Nonprofit trains Whitehaven youth in creative storytelling and neighborhood research

The Blues City Cultural Center is working with students at Whitehaven High School to document the history of the neighborhood through art and storytelling.  


The two-year program, called Whitehaven 38116, teaches students techniques used to interview Whitehaven elders and research Whitehaven history through partnerships with the City of Memphis, and local videographers, writers and artists.

Roniece Gilkey, educational coordinator for Blues City Cultural Center, said the nonprofit found success with the program before in Orange Mound.

Over the past three years, Blues City worked with about 50 students in Orange Mound during the summer and the school year to further the historic neighborhood's narrative.

“We are in the very beginning stages of doing similar work that we did in Orange Mound. It’s the same format—meeting with people in the community to get the history of Whitehaven and their experiences,” Gilkey said.

“We’re looking at Whitehaven High School as the centerpiece to explore neighborhood integration and see how and where things started to change. As one looks at photos in the school of the graduating classes, you can see how the racial makeup of the neighborhood began to shift.”

Gilkey said that Orange mound is unique because it is a neighborhood formed from a pieced-off plantation that was developed as a black community from inception. Whitehaven's development followed a different trajectory.

“Whitehaven was not a neighborhood originally planned for African-Americans. We want students to answer the question of how integration affected the community. When white homeowners and business owners moved out and black people moved in, people affectionately began to call the community Blackhaven. Let’s talk about that,” she added.  

"We’re looking at Whitehaven High School as the centerpiece to explore neighborhood integration and see how and where things started to change."

Gilkey said the work between students and elders is crucial because the generations can illustrate how the community once looked, what it looks like now, and how it will look in the future.

The Blues City Cultural Center has been working with students in Whitehaven High School since October 2017 twice per week in a theatre class, contemporary issues class and a Facing History and Ourselves class to produce youth-led and developed content.


In April, 25 to 30 students will be selected from the classes as interns for the Blues City Cultural Center. During their internship, students will continue to do research to develop a brochure about Whitehaven for the Memphis Visitor Center on 3205 Elvis Presley Boulevard. They will also write and direct performances and coordinate tours of the Whitehaven neighborhood where they will reenact historic events.

“It is youth led so that they get a better appreciation for their history, their place in the community and what they can gain. It’s important that this generation understands where they’ve been and where they’re going," Gilkey said.

In addition to being exposed to entrepreneurship and the local hospitality and tourism industries, students will receive a $1,000 stipend for their participation in the internship.

Antoinette Crawford-Willis, a theatre teacher at Whitehaven High School, said one of the reasons she is excited about the program is because it addresses acting, oral history, theatre, the elements of drama, conflict and resolution.

Crawford-Willis said she can also see the difference in students and their interest in class every day since the preliminary parts and conversations around Whitehaven 38116 began.  

“They’re having aha moments. The work that Blues City is bringing to Whitehaven High School addresses our academic platform which is to promote higher order thinking,” Crawford-Willis said.

“We are guiding the conversation, but students are taking the lead on the work for the opportunity to continue this work in the summer months. This is not your typical summer job.”

She said when representatives from Blues City walk into the classrooms, students light up because they know they’re about to learn and have fun while doing it.

Crawford-Willis said she’s also noticed students taking advantage of other opportunities since their interest has peaked in the arts, such as inquiring more about workshops and volunteer opportunities in the Greater Memphis area.

“That tells me that this is helping them to grow and they understand the expectations for when they go out into the world and start pursuing careers,” she said. “That’s what this is doing.”

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Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here