South City

In photos: Emmanuel Center is an anchor in a low-income neighborhood in transition

The Emmanuel Center has stood in the middle of its South Memphis neighborhood since 1989. That includes during 2010, when hundreds of residents were relocated during the Hope VI renovation of public housing complex Cleaborn Homes. Demolition took place around the church. That challenge resurfaces as Foote Homes, located across the street, prepares for its transition to mixed-income housing. 

The chapel at the Emmanuel Center looked different on August 10. Tables draped in pastel colored tablecloths faced the front where excited parents entered to find their children’s names and the number of hours they earned in the center’s summer reading program.

The center, located on St. Paul Avenue at the heart of public housing complex Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing, celebrated the students who clocked in impressive figures during its summer reading program held in partnership with Literacy Mid-South.

Parents were invited to come and receive a certificate and a gift card alongside their children.

Diamon Frazier, 32, was sitting in a chair toward the back when his niece, filing in with other students that attend the center, ran up to him and planted a kiss on his cheek to greet him.

Children in the third grade group sit in the chapel during a reading lesson at the Emmanuel Center.

Frazier was there to support his 12-year-old son Diamon Jr.’s, who logged among the highest number of minutes spent reading during the summer.

Frazier has two sons who attend the Emmanuel Center. As a child having grown up close to Cleaborn Homes, he had attended the center himself.

While the neighborhood has always had afterschool options with the Boys and Girls Club, Streets Ministries and the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center within blocks of each other, Frazier’s family liked the focus on younger children at Emmanuel Center.

“It was the only thing we had here as little kids. You could be there all day and they would walk you home,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”

On his way into the building, Frazier was greeted by a “Hey there, young man!” from Father Colenzo Hubbard, the executive director of the Emmanuel Center. Hubbard was brought from Alabama to start the Emmanuel Center in 1989 as an outreach ministry in South Memphis for the Episcopal church.

In his 28 years as leader of the church, he’s met many like Frazier who attended the center and as adults have brought their children. Many former students are now on staff.

“We’re very intentional about starting relationships with the kids while they’re young,” Hubbard said.

That focus on continuity throughout a child’s life was challenged in 2010 when the thousands of people living in the Cleaborn Homes housing project were asked to vacate as part of the site’s redevelopment. In 2011, the City of Memphis partially demolished the site and rebuilt it as Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing, a mixed-income community.

While the buildings around the church were razed, Emmanuel Center remained.

“There was no more just walking up,” said Angie Johnson, the development director of the Emmanuel Center about how their daily traffic disruption affected their relationships with the families they served.

Diamon Frazier stands for a portrait with his son Diamon Jr. during the ceremony celebrating their accomplishments with their summer reading program.

A temporary road was carved through the construction so access to the center remained, but many families had been relocated outside of the 38126 ZIP code.

For about a year, staff used the center’s van to pick up kids that had been relocated from their new schools and drop them off at home afterwards.

“We had kids in 26 different zip codes,” said Father Hubbard. “Taking kids home was longer than the after school program.”

The Emmanuel Center’s executive board decided this was an unsustainable practice. “It was a tough decision,” said Johnson about having to discontinue the busing program, which many held on to as a way to maintain relationships with the community in the face of massive change.

“It was hurtful (to see the neighborhood change) and everybody spread out.” said Frazier, who was in his late 20s and a neighborhood resident when Cleaborn Homes was demolished.

“They meant it for the good, but, back then, you didn’t think it was for the good cause everybody moved away. We thought they were going to take the Emmanuel Center at first.”

While Vance Middle School and Georgia Avenue Elementary closed soon after the demolition when their attendance figures dropped to half of what they used to be, there was never a question that the Emmanuel Center would close or relocate.

A mural depicting Father Colenzo Hubbard, the executive director of the Emmanuel Center, decorates the wall.

But the center did see its share of changes during the neighborhood’s transition. The Emmanual Center pivoted in strategy because of the commitment they felt to the community, according to Johnson.

The center started building stronger relationships with surrounding schools, like LaRose Elementary and Soulsville Charter School, and recruited from there. That broad recruitment has helped maintain consistency in attendance even as Foote Homes, the 46-acre housing project across from Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing that was home to hundreds of families until last year, begins its demolition and redevelopment cycle.

“We worked together because we knew what was coming was beneficial to all,” said Father Hubbard. “By the grace of God, we made it work.”

Back at the summer reading ceremony, Frazier sat next to his sons alongside other parents, many in their work uniforms who attended with their children.

“It helps with the pain (of seeing people move away) to have the Emmanuel Center around,” Frazier said. “I don’t care where anyone goes, they bring their children back here. They’re going to find a way to bring them here.”

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Read more articles by Andrea Morales.

Andrea Morales is a documentary photographer based in Memphis. Born in Lima, Peru, she grew up in Miami, earned a B.S. in journalism from the University of Florida and an M.A. in photography from Ohio University. Working for different newspapers moved her to cities and newsrooms of all size, including the El Sentinel in South Florida, the Lima News in NW Ohio and The New York Times in NYC. Most recently, she was on staff as a photographer at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, where she covered barn dances, ox pulls and presidential elections, all with equal joy.