South Memphis

Historic Withers home on its way to national landmark status

An unassuming residential building in South Memphis' Westwood neighborhood is on track to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Ernest C. Withers House, at 480 W. Brooks Road, was the family home of the renowned Memphis photographer and also served as his photography studio during important periods of his career.

Withers, who lived from 1922 until 2007, is recognized internationally for his work. He documented many of the most significant events in civil rights history—including the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike—as well as capturing the Black experience in Memphis and the South more broadly.


The big picture

The Withers family requested that the house be added to the National Register. Historic preservationist Kelsey Lamkin prepared the application on behalf of Memphis Area Association of Governments (MAAG), a multi-county planning and economic development entity. Together, the family and Lamkin submitted the initial nomination on April 28.

“While the property has been a local landmark for some time, and is designated with a historic marker, it had not been nominated for national designation,” Lamkin said. 

The family is hoping that the home’s inclusion on the Register will help increase awareness of his influence, both as a photographer and in the civil rights movement.

“Lots of history took place here, and so many stories can be told,” said son Andrew Withers.

He noted that during his parents’ lifetime, many important guests from the entertainment and advocacy worlds visited the home, including Eartha Kitt, Alex Haley, and Stokely Carmichael.


The more things change…

“Our family was one of the first to move into the area when it was built in the 1950s,” said Andrew Withers.

Walker Homes, the immediate neighborhood, was still in unincorporated Shelby County at the time and had not yet been annexed by the city. The homes in the area were first developed to provide housing for World War II veterans, and many have housed multiple generations of the original families who lived there.
 
The family home has changed little since 1970, and maintains the layout utilized by Ernest Withers as he developed some of his most iconic photographs from the early 1950s to the early 1970s.

Andrew Withers and his family now own and operate the home as the Ernest C. Withers Historical House, a museum that still contains many of the photographer's clothes, books, papers, furniture, and other personal belongings. The museum hosts regular events—such as bi-weekly fish fries—to showcase the home to the Memphis community. Upcoming event plans for 2022 include a celebration of what would have been Ernest Withers’ 100th birthday.


On the list

Properties can become eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places for several reasons, including being associated with important historical events or embodying distinctive architectural or construction styles of a certain period of time.

The Withers house is eligible because it is associated with a person who has historic significance. Adding to the application’s importance is the need for greater representation of African American sites on the National Register, according to Lamkin.

“Less than one percent of National Register Listings across the U.S. are significant due to African American history,” she said.

To further address that gap, MAAG is currently working to nominate the Orange Mound neighborhood for listing on the Register.


What’s next

There are several steps and approvals needed before the application for National Register listing is finalized, which Lamkin hopes will occur later this year.

While neighbors have been involved in helping archive the home’s contents, the Withers Home Foundation still needs funding to continue operations.

“We want to preserve all of my father’s clothes as well as my mother’s, plus the furniture and everything else,” Andrew Withers said. “We are soliciting support and help for that.”

Once the home is officially added to the Register, the Foundation anticipates and welcomes even more interest in the museum and Ernest Withers' story.