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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

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Clayborn Temple’s first executive director shares her vision for the civil rights landmark

by Andy Meek

Anasa Troutman believes so deeply in the mission of Clayborn Temple that she co-wrote, produced and presented a musical at the landmark earlier this year called “Union,” which chronicled the story of the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike. The musical was timed to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Along the way, in helping shepherd that production to fruition, Troutman — who describes herself as a cultural strategist, writer and producer — fell in love with Memphis. She decided to actually relocate to the city from Nashville. And apparently producing a piece of creative art at Clayborn Temple wasn’t enough, because she also decided to stay on at the historic church-turned-national treasure thanks to its role in the civil rights movement. She accepted a job there as its first executive director.

It’s still early days for her as her first day on the job was July 2. But given that Memphis so captivated her that she decided to move here, and that she found Clayborn Temple such an important civic institution that she decided to step into a new role there, she’s plenty ambitious about what she wants the place to become. Those plans include bringing “Union” back for new performances this fall, and to take the institution that was a staging ground in the 1960s for the civil rights movement and for striking workers and turn it into a hub of activity and conversation that inspires change in the city.

“Our primary focus right now,” she said, “is a community engagement process to help determine what exactly Clayborn Temple is going to do and be. We’ve identified several communities we’re going to be working with to do some cultivation and engagement work, which will include things like producing the show again. To be a starting point for conversations across different communities.

“We’ll also be doing some things with artists locally, with the faith community, with our neighbors in South Memphis and other historically black communities, and then a lot of work around history and storytelling. We’re thinking through what it means for us to be a museum — but one that lives and breathes into the future, not just telling the stories of the past.”

About that past — the building was, of course, a headquarters for the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which began 50 years ago this year when two black sanitation workers were killed in a city garbage truck. That led to a groundswell of activism. Almost 1,000 sanitation workers marched twice a day starting in February 1968 from Clayborn to City Hall. They wore signs that famously declared “I AM A MAN.” And at night, strikers, their families and supporters filled the sanctuary at Clayborn.

It was the strike that set events in motion for Dr. King’s fateful trip to the city.

The A.M.E. church congregation that originally worshipped at Clayborn dwindled over the years and eventually relocated. The building at 294 Hernando Street was vacant for about 20 years and then reopened its doors in 2015, hosting a variety of arts and cultural events.

Businessman Frank Smith, a co-owner of Wiseacre Brewing, bought the building and brought in developer Rob Thompson to help write Clayborn’s next chapter.

Thompson has a background in real estate development and nonprofit leadership but decided he didn’t want a permanent role in the effort. One of his early thoughts was that such a sacred African-American space more or less demanded a visionary African-American leader to help figure out what it could be and where it goes from here.

“When I first started talking with Anasa,” he said, “I was thinking about how we could plug her in and utilize her talents. But pretty quickly my thoughts changed to, ‘We need Anasa to lead this whole thing. Is there any chance she would be interested in that?’”

A transition team is advising and helping guide Troutman in her first 90 days as executive director. The team is focused on a few specific tasks, like crafting a vision for Clayborn, putting a permanent board of directors in place, working out details on future fundraising and development, among other needs.

Clayborn also plans to host a series of community-based conversations this fall to help figure out how to develop space with an eye toward historic preservation, cultural expression and social justice. And Troutman plans to work closely with partners including the National Trust for Historic Preservation which recently honored Clayborn as a “national treasure” to think about how to tell the Clayborn story. In Memphis, and beyond.

“Our intention is for Clayborn to become a cultural, spiritual and economic and political hub – a heartbeat of the community,” Troutman said. “To just be a welcoming place for the people of Memphis to come over and over and over again. And think about the future and have difficult conversations and engage in art and culture and all those things that you need to do to be the heartbeat of a community.”


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