Part Two of Two-Parts
In North Carolina’s Hertford and Perquimans Counties, where Sheila Miller grew up, massive efforts are underway to preserve and restore long-abandoned properties, including cabins, shacks, three-room schools, outbuildings, cotton mill villages, and more. This region is just one of many in the South where, on unsteady backwoods porches, lives – long forgotten – defied gravity and were as awesome as Miller’s grandmother’s “five-inch-tall” biscuits.
When Sheila moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1969, she did not forget nor did she leave anything behind. Mostly, she brought with her a valuable survival tool: the memory of that county and its people. She still owns land in Hertford, N.C., and her children, Troy, Jean and Freda and their children Shatia, Paris, Latema, Raleah, Kai, Jaray, Cameron and Chae, are solidly connected to it. Then; there’s also the persistent, constant spirit of Sheila’s late grandmother Rosetta Jenkins, the lady from whom Sheila inherited the gift of touching lives, molding, building, weaving and stirring up the ordinary into something extraordinary.
From Grandma’s Hands
“My grandmother’s hands could do stuff,” Sheila said in a telephone interview. “She had the prettiest knees in the world, and skin like butter and silk, at the same time. She crocheted. She cooked. She sewed – even made umbrellas to match her dresses.” It was that gift for sewing inherited from her grandmother that catapulted Miller, some 30 years ago, from billing clerk and a customer service representative to accessories& fashion designer. Sheila’s hands-on job experience came from Lending Trimming Co., where her deft fingers made rings for scarves and fringe for beach umbrellas. She also designed original patterns for woven belts and was known around the industry for the nifty accessories she created for herself. Sheila’s gifts and now-famous earthy personality and quick wit attracted industry executives, who approached her about working for them exclusively as a designer.
During the 1970’s, she worked five years for a midtown-based accessories manufacturing company designing belts, tops, scarves and more, as the sole designer. Her very own special designs for safety-pinned tee shirts sold at national retail stores. Beaded silk and cotton cloth threads were transformed into head and hip wraps. She traveled to such states as Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, making presentations and demonstrating how her products should be worn by models and displayed on mannequins at Macy’s, Casual Corner, Lerner’s and other national retailers. In Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant and Queens’ Richmond Hills, where she lived, Miller would pass her own sassy designs sashaying through the streets.
Meanwhile, at the height of the “community empowerment” movement, Sheila brought that concept down to true grassroots levels, putting people to work right in the Classon Avenue apartment building where she lived.
Sheila recalls that the top fashion house Botticello increased its orders for beaded handbags – designed by Miller. Sheila met the challenge. She took home beads, fabric, thread, needles. “After work, all the tenants in the building would meet me in the lobby and they did piecework through the night.”
Reportedly, the world-class Botticello’s paid approximately $75 for each of the hand-beaded bags, and then sold them for nearly 8 times as much. “They wanted dozens at a time. It was intricate, painstaking, weaving work, but I taught the skill to my friends, neighbors and family members and they got the job done.”
While meeting the company’s performance goals, she was responsible for overseeing the manufacture of huge volumes of product (“sometimes, one thousand dozen items”) while supervising the work of some 32 people. She finally asked the company owners for a percentage of the business and partnership. It didn’t work out. One of the more sensitive owners lent her $50,000. She set up her own shop in a partitioned loft on 36th St. and Sixth Avenue, and kept it going for three years. In 1986, the accessories business started changing and the “small guys” were being pushed into the corner by the big manufacturers. “We couldn’t get the work.” Miller looked around for ideas for another business. She didn’t have to look far.
Sheila’s: “Just Waiting for Me”
Recalling the fun times she had back at home in North Carolina and the “ambiance” of her father James “Snooks” Everett’s club in the back of the family’s Hertford home, Miller decided to open up a place in Brooklyn similar to “Snooks Casino.”
With a close friend, she ventured over to a Century 21 franchise. The agent casually pointed to a towering brownstone across the street at the corner of DeKalb Avenue, 271 Adelphi. With that gesture, he set the wheels in motion for another chapter in Brooklyn’s black business history. “I knew that was it,” said Miller. “When I looked at that property, I felt its big arms go around me. It was just sitting there waiting for me. All I had to do was get tablecloths.”
Sheila’s opened as a smash hit on July 5, 1986. Two Steps Down stalwarts like Brenda Gould, Bobby Johnson, Helen Logan, Gene Pilgrim, Russell Gould, Huey the bartender, Ann Callis, Paul Walden and Rhonda Mayo (a co-owner of Two Steps) helped to launch Sheila’s. With its intimate two levels separated by a spiral staircase in the distinctive brownstone setting, Sheila’s joined the Cellar’s and Two Steps nightspots as THE Brooklyn place to be and be seen. Dakota Staton, Noel Pointer, Mark Whitfield and Lionel Hampton were just some of the name artists who appeared there.
Both her father, who passed in 1987, and her grandmother, who transitioned two years later, lived to see Sheila rise to the top of the business world and at the top of her game, while taking care of a family. “When my father saw it, his chest swelled up so big.”
A Door Closes Harshly,
Another Opens Sweetly
In 1993, the roof caved. The owner wanted to sell the building. Sheila had first rights to purchase, and she was prepared to move on a good deal. Unfortunately, the price was astronomical by 1993 market value standards. “Nowadays, it would be miniscule, but then it didn’t make sense for me.”
The subsequent closing of Sheila’s was more than a surprise; it was a blow to some in the community. Sheila’s had grown into an institution. “I kept a lot of children. I helped out parents who didn’t have after-school babysitters. I would feed them, help them with their homework, and put them in a corner of the restaurant so they could read and study. I kept one child, while his mom went to rehab.” The mother, a beautician, is now in business for herself on Marcy Avenue, and her son is a college student.
Two months after Sheila closed the doors to her business, she placed a call to Eddie Freeman, the owner and founder of Sugar Hill Restaurant. By that time, Freeman had grown the dining/dancing and lounge establishment into the largest Black-owned business of its type in Brooklyn. She casually asked, “What are you doing?” He told her, “I’m trying to get this mess straightened out over here. Come on in; the chef just walked out.” Sheila went directly to the kitchen, “and never sat down.”
Since February 1994, Sheila has worked closely with Freeman (along with the legendary Ms. Clara Walker of the McDonald’s Dining Room at McDonough & Stuyvesant) to run Sugar Hill as a business manager, Chief Right Hand, second-in-command and more. “I was never interviewed for the job,” she laughed. “See, I know what it’s like not to have someone at your back in this industry. Good relationships are everything.”
And good relationships take time to build. Sheila is working on that with her family. Before walking to work from her Bushwick apartment, Sheila supports her children by helping them raise theirs. She gets four of them to school every day, and has been tending to a 20-month-old toddler since he was four months old. Did we mention Sheila’s husband? In April 2002, she married The Rev. James “Jim” Raab, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA, thus creating another whole dimension to her very active life.
Miller also is building relationships and helping to rebuild lives in Crown Heights. On Mondays and Tuesdays from 12 noon-2pm, she feeds the homeless at the Greater Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Soup Kitchen, 887 St. Marks Avenue, under the spiritual eye and guidance of Pastor Randy L. Ware.
Sundays through Thursdays, 3pm – 11pm, Sheila works as a mental health technician at the Brooklyn Residence Committee (BRC) on Fulton Street. Responding to a call for help in the kitchen in March 2002 last year from BRC Director Warren Wright, Sheila volunteered her services. The residents would not let her go, so she took courses in mental health, and now counsels a caseload of five to six residents.
Back to the Future
“I live life to the fullest and I am working to strengthen my spiritual being,” revealed Miller , whose rare private and solitary moments find her sewing or striding down DeKalb Avenue past the old Sheila’s to the Brooklyn Heights promenade. “We should wake up every day, giving thanks to God, the biggest treasure we have. Everything else is secondary. So every day is important to me. I get through that day and do the best that I can in that day.”
Quite frankly, Sheila, the second of 11 children, could use a 30-hour day. In addition to everything else, she is spearheading the family’s restoration and renovation efforts on “Snooks Casino,” opened in 1951, at the back of 100 Edenton Road, which the family still owns. She says it will open “in the very near future.”
“I am my grandmother’s daughter. She helped raise me, steered me to keep my mind straight – to do something with myself, and be strong.” And, of course, to not forget her her venerable roots in Hertford, NC, pop. 9,000 – “a place with two stoplights at the corners of Edenton Road and Market, and Church and Grove.”
(Writer’s Note: Our Time Press thanks Glenn Frye and Eddie Freeman for bringing Sheila Miller’s story to our attention. Frye tends bar at Sugar Hill Restaurant, owned by Freeman. Sugar Hill is located at Nostrand and Marcy Avenues.)
Bernice Elizabeth Green