us here. It would be nice to have more diversity for sure,” she said. “Not only in business but also in residents and support. We’re not hard to miss.”

Burrell said she has noticed on social media that recent efforts to support Black owned businesses have centered on the Boston area.

“They were looking in Boston, and I’m like, 'Well there are so many Black owned businesses from Newburyport to Boston. Why go straight to Boston?" she said. “You just have to go into the communities and look.”

With a population of over 18,000, only 1.5% of Newburyport residents are Black, according to the U.S. Census.

James said she hasn’t noticed many efforts to bring more Black businesses into town but she chalks that up to the town’s relatively small population.

“I don’t think it’s anything malicious. I just think when there aren’t many people of African American or ethnic decent, then it’s not their focus,” she said. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

As protests swept the nation following the death of George Floyd, Burrell decided to attend a protest for racial justice to see what it was like. Although she was merely observing, a man came up to her and said, “All lives matter.” 

“I guess it kind of confirmed that Newburyport is no different than any other city or town,” said Burrell. “I just walked away and went back home. It’s not worth it to get into it with someone who is just ignorant.” 

Pandemic hardships

Both James and Burrell have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Because they are hands-on businesses working with largely older clients, they were unable to open their doors for some time.

“I lost about half of my clients,” said James. “My membership is down and my clientele folk are very, very nervous. They have in their mind reasons to be nervous. Some of them are recovering from cancer, some of them have diabetes.”

Burrell is only seeing half of her clients because many of them are at higher risk amid the pandemic.

Despite the losses and frustration that have plagued their businesses, both understand the fear from their clients and hope to turn the experience into a positive situation.

“They say that everything is an opportunity,” said James. “I look at it as an opportunity for a space open for somebody else.”

Toward a bright future

Through the challenges that both Burnell and James have faced, both women have persevered through difficult times.  

Although the pandemic has put a dent in business, there is still hope to keep moving forward and look toward a positive road ahead.

Despite losing half of her clientele, James is choosing to look positively on her current situation.

“It’s almost like starting the business over again,” said James. “The rules have changed and I’m in a whole new world. No problem. It’s not so new that I can’t adjust.”

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