Everlena Yarbrough has seen many changes in the Soulsville, USA neighborhood in her decades of living there. For this neighborhood pillar, she believes the community is on the cusp of greatness.
Everlena Yarbrough is a God-fearing woman. Yes, her faith has been tested a time or two and she’s experienced struggles, but negativity doesn’t seem to be part of her makeup.
These days, Yarbrough is a community pillar in Soulsville, USA. She fights blight, she raised her children in the South Memphis community and is the best kind of community organizer – a neighbor who cares.
But she also recalls a time when she was 13 and found herself on the ground.
Anyone living in rural Mississippi in the 1950s can say life wasn’t easy. But African-Americans chopping and picking cotton, well, let’s just say it’s no picnic.
A 13-year-old Everlena and her twin sister loved school. The man their family picked cotton for, however, preferred the children worked in the fields instead. The girls decided they wanted to go to school anyway.
Their mother agreed and allowed her daughters to attend school this one particular day.
After school that evening the girls needed to draw drinking water from the well, a walk of about a mile and a half from home.
“We drew our water, put the lids on the buckets and headed back,” Yarbrough said. “The plantation owner knew what time we’d get the water. So he was hidden behind the house. We didn’t see him.”
In 2016 the idea that a mother has to choose between allowing her daughters to attend school or spend the day working in the cotton fields seems borderline archaic. For African-Americans in the rural South in the 1950s, well…
“When we got our water and started back down the road he jumped out from behind the house and began to run after us,” Yarbrough continued. “So we were running and hollering with water in our hands. I was behind, so he caught me first. He caught me in the back of my sweater. I dropped my buckets.”
Hearing this story sounds like the worst kind of scene from a John Grisham novel unfolding. But it’s the real-life story of a teenage girl who just wanted to go to school.
“He pulled me back to a tree,” Yarbrough said. “He had already plotted what he was going to do. He had a rope in his hand. He tied me to a tree with a rope and he took the belt that he was wearing in his pants and he took that belt and he beat me. And he beat me. And he beat me. I was able to struggle and get myself free of the rope he had me tied to.
“The others had made it home and told my mother what was going on. When I got home and I was all beat up she was sitting in her chair. She was already crying. I fell in front of her. She could see my back blistered and beat up. She started crying, ‘I got to leave here to save my girls.’”
It was the cold of December but Yarbrough’s mother walked and found a man with a truck who agreed to move the family to Memphis.
“We left the house as if we were still in it,” she said. “Old furniture left in the house. We only took two things, our clothes and the deep freeze.”
The freezer had hogs in it that was meant to feed the family through spring.
The family’s arrival in North Memphis in 1959 could be the end of the story, but it’s only one step in Everlena Yarbrough’s journey.
Fast forward a bit to 1976 when she moved to South Memphis. She and her husband split up when their son was five. Yarbrough and her two children moved in with her twin sister and her four children. This family of identical twins and their six children lived together in a home that backed up to the Stafford School, today’s Southwest Prep Academy.
“In moving to the South Memphis area I began to step down and pull up by my own bootstraps and began to move out in life,” she said.
Yarbrough began work at Trojan Luggage. She always has been the type of person who liked to be involved. She was elected shop steward, beginning a career of heavy involvement in union activity.
She moved up the ladder to chief shop steward, local representative and union organizer. She organized unions at companies in Memphis. She organized at companies in Arkansas. And she even went back to Mississippi to organize companies.
Moving to various companies throughout her career never kept Yarbrough out of union activity. She even sat on the executive board and was a trustee of Teamsters Local 984.
Then she retired in 2006 to “sit on the porch.”
Yarbrough’s community involvement started well before her retirement. She joined the South Memphis Citizens for Action in 1990.
She and other members attended Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission meetings to register to speak so they could voice concerns for the community.
“Becoming part of that South Memphis Citizens for Action organization intensified me to continue to be a voice for the community,” Yarbrough said. “Members began to season in age and they started drawing back into their homes. I had learned enough about being involved in the community so I started an organization, Citizens for Love.”
The group regularly gathered for evenings out in the community. Children roasted hot dogs and marshmallows. And adults visited.
Then that group of neighbors joined with the Soulsville Neighborhood Association.
“I told them we’d make one big family so I got involved,” Yarbrough said. “We made it a big great thing. I’m in so deep now I can’t come back.”
Yarbrough is pleased with the changes she’s seen the neighborhood undergo through the years, from a new fire station to the revitalization of College Street, the re-creation of Stax and even the Soulsville Town Center.
Yarbrough has so many hopes for the neighborhood that she believes can become reality. She’s excited with the young leaders in the community, particularly women who she said will be the catalyst for the neighborhood realizing what it can become.
“I hold back saying it but I believe it can become a Cooper-Young,” Yarbrough said. “Back in the day my sister owned a thrift store in Cooper-Young. When I’d go to shop at her store there was dilapidated buildings and people just walking in a wonderland. Now they’re walking as if they’re walking streets of pearl, silver and gold. I see that happening here.”
Yarbrough’s two children and her sister’s four children all left home to attend college. The four boys joined the military. Today, the children are engineers, college professors and entrepreneurs, all successful in their own ways and with college-graduate children of their own. And all six children are products of Soulsville, USA.
Yarbrough was a product of segregation. Her school books were tattered leftovers from the nearby white school. Maybe that has something to do with her deep belief in education.
“Children now have a golden opportunity at anything, to be whatever they want to be,” she said. “All they have to do is want it bad enough and reach out. There is no excuse now. … I remember back in the day when I went to the library I was lost in words. What are these books for? I didn’t have a clue what it was. Now it’s open to the children. They can take their weekends, decide if they want to lay in the library and read. I can’t find an excuse for a child to not be educated. There is no excuse. In my days there were excuses. There were the fields.”
Speaking of the fields, Yarbrough and her sister did return to Mississippi. In fact, it was a short time after their arrival in Memphis. Their mother just couldn’t afford to feed all of her children, so the two sisters wrote to an aunt in Indianola. She sent just enough money for two one-way bus tickets.
They lived with their aunt for a few years where they had three meals a day. They were happy, but they also felt a need to help their mother.
So at the age of 16 the two girls made their way to Marion, Arkansas, where their mother then lived. They didn’t know where in Marion when they stepped off the bus.
But then they noticed a school bus was stopped at the four-way stop sign. They told the driver they were lost and looking for their mother.
The driver thought the name sounded familiar. So he took the girls to the school principal’s house. He recognized the name, and directed the girls to Mound City Road. The driver stopped at the first house and asked the woman who came to the door if she recognized the girls’ mother. She pointed to a house in the distance.
“Sure enough that was my mother,” Yarbrough said. “She was full of joy and crying. It was a very emotional time.”