When Annelle Whitt’s husband, James Whitt, passed in November 2021, she knew she wanted to create a foundation to honor and continue her husband’s legacy of entrepreneurship and support for minority and women-owned business enterprises.
“My husband really found joy in people’s successes,” Whitt recalled. “He literally spent his last days on this earth helping minority and women business enterprises. It was so important to him.”
She says that she wouldn’t have been able to do it without the University of Missouri School of Law Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic (ELC).
“I will be forever grateful to this institution and to that clinic,” Whitt said. “When I came to them, my husband had only transitioned maybe five months earlier, so my emotions were still very raw. They never once made me feel silly— it was just a very comfortable, encouraging place to work through all the things we had to work through. We got the work done they did an excellent job.”
The Whitts first moved from St. Louis to Columbia in 2001 after Annelle received a job offer from Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance Company. They found community in one of Columbia’s historic black churches, Second Missionary Baptist. It’s there that the Whitt’s interest in Columbia’s black business district, the Sharp End, began.
The Sharp End was a business district in the City of Columbia for the black community from the early 1900’s to 1960s. The area was demolished during urban renewal in the 1960s which dramatically removed the nucleus of this self-contained black business community. The Sharp End business district was located on Walnut Street between Fifth and Sixth streets in downtown Columbia.
“Our Sunday school teacher would stop the Sunday school lesson and talk about the Sharp End,” Whitt said. “There is a generation of folks in our church who still live in Columbia. Their parents owned businesses. They grew up knowing about the Sharp End, so there were these phenomenal stories about that community.”
From there, James and Annelle Whitt’s interest in growing black businesses in Columbia and honoring the legacy of the Sharp End grew. James served as chairperson of the Sharp End Committee, which worked to erect the first historical marker – the Sharp End business district located on Walnut Street in front of the REDI building.
But acknowledging that history wasn’t enough. James and Annelle’s ultimate goal was enhancing generational wealth and its accessibility to the Black community in Columbia.
From 2018 to 2021, James and Annelle worked together to provide minority and women business enterprises in Columbia with grants through the Sharp End Entrepreneurial Development Fund.
After James passed in 2021, Annelle began sifting through his business and non-profit ventures.
“As I was looking through his office and working through all the business matters, I literally saw a roadmap that he had,” Whitt said. “As he’s giving grants out, he recognized that a business educational piece had to be added to the equation.”
From there, Annelle decided to honor her husband’s legacy by continuing his existing business and nonprofit ventures, as well as establishing her own: the James and Annelle Whitt Entrepreneurial Development Foundation.
On top of just awarding grants, Annelle now provides educational, mentorship and networking opportunities to minority and women business enterprises in Columbia and Mid-Missouri.
The Whitt’s foundation is just one of the many inspiring cases the ELC works on everyday as it endeavors to empower local entrepreneurs like James and Annelle through free legal counseling. The ELC, is run by current Mizzou Law students and overseen by clinic director Don Seitz, who is a practicing attorney. On top of providing pro bono legal work for entrepreneurs who would not otherwise be able to afford legal services, the clinic provides real-world experience for students working directly with clients to perform legal work.
Current Mizzou Law student Harper Palmer, 3L, recalls working with Annelle in the clinic.
“Working with Annelle was really empowering on a personal level,” Palmer said. “It was truly inspiring to hear about her vision for the James and Annelle Whitt Entrepreneurial Development Foundation, but even more so to hear about her husband’s legacy and why they are dedicated to educating and empowering young entrepreneurs.”
This February, the James and Annelle Whitt foundation awarded grants for the first time. As she looks to the future, Annelle is planning to apply for an additional $1.5 million dollar grant herself as she continues to support local businesses.