This billboard at Poplar and Union Extended features Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr. and Sheila Whalum and conveys a positive message about marriage. The Whalums are celebrating 40 years of marriage. (Courtesy photo)

More African Americans are less likely to get married, and more than half who do will eventually get divorced, according to articles published in the National Library of Medicine.

Factors such as the breakdown of traditional-family patterns, the acceptance of cohabitation and the high percentage of children born out of wedlock all contribute to the decline of marriage in the African-American community. 

A billboard at Poplar and Union Extended featuring a well-known married African-American couple seen by thousands of motorists displays a more positive message.

The message reads: “Dr. Kenneth and Sheila Whalum celebrate 40 Years of Marriage, June 19, 2022.” 

The signage is flanked on either side by intimate images of the couple.

Aside from defying the odds and making marriage look easy, the “Whalums” are clearly over the top. Right? 

Who announces their 40th anniversary on a billboard?

“We do,” said Dr. Whalum, pastor of The New Olivet Worship Center in Cordova. “The first time ever I saw Sheila’s face, I thought the sun rose in her eyes.” (And yes, that is straight out of Roberta Flack’s 1972 hit.)

Actually, their first meeting was a little less romantic and ethereal than that. A 20-something, Kenneth spotted Sheila in the choir stand of Shady Grove Baptist Church, where Olivet Baptist Church was visiting. He was the son of prominent pastor, Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Sr.

After the choir came down and sat with the congregation, Whalum just had to see who she was. So, he took it upon himself in the too-packed, blazing-hot church, to grab one of those Dr. King funeral fans and conspicuously strut down the aisle and hand the fan to Sheila.

Sheila smiled and said, “Why don’t you sit down somewhere?”

“She was the most beautiful, caramel-colored Black woman I had ever seen,” said Whalum. “And that was the first time any woman had ever been so brash with me. That was it. I was in love.”

Forty years and three successful sons later, Whalum says maintaining a loving marriage is “more than a feeling.”

Sheila, has been the first lady of three churches, raising three young boys in a fishbowl, where everyone is ready to criticize.

From a stay-at-home mom, Sheila Whalum evolved into a prolific author and senior finance executive for the City of Memphis.

Over the years, Whalum has come to appreciate, not only Sheila’s “great beauty,” but also her strength.

“In a very public, traumatizing ordeal, a few disaffected deacons, preachers and members tried to evict me from the pulpit,” said Whalum. “Some call it a church split, but on that day, June 4, 2000, Sheila stood and spoke up for me in a way that motivated other wives to stand with their husbands, as we resisted what the enemy was doing. 

“She was more beautiful that day than I had ever seen her, because of her courage and strength. She was and is the personification of royalty. Sheila is my queen, regal in every way.”

Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr. and Sheila Whalum are out and about – together. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

People ask the couple how they keep their marriage so fresh and vibrant. 

Whalum’s answer is simple:

“I just love her. You don’t want to hurt what you love. You want to be around what you love. You can’t get enough of what you love.

Sheila’s answer is like-minded: “We stay together because I am very good to my husband, and he is very good to me.”

Why a billboard, though?

“I’ve always lived out loud,” said Whalum. “ That’s the only way I know to live. Sheila has come along for the ride all these years. She’s my ride-or-die chick.”