Soulsville USA's changing entrepreneurship landscape

From family-owned businesses to side hustles and small businesses striving for success, Soulsville USA has an entrepreneurship landscape working to serve the neighborhood.
Once upon a time the stretch of McLemore Avenue from Third Street east to Bellevue Boulevard was filled with a variety of commercial uses.
 
But what once was a street of homes, churches and a mix of commercial buildings has seen much of that small business environment disappear.
 
There are businesses alive and well in Soulsville USA. Four Way Grill is a neighborhood institution that first opened in 1942 and has been under the current family ownership for the past 15 years. Tennessee Regular Baptist Book Store has been in the neighborhood since the 1950s, and a number of newer businesses are making a go at it.
 
Then there are smaller entrepreneurs, the ones who are working out of their homes in the growing gig or freelance economy. Luster Williams grew up in the Foote Homes project in South Memphis. After a career in the military he returned to the area, where he operates Automation Plus Computer Services. He said it’s more important than ever to operate a business in South Memphis. He had a storefront but closed it a couple of years ago to operate out of his home near Soulsville USA instead.
 
“I will not leave my neighborhood,” he said. “I feel that kids need to know that you can become a success and don’t have to run to Germantown and run away from the ’hood but stay here to show the kids. I can be right among you and be just like you. That will go a long way.”
 
The need to be an example for a younger generation in Soulsville USA wasn’t always as glaring as it is today. A century ago, the neighborhood was one of the thriving African-American communities in Memphis.
 
A history of South Memphis that was prepared for the Memphis Landmarks Commission in 2007 reveals some of the past success of what it called the McLemore Avenue Business District. In 1910 the district had three grocery stores, three dry goods stores, two drug stores, two furniture companies and a hardware store. Much of that activity was centered closer to Third Street, about a mile west of the heart of what today is Soulsville USA.
 
By 1950 the South Memphis area had grown to nearly 60,000 residents but as the popularity of post-war suburbs was growing, the next 20 years would see a decline in businesses as people began moving out of the city.
 
In 1970, the district’s businesses were being replaced by storefronts that specialized in used clothing.
 
“Other troubling vacancies or building losses in 1970 was concurrent with the deterioration of building stock due to demolition by neglect, arson and age,” the Landmarks Commission history states.
 
Building addresses dropped from 47 in 1920 to 40 in 1970 and to 30 by 1980, the report showed. Light industry began replacing retail.
 
The commercial flavor of the great McLemore Avenue area – and by extension Soulsville USA – was altered.
 
“It was no longer possible to buy groceries, fresh fruit, or custom butchered meat, fill a prescription, bank, go to the post office, get a hair cut, shop for jewelry, see a movie, go to a union meeting, repair a bicycle or radio, or buy a tailor-made suit,” the South Memphis history stated. “By 1990 the number of businesses in the McLemore Avenue business district had dropped to nine, only seven more than in 1902.”
 
Closer to the heart of Soulsville USA is the Bellevue Boulevard Commercial Strip. In part because of its growth into a major north-south state highway, Bellevue had several filling stations on its west side in what today is the Soulsville USA neighborhood. Car lots and restaurants also lined the street in the post-World War II era.
 
But it’s hard for a neighborhood to sustain commercial growth when the population dwindles. U.S. Census figures show the neighborhood had lost 26 percent of its population in 1990 compared to 1980. And there was a 34 percent decline in 2000 compared to 1990. With dwindling population numbers, some businesses that offer groceries or other neighborhood services might find it hard to justify opening a storefront.
 
Adrian Killebrew has seen the ups and downs of the neighborhood’s commercial district. Manager of the Tennessee Regular Baptist Book Store, his grandfather started the business in 1950 on Beale Street before moving it to 481 E. McLemore Ave., adjacent to the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church he pastored. The business moved to 1291 S. Lauderdale in 1980 where it was for about six years before moving to its current location at 1055 S. Bellevue Blvd.
 
While the neighborhood’s small businesses have seen better times, Killebrew is quick to recognize what the community means for his family’s business.
 
“My whole family is community oriented so we’ve always had a connection to the community in terms of offering help with whatever service we can,” he said. “My father was a very generous man in helping people starting churches, giving a great discount or giving them stuff to help get them started and helping families in the neighborhood that need help. We’ve never had any hard times. I believe I used to tell my father he’s truly blessed because of his generosity to others.”
 
Killebrew did say that while there are a handful of national fast-food chains nearby on Bellevue, he is disappointed in some of the makeup of the current business landscape.
 
“A lot of businesses have closed and gone,” he said. “There’s not in terms of restaurants, you don’t have anything in this area. Maybe a little corner grocery selling sandwiches or hot cakes. … I remember Leonard’s Barbecue was over here. There’s been a lot of businesses come and gone over the years.”
 
A baker at McLemore and College Street is long gone, as is the adjacent Al’s Tasty Burger.
 
Yes, the business environment has changed in Soulsville USA, but it doesn’t mean a positive reversal isn’t in the cards.
 
Amanda Coop of Advance Memphis said the idea of entrepreneurship in the greater South Memphis area isn’t as simple as someone wanting to start a business and stepping out to do so.
 
“The culture of this neighborhood is one of coming along with survival,” she said. “You in a way learn ways to make money. So instead of starting with an idea of a great business idea it’s more of, ‘I need to earn money this week because I have children to feed, what can I do?’”
 
Advance Memphis works with the entire 38126 ZIP code, which includes much of the Soulsville USA neighborhood, but also includes the Foote Homes public housing project and what once was the Clayborn Homes project.
 
Bryce Stout is entrepreneurial development coordinator for Advance Memphis. He said the majority of residents in the community who he sees opening their own businesses is more along the lines of a side hustle, possibly something that is in addition to a “day job.” He said he does see some of the graduates of the Advance Memphis Launch Program who are moving from a non-licensed business to licensed.
 
“Some have multiple businesses they run and that’s their main source of income,” he said. “One lady does taxes during tax season and then home health care outside of tax season. One lady has part-time jobs and then runs cleaning businesses. It’s a spectrum.”
 
Sometimes Advance Memphis works to simply identify a person’s strengths and how those skills can be utilized for income.
 
“A lot of the teaching of the program is God has made us each unique with skills and we’re called to share that and work is a way to do that,” Coop said. “As we explore that that’s where you might come across someone who is good at fixing cars. OK, you never went to formal training but you just understand it. So there’s that path of where people are doing things to get by but the idea of taking it to the next step or have a business isn’t necessarily on their radar.”
 
One of the stories of entrepreneurship in Soulsville USA is family. Patrice Bates Thompson is in the process of joining the family business, The Four Way, which is owned by her father, Willie Earl Bates. The restaurant has had a few owners through the years, but one consistency has been serving what has been called some of the best soul food in the South.
 
When Bates bought the restaurant he also bought the adjoining vacant spaces and turned the whole building into one large restaurant.
 
Another family business success story is Beneva Mayweather Foods, owned by Soulsville USA resident Daniel Watson.
 
 The community has a number of family businesses, from Beneva Mayweather Foods and the Tennessee Regular Baptist Bookstore to Jim and Samella’s House restaurant.
 
Watson made the decision to return home after graduating cum laude from Morehouse State in Atlanta in 2004. His grandmother operated a catering business until she died during Watson’s freshman year of college. His mother took over the business but she died last year.
 
Today, Watson works out of his Soulsville USA home keeping the family business going, even adding to what it originally offered.
 
What previously was a catering business today offers products that include rolls that can be found in Memphis restaurants such as Flight, and seasonings and frozen items that can be purchased in Memphis-area grocery stores including Cash Saver, Miss Cordelia’s and Humphreys Fine Cut Shop.
 
The product offerings started with a chicken seasoning Watson carried around in his car trunk back in 2008.
 
“I gave away more bottles than I kept,” he said.
 
It took two years, but the first distribution deal came in November 2010 for his chicken and all-purpose seasonings.
 
Watson said it’s important to sell a story with his products, which all connect back to his commercial kitchen in the neighborhood and his grandmother’s relationship with Soulsville USA.
 
“I grew up here in my younger years,” he said. “My crib was in the kitchen. It was an entrepreneurship environment with my grandmother. I had a lot of love from different places.”
 
Like Watson, Talbert Fleming returned to the neighborhood after many years away from Memphis to create a family business. He and his brother, Sheldon Fleming, opened Jim and Samella’s House in 2013 at 841 Bullington Ave.
 
Talbert Fleming said he saw an opportunity to have a business that would also in some ways give back to the community.

“It was more so about the passion for the neighborhood,” he said. “When we had the conversation we talked about giving back to the community. My grandmother wouldn’t turn away anyone hungry. So when we opened if you don’t have money to eat you’re more than welcome to come and eat.”
 
Fleming has struggled to establish a following in the community. While his restaurant sees business from Memphis visitors, he hasn’t had strong support from the Soulsville USA neighborhood.
 
“I don’t understand why but here in Memphis people will only go to places if they see a flow of other people coming through,” he said. “Our business could cater to the community but they won’t patronize you if they don’t see other people come from other cities, or see what’s going on in your place. When we have events people will stop by and say, ‘Wow, what’s going on? I’ll come back next week.’ A lot of people don’t know it’s a restaurant.”

Fleming said he doesn’t advertise. Word of mouth that has spread thanks to online reviews might be one reason the restaurant is growing in popularity with visitors to Memphis.
 
Killebrew said he believes it’s possible to make small business in the Soulsville USA area great again. In fact, he said he’s in the process of planning long term to open a barber shop and restaurant next to his family business. And with a little financial backing, he’d open a desperately needed grocery, too.
 
“If I had enough money I’d open a grocery store,” he said. “A real grocery store. I think the community could sustain it. It’s all about the quality of service and product.”
 
Watson said he believes to have sustainable success it’s important to focus on the greater South Memphis neighborhood. He raised caution about a gentrification of the neighborhood, while also saying it’s important for the community’s entrepreneurs to be prepared.
 
“On the flip side, let’s make sure we’re in a condition to ride that wave,” he said. “You want to stop (gentrification) you gotta get on it on a macro scale. All of South Memphis needs to execute. … Let’s build things. Get the economics in place. Let’s understand what it means to deliberately support something. It’s an objective purpose.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
Signup for Email Alerts