Dr. Erma L. Clanton arrives for an annual Memphis Living Legends service, which she created in 2003. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/TSD Archives)
Dr. Erma L. Clanton (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/TSD Archives)

While teaching Theater and Communications at the University of Memphis, Dr. Erma L. Clanton tried always to “create new opportunities for our children to act, to speak and to communicate effectively.”

Her success at doing so there and elsewhere added to a legacy ripe with living examples of talent nurtured by her guiding hands.

Dr. Clanton, 98, died on Tuesday evening. Services are pending. M.J. Edwards Funeral Home has charge.

Synonymous with success as a playwright, stage director, songwriter and educator, Dr. Clanton for many years promoted the value of excellence through the Memphis Living Legends recognition service held annually at New Sardis Baptist Church.

The Rev. Darrell Harrington, New Sardis’ pastor, said he and Dr. Clanton had dinner together not long ago.

“I was there at the house until about three (Wednesday morning after she passed Tuesday night),” Harrington said. “Dr. Clanton passed sitting right there in her chair. She was 98, but the Lord has been good to Ms. Clanton. And so, we are not finding any fault with God.”

The Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., New Sardis’ pastor emeritus, was Dr. Clanton’s pastor for many years, remembering her as a prolific songwriter, among many other notable talents and achievements.

“Erma Clanton did so much to integrate the theatre and drama,” said Gray. “Her work was transformative to so many people. … She saw things before they came to be.”

A Booker T. Washington High School graduate, Dr. Clanton – one of eight children – was a Memphis native born on Feb. 5, 1923. At Alabama State University, she earned a bachelor of science degree (1945). For two-plus decades, Melrose High School, where she made her English class embraceable and memorable, was her home away home.

Later at the University of Memphis, she added a master’s degree in theater and communication to her professional tool box. As an associate professor there, she gave birth to a production called “An Evening of Soul,” which evolved into an enduring part of her legacy.

Brenda Jones Lewis played a role in the production while a student at Hamilton High School.

“It was amazing how she saw so much in us, and knew how to pull it out,” said Lewis. 

“She was truly a visionary who touched so many people. She brought me out of my shell. I will be forever grateful.”

Dr. Clanton was in pursuit of her graduate degree at the University of Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. In an interview with The New Tri-State Defender that coincided with what would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday, Dr. Clanton recalled the “heady days when we performed all over the country versions of my original stage production, ‘An Evening of Soul.’

“Many students were the first to attend college, and on the high school level, some of those children had no dream of attending college after graduation,” she said. “Those shows instilled a sense of pride and beauty in being ‘young, gifted and Black’ to use the words of a songwriter.

“I like to think that Dr. King would have loved those productions and what I was trying to do…”