Shelby County Commissioners Edmund Ford Jr. and Tami Sawyer sponsored the resolution establishing a Shelby County Board of Commissioners Black Caucus. (Courtesy photos)

by James Coleman — 

A resolution establishing a Black Caucus drew unanimous support from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners during its Monday (April 26) meeting. 

The group will focus on the concerns of the county’s African-American communities.

“It’s not just about Black communities – even though those communities are the ones that have been affected, for the most part – but I want this to be something that Memphis and Shelby County can both win, and then we can be the example for other communities across the nation. That’s going to be my first challenge to this Black caucus,” said co-sponsor Edmund Ford Jr.

A Congressional Black Caucus has operated in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1971.

The caucus faces a host of challenges. They include addressing the needs of historically underserved communities, policing issues and a community that has been among the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nevertheless, its goals are ambitious.

“Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the Black Wall Street massacre. Those who do not know what that consists of, it happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma 100 years ago. There was an area in Tulsa that was considered the wealthiest Black community in the U.S. at that time,” said Ford. 

The upscale African-American community and economic center’s 35 blocks were burned to the ground during a race riot lasting May 31 to June 1, 1921. Many who survived the pogrom fled. Those who stayed remained silent. The community was never rebuilt. It is considered the worst spasm of racial violence in the history of the U.S.

“The reason why I bring that up is my first challenge to this Black Caucus is to support initiatives that exist now that are digitized and scalable versions of something that we can recreate as a Black Wall Street,” added Ford.

Among the first steps to achieving that vision will be to address the predatory lending. Many payday lenders charge exorbitantly high interest on loans, mainly to low-income borrowers, leaving the businesses open to accusations of usury.

“We need to look at the big picture as far as what we can do holistically for communities so that those payday lenders and predatory companies don’t even exist in our communities,” said Ford.

With seven of the commission’s 13 members being African American, the caucus potentially comprises a majority-voting bloc. County Mayor Lee Harris also is African American.

“As someone who has represented the concerns of Black communities in the past and present, I would just say to members of the Black caucus not to forget about those individuals on the body, all 13 of us, that I believe are committed to the plight of our black communities, especially those that are underserved and under-represented,” said Commissioner Mark Billingsley. 

It was made clear during the meeting that other members of the commission have been invited to work with the caucus.

“I have hopes for what it can accomplish in the next year and a half as the seven of us are together, plus any other commissioners who choose to join.

“I am just glad to hear that you want it to be a space where we can collaborate on issues, discuss issues that are integral to our community, such as predatory lending, which we have addressed in the commission before, but definitely need more weight behind,” said co-sponsor Tami Sawyer.

Voting in favor of the resolution were Commissioners Van Turner Jr., Eddie S. Jones Jr., Mickell Lowery, Willie F. Brooks, Michael Whaley, Reginald Milton, Brandon Morrison, Amber Mills, David C. Bradford, Mick Wright, Ford, Sawyer and Billingsley.

In addition to Ford and Sawyer, the resolution was sponsored by Turner, Jones, Lowery, Brooks, Whaley and Milton.