When Curley Lee got his first car dealership in November 1997, he dreamed of handing the business down to his children.
"We had family discussions about branching out, getting more stores, teaching my children the business, to secure a future not only for them but for my grandbabies," recalls the 53-year-old former professional basketball player.
Handing down a business to the next generation is common among auto dealers. But it is unlikely that Lee's children, who range in age from 8 to 32, will inherit a dealership.
With his store, Ford of Champaign (Ill.), hemorrhaging red ink as the economy tanked, Lee couldn't find financing. He voluntarily, if reluctantly, closed his dealership in June 2008.
Thousands of auto dealers were casualties of the economic crisis. But Lee is part of an especially vulnerable group: black dealers, whose businesses rose and fell with the domestic automakers.
Black dealers have taken a disproportionate hit -- "drastic" in the words of one minority dealer spokeswoman -- in the past three years. There are 261 black-owned dealerships in the United States today, half as many as three years ago. That's a much sharper drop than the 18 percent decline in dealerships overall.
Those numbers reflect a seismic shift in the tradition of black business in this country. Just as a UAW factory job provided middle-class security for black workers, owning an auto dealership traditionally has been a path to wealth for black businesspeople.
But the decades-old effort to build up black-owned stores has stalled.