Diane Stowers, 66, owned one of the last remaining Black gas stations in the country – located on the corner of North Eighth Street and West Atkinson Avenue – for 31 years.
On Oct. 18, she hung up her hose and passed it on to another Black business owner: Kai Trimble-Lea.
“When we came in, there were plenty of Black-owned gas stations,” Stowers told me late last year.
“Many were on the city’s North Side – 27th Street and Burleigh, Fourth Street and Center, 27th Street and Capitol. Passing the business on to a Black owner was important to me. I didn’t want to leave without it being a Black-owned business,” she said.
“When I was growing up, I saw it all the time: Black gas stations and corner stores. But today, sad to say, it’s a lot of people that don’t believe Black people can own stuff. It was important for me to remain Black-owned for our culture,” Stowers said.
Stowers, affectionately called Ms. Diane by the community, is known for her trademark silver hair. She’s worked six to seven days a week for decades. Now, she wants to do other things, including traveling.
“This is a good time in my life to pass things on because I’m still able to help out and do some training, and there are things I can teach,” she said.
Trimble-Lea, a Black woman in her 40s, is the new owner of the BP gas station and was born and raised in Milwaukee in the Sherman Park neighborhood.
She was fortunate enough to work with Ms. Diane before she retired, learning the ins and outs of the business and becoming well-versed in its day-to-day operations.
When asked how it felt to receive the keys, Trimble-Lea said, “I thought it would be this miraculous big difference and change, but it wasn’t. I was fortunate enough she allowed me to come in two days a week, and we even drove to the closing together.”
Stowers has seen many changes over three decades being on this corner. The biggest change she’s noticed is a level of anger in children that wasn’t prevalent in earlier years. And it makes her sad.
She also said the community as a whole is a lot angrier and not as respectful as it once was.
But “when they come through these doors, there’s respect, and I love that. They try to right their attitude and don’t curse in front of me. They keep the bathroom clean, but they do throw their trash in the lot sometimes. I think they think they are keeping somebody employed,” she said, laughing.
Trimble-Lea said she feels proud to be a part of such history.
“I’m so fortunate the staff she had were gracious and stayed on board because they believe in this station, and I believe in this station, so it’s important that it thrives and prospers.”
Trimble-Lea has found her footing the last several months and speaks highly of Stowers’ legacy: “I feel like I have been adopted into the family, and we really do care about each other here. Ms. Diane is such a beautiful, God-fearing person, and she is committed to the community.”
When I asked Stowers what she liked most about her years in the business, she answered without hesitation.
“I enjoy serving people. That is my calling. When I get up in the morning to come to work, I am coming to serve my people,” she said.
Stowers wants Black people to understand we can give and get good service, too, without having to go to the suburbs.
Meanwhile, as Trimble-Lea adjusts to being the owner, she has plans to expand the offerings at the station, including adding new pumps, diesel gas and new tanks.
Her ultimate goal is to own another station. “There’s no reason there’s only one. Why isn’t there two, three or four like it used to be?”
Said Trimble-Lea, “We are a beautiful people, and we deserve the best, so I want you to walk in here and feel that.”