A pair of Black business owners in Mobile, Alabama, is fulfilling a dream of opening a cocktail bar, reportedly the first Black female-owned bar, in the city’s downtown area — but not without controversy. Kawauna Gill and Tamara Coleman opened Kanary Bar amid many complaints from their white neighbors.
Gill and Coleman’s startup journey was a rough ride.
Overcoming ‘Racist’ Challenges
Gill and Coleman were excited to open their lounge in downtown Mobile, a city enjoying an economic renaissance. The women hoped to have their Black-owned bar be a part of that revival. After getting approval from the city’s planning commission in September, they needed a liquor license. Liquor sales are vital to their business’s success. Yet, in trying to obtain a liquor license, they came up against what they consider to be racism. Coleman told Al.com that they faced stricter scrutiny because they’re Black.
“It’s a disgrace. They are acting like we are convicted felons or something. It’s like they don’t want to see our Black faces,” said Coleman.
Mobile City Attorney Ricardo Woods said the bar’s neighbors asked racist questions about their establishment and the personal lives of the business partners.
“These young ladies are opening a business. It faced significant opposition at the planning commission level. It seemed to be nothing more than opposition (over) who they are,” said Woods.
Coleman said a neighboring business owner asked Kawauna if she used drugs.
“He just started interrogating Kawauna,” said Coleman. “‘Have you ever used drugs?’ ‘Have you been arrested?’ ‘Sued?’ It was unreal.”
“I was thinking that we’d sit down and … maybe they were not clear on our plans. We are trying to open a lounge. I’m 39. She’s 40. We’ve been in the bar industry for a while. We decided to open our own bar, our lifetime dream,” added Coleman.
Conflict Went All the Way to City Hall
The conflict over the Black-owned bar went all the way to city hall. At a city council meeting, Woods read some of the complaint letters he saw as racist toward Coleman and Gill.
While the Black-owned bar owners and their African-American supporters allege racism, the white city council members argued that isn’t the case. They claimed the new bar owners aren’t following the city guidelines, such as the hours of operation.
Mark Minnaert, the Downtown Mobile Residents Coalition president, said that Kanary Bar’s scrutiny has nothing to do with racism.
“It has nothing to do with the color of skin which is what (Woods) is implying. I take particular offense to that. That’s a ridiculous accusation.”
Minnaert maintains that the women’s bar is undergoing more examination than any other business because of the previous tenant, who had many loud noise complaints from the community. He said he didn’t want to have the same experience with Kanary Bar.
“One of the problems here is we are prejudging this business based on that another business in its location and that business didn’t get shut down for a nuisance,” Woods shot back during the meeting.
Kanary Bar: ‘An asset’ to the Community
According to Kanary Bar’s attorney Larry Moorer, Coleman and Gill will be responsible owners and will not have a loud bar that will be a nuisance to neighbors. They want to have musicians play at the club, but not an unreasonable volume.
“That was a club,” Moorer said of the location’s previous tenant. “As has been explained to the planning commission, this is not a club. It’s a bar. Kanary Bar wants to be an asset to the community.”
He continued, “This is not a case where someone is presumed to be innocent, and the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt (to achieve a guilty verdict). This is the reversal of that where the Kanary Bar is determined to be guilty, and they have to prove their innocence that they won’t do what they are being accused of.”
Cocktail Time at Kanary Bar
Despite all the challenges, the Mobile City Council ultimately approved Kanary Bar’s liquor license application. Coleman and Gill hope to have the bar open by Thanksgiving. The entrepreneurial duo hopes that the community will move past the controversy and that Kanary Bar becomes a vital part of Mobile’s downtown area.