By Lou Cespedes
Exactly one year ago, I wrote on the pages of this paper, that our merchant class struggled with basic knowledge about contracts, transactions, and legal representation. Amid the many challenges facing black businesses today without the institutional structures to secure their prosperity, COVID, and a worsening demographic crisis because of gentrification, black owned businesses are failing at an alarming rate. The latest casualty, Gloria’s Restaurant in Crown Heights.
As I said in my article last year “A Dark Age and A Dark Mile”, You can’t control what you do not own! Gloria’s story is not about a failing business. Quite the opposite! The story is about deed fraud, the court system, attorneys, and protections for small business owners and property owners. The story sadly centers around a building sale, title, and a con man illegally sold the building located on 764 Nostrand to an unwitting innocent lady named Ms. Nicole Cumberbatch in 2001. In summary Ms. Cumberbatch was told by a con man named Ted Singer,
“Don’t worry about anything Ms. Cumberbatch, you own the building”
as reported by Jake Offenhartz in Gothamist. This statement, and its tacit acceptance is haunting, because it encapsulates the lack of discernment, and the lack of knowledge in procedure and legality required of black property and business owners to defend against the theft of our wealth. Ms. Cumberbatch a Trinidadian woman that arrived in Brooklyn in the 70’s said later in a deposition for the lawsuit,
“I had your word, and you had mine. I thought that was good enough. That’s the way I was raised”.
This is one of a series of events in recent memory which we can see black owned business and properties suffer under the weight of the court system and the law. In 2017 the Jamaican CEO of Golden Krust, Lowell Hawthorn committed suicide because he thought the U.S. government was investigating him for tax evasion. Other tribulations on the property “deed theft” were the subject of new laws passed by the State Legislature in 2019, and an initiative launched in 2020 by AG Tish James to guard against “deed theft” in black and brown communities. But the irony of the Gloria’s tragedy is not that a property was stolen, but rather that Ms. Cumberbatch never really owned it. She is accused of concocting or being party to a deed theft against a Long Island white mortgage lender who bought the property in the 90’s. In essence, by taking the word of the man she thought was rightfully selling the property, she did not secure HER OWN DUE DILGENCE to ensure hat there were not encumbrances or controversy in the transaction.
As a building professional, I know a significant amount of dollars are spent on due diligence. Attorneys dig and investigate, question and scrutinize, past owners, titles, liens, debt, violations, environmental issues, zoning, and easements. Most owners don’t have the means or the skill to understand these “arcane” procedures and like Ms. Cumberbatch fall prey.
In essence the real story here is about the 50 million dollars levied against the black family of a successful restaurant franchise that did their best to follow the law, and legally purchase a property. It is a case study in how lawyering, and legal frameworks, as well “back room dealing” between sketchy attorneys and judges leads to decisions in court that disenfranchise property owners. This is NOT new. In the now well publicized masterpiece series “The 1619 Project”, Nikole Hannah-Jones and other stories like “The Great Land Robbery” by Vann R Newkirk II in the Atlantic, detail how the legal structure of property transactions, buttressed by U.S. Courts, government policy, insurance companies, and banks, have disenfranchised black land owners all over the U.S. for untold billions of dollars in value and generational wealth.
The court’s decision against the Cumberbatch family is a miscarriage of justice and is yet another warning to black families, entrepreneurs, and property owners; Black Lives Don’t Matter, UNLESS OUR BLACK MONEY MATTERS!