Lessons in community from Soulsville USA

Join High Ground for What Smart Cities Can Learn from Soulsville USA on March 14. This free speaker event will offer a a discussion on the future of the vibrant south Memphis community. Register for free today to be a part of the conversation.
For the past two months High Ground News' On the Ground series has told the stories of Memphis' historic Soulsville USA neighborhood.

On March 14, we'll explore the future of the neighborhood at a free speaker event, What Smart Neighborhoods Can Learn From Soulsville USA. Rebecca Matlock Hutchinson, Soulsville USA Site Director will moderate the conversation that will include a diverse panel of community leaders featuring Everlena Yarbrough, Talbert Fleming, Lori Spicer Robertson and Dr. Reginald Porter Sr. You can RSVP here.

While Stax Records put Soulsville USA on the map, the neighborhood just southeast of Downtown Memphis was also at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Soulsville's many churches served as command points throughout the movement including serving as a staging area for Martin Luther King's fateful visit in the spring of 1968.

“The neighborhood is the home of the Memphis Sound and stage for the civil rights movement, but those are just two chapters in the massive book that is Soulsville," said Lance Wiedower, On the Ground Project Coordinator and Editor who has explored the neighborhood in depth since January.

"I hope attendees of What Smart Neighborhoods Can Learn From Soulsville USA see the desire of the neighborhood to grow. I hope Memphians realize this is a neighborhood that will be one of the shining examples of neighborhood revitalization that is led from within. There are real community leaders in Soulsville and I believe we'll see in the coming months that they are stepping up to take charge of creating a neighborhood that the whole city will begin to take notice of the change."

Continuing Soulsville's rich history of music, the Memphis Music Magnet aims to attract a new generation of musicians to the neighborhood. In 2014 the Music Magnet opened the Memphis Slim Collaboratory adjacent to Stax Records. Known as the Memphis Slim House, the collaboratory is in the former home of blues singer and pianist John “Peter” Chapman, also known as Memphis Slim.

The house fell into disrepair but Community LIFT reimagined the space and it now serves as a home of sorts for Memphis musicians who pay an annual membership. The space can be used for anything from practice and recording to photo and video shoot space. But most importantly, it’s a resource for musicians.

The Soulsville USA neighborhood is leading the fight against blight.

"Part of the revitalization effort is having a neighborhood association or group of people committed to seeing their neighborhood do better,” said Donnell Cobbins, Property Reclamation Specialist in the Shelby County Trustee’s office. “Soulsville is organizing itself to redevelop their community. The more Soulsville does the more resources that come to the neighborhood and it will raise property values by everyone involved. It’s been a real joy to see.”

Cobbins cited a planning session held at Metropolitan Baptist Church a few months ago that drew about 100 people. It’s a turnout he doesn’t see in other Memphis neighborhoods, showing there is an obvious interest in removing blighted and vacant properties.

Resident Talbert Fleming saw opportunity in a boarded-up home of a childhood friend, which he renovated into Jim and Samella's, a soul food restaurant named for his grandparents who moved to Soulsville in the 1950s.

Furthering neighborhood improvements, the Building Neighborhood Capacity program has a planning team of more than 30 community members devoted to public safety, crime, blight and economic development in Soulsville USA.

“I’ve seen an increased interest among residents to get involved in their community,” said Rebecca Hutchinson, Soulsville USA Site Manager. “Like me, many residents love Soulsville USA and genuinely want to see their neighborhood thrive.”

Resident Everlena Yarbrough is confident that Soulsville is on the cusp of greatness. Yarbrough has called Soulsville home since 1976 and believes a much brighter future is ahead.

“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.”

Of the On the Ground experience, Wiedower said his meetings with Yarbrough have provided some of the most rewarding experiences so far.

"This woman is a real community leader who deserves respect. When we sat down together I saw her love for Soulsville and I was really excited to have the opportunity to tell her story" he said. "I hope people in Soulsville as well as throughout Memphis can learn from Everlena about the real meaning of persistence. She has a goal in front of her and works toward it. She is so motivated to see the community rid of blight. She believes the neighborhood can be another Cooper-Young. And seeing the belief in her eyes when she told me that, I think I believe her."

“But maybe I'd amend her statement a bit. Soulsville won't be the next Cooper-Young. It will be Soulsville, rich with its own soulful grittiness that tells its own story. I do believe that five to 10 years from now we'll see a reborn Soulsville. And Ms. Yarbrough's desire to see blight removal will be a part of the reason."

Hear more on the future of Soulsville at What Smart Neighborhoods Can Learn From Soulsville USA Monday, March 14, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Metropolitan Baptist Church.  Free and open to all, please register here. Refreshments will be provided at 5:30 with discussion to follow at 6pm. Metropolitan Baptist Church is located at 767 Walker Ave., adjacent to LeMoyne-Owen College. For more information on this event, contact Amy Hoyt at [email protected]. The next chapter of the On the Ground series will explore the Frayser community beginning April 1.
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Amy Hoyt is High Ground News' Community Engagement Specialist, which suits her love of Memphis and its inhabitants.