by Rachel James-Terry
The relationship among Jackson State University students Javier High, Karmeen Powell Childress, Jasmyne Tomlin, Joseph Harris, Bari Yakubu and Tony Harris is reminiscent of the hit ’90s sitcoms “Friends” and “Living Single.”
Assembled around a conference room inside the Department of Communications, the divergent band of millennial entrepreneurs could not seem more different on the surface. Yet, one common thread that appears to weave them together is an infatuation with ’90s culture which is prevalent in their apparel brand “Historically Fresh.”
“I would definitely say ’90s fashion really inspired me, thrift stores as well. I feel like thrift stores are like a metaphor for life. You can go in an unorthodox place and find something great,” says High, a native of Chicago and founder of Historically Fresh.
When it came to creating a name for the brand, High wanted something with substance. “I really wanted a name that was kind of simplistic but said a lot about all HBCUs as a collective. As far as, how we’ve always been the focal point of style, education, trends and how mainstream media tries to monetize us.” High explains that when reality-television star Kim Kardashian wore cornrows — a braiding style made popular by African-Americans — people acted as if Kardashian had discovered something new and began incorrectly calling the hairstyle “boxer braids.”
“So, I was trying to come up with a name that says historically we’ve been doing this. We’ve been historically fresh,” he says with conviction.
Now offering an assortment of crazy, sexy, cool T-shirts, the “Historically Fresh” line all began with a chocolate bar.
“I was at a baseball game, and Javi called me and said he had an idea,” says Yakuba, a soft-spoken physics major from Yola, Adamawa, Nigeria, and lead artist for the brand.
High wanted a design that illustrated how sweet it is to attend his HBCU — Jackson State. After a couple of hours in the campus library, the two emerged with their “Bite Outta Knowledge” graphic; a candy bar encased in an HBCU wrapper.
“We sold like over a hundred shirts just out of my dorm room to students, faculty and a couple people off campus,” High says. “It went pretty well. Social media was really engaging. A lot of people wanted more of something we just kind of prototyped and created.”
Realizing he was on to something, High put out a call for a team to aid with social media, marketing and website design. “My friend Lucchi was helping me market throughout the school by face-to-face interaction, so that’s how I got everybody on one team,” says High.
Pensive with a broad smile, Jasmyne Tomlin, head of management, met High while on a school trip to the Allen Entrepreneurial Institute in Atlanta. “He was just sweet, but also vibrant. He was talking; he was cracking jokes. It felt like I’d known him for years,” she says.
When the “Bite Outta Knowledge” T-shirts were released, Tomlin lists High’s work ethic as one of her motivations for applying for the managerial position. “I mainly do our social media, making sure I post in a timely fashion as far as the best times to post,” she says. “That’s how we initially started getting our orders before the website was done. We were getting most of our orders by direct message through social media. Overall, it’s just keeping up.”
Joseph Harris, also known as Lucchi, the self-proclaimed socialite of the group, met High fall semester 2016.
“I liked his vision and thought if I could incorporate myself with him we could make it bigger than what it was,” says the civil engineering major.
“Everything in life needs structure, so with my knowledge I could help him create his vision and each one of us helps implement it. It’s similar to engineering if you ask me,” he explains.
The faction of friends attributes their creative solidarity to having the “same vision and mindset.”
“The first meeting we had was supposed to be about 10 minutes, but we came up with enough product to last for at least two years. So, that’s how we knew we were all great together. And on top of that we all believe in each other,” says Childress, an East Saint Louis native and computer science major.
The group wants their brand to reflect the strength, intelligence and pride found at HBCUs.
“The HBCU experience has strengthened me. In high school, I was very introverted, shy and I stayed in a shell. Now, I’m collaborating with my classmates and other students, and I’m building brands and friendships as well,” says Tomlin.
Yakubu points out that in Nigeria HBCUs have a reputation of being party schools with a lack of focus on education. “Coming here, I’ve learned and seen for myself that it’s actually much more than that. I’ve met incredibly intelligent, creative and innovative people during my time here at Jackson State,” he says.
Defending her HBCU from those who attend predominately white institutions is not new to Childress. She explains that mistruths like degrees from HBCUs are not recognized by other institutions or employers and stereotypes about black people may discourage potential students “not realizing that we have some of the most amazing black kids.”
High says that the brand is intended to teach and inspire people to attend HBCUs and to gain the knowledge that he and his team have learned during their matriculation. He recalls going home over a winter break, and when he introduced Historically Fresh to his younger cousins, they were instantly engaged.
“They didn’t know what HBCU meant, and that’s what I wanted to do. Subconsciously put an image in people’s mind of an HBCU, and it starts the conversation: What is an HBCU? What does it stand for? That was definitely my intent,” says High. “I want to give them that freshness and uniqueness that every HBCU holds for itself.