by Ashlei Williams
Memories that stick with Jo Ellen Bates bring to mind a bustling South Memphis so vastly different from how a slice of it – ZIP code 38126 – is viewed through its statistics.
“My husband graduated in ’59 from Booker T. Washington (High School),” Bates said. “And, he talked about how there was a movie theater and the different places they went as teenagers.”
Bates is the widow of the late Willie Earl Bates, who opened The Four Way restaurant at 998 Mississippi Boulevard in 2002. That was after he’d spent a year refurbishing the building that first began to do business as the Four Way Grill in 1946.
Through the decades, celebrities and notables visiting Memphis routinely made their way to the old Four Way Grill for its appetite-satisfying, down-home soul food meals and the experience of hanging out in the community. That was the case when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dined there 50 years ago in 1968, the year he was killed at the Lorraine Motel.
The old Four Way Grill that a young Willie Earl Bates would have known in 1960 was in a section of South Memphis that was “a thriving, if changing community,” writes Dr. Zandria F. Robinson, assistant professor of sociology at Rhodes College. Her essay “After Stax” is included in “An Unseen Light.” Edited by Dr. Aram Goudsouzian and Dr. Charles W. McKinney Jr., the collection of essays probes “Black Struggles For Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee.”
Drawing upon a project interwoven with three years of oral histories, census analysis and other ethnographic fieldwork, Robinson makes this observation about the quality of life in 1960 in the northeast corner of South Memphis (that includes the Four Way):
“Despite empty homes and businesses as a result of two decades of black displacement, white flight, and the concentration of government-funded low-income housing throughout South Memphis, the neighborhood was becoming a thriving enclave of working-class and middle-class African-American residents.”
That reference brings Jo Ellen Bates back into the picture.
“I think many people probably reflect on what the area used to be and think it can go back to that again,” she said.
In 1957, Satellite Records was born in Memphis, later moving its headquarters to 926 East McLemore Ave., 38126 and subsequently rebranding as Stax. The music that resulted was an integral part of a Memphis sound that reverberated worldwide, boosting the local economy annually with tens of millions of dollars.
But, in the 1970s Stax spiraled into bankruptcy, with federal marshals seizing the building in December 1975. Losing Stax was a blow to Memphis’ economy, 38126’s commerce credibility and the African-American business community.
Sobering statistics make the case for the depth of the challenge for a community comeback. In ZIP code 38126, the annual income per person from 2012-16 was $8,375 and 60 percent of residents were living in poverty, according to Memphis Fights Blight PolicyMap. Other stats show that the child poverty rate is 76 percent.
On a monthly basis, the Soulsville Neighborhood Association invites residents, businesses and community partners to a meeting to talk about the current state of the area and the possibilities for positive change.
“Reports and updates are made,” said Rebecca Matlock Hutchinson, site director of Soulsville USA. “Residents are saying they want employment opportunities in the community, thus, the recent development of the Cultural Tourism Industry. They want to see more youth activities, so in response to that one of our residents is planning a youth seminar for September. Also, a back-to-school basketball game, planned by youth involved in a summer program designed by residents, is being planned for the second time.”
In 2011, the Building Neighborhood Capacity Program (BNCP) was established under the Obama Administration’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI). BNCP focuses on community-driven change in neighborhoods historically faced with barriers to revitalization.
The program was launched in 2012 in four cities, including Memphis. Each BNCP city received funds to support two target neighborhoods. Binghamton and Frayser were initially selected in Memphis, and in 2014 the program expanded to include South Memphis.
One of the major revitalization efforts in South Memphis was the demolition of the city’s last-standing public housing project, Foote Homes at 367 Vance Avenue, 38126. Multimillion dollar redevelopment plans underway pencil in the Foote Homes’ rebirth as part of the birth of South City, a mixed-income community.
The official efforts of BNCP for South Memphis ended in 2016. But, the program required that a neighborhood plan also be created to inform future efforts.
“Residents chose to create a three-year plan (Soulsville USA Revitalization Action Plan) to help continue to drive the work created under the BNCP,” said Matlock Hutchinson.
“We have goals and dreams,” said LaTonya Taylor, a 38126 resident and owner of Epic Bouncing. “People have been dealt circumstances that aren’t good and don’t know their way out.”
Studio On The Square is the closest movie theater to 38126, at nearly an 80-minute walk and one-hour bus ride. Billy Hardwick’s All Star Lanes is the closest bowling alley to 38126, at around a three-hour walk and 80-minute bus ride.
“If you go to Cordova, you have a movie theater, bowling alley, and those things. But in South Memphis, we don’t have anything,” said Taylor Johnson-Prackett, a social and behavioral science student at The LeMoyne-Owen College. She was among several LOC students that Michael Robinson, chair of the college’s Division of Social and Behavioral Science, invited to talk with The New Tri-State Defender about life in 38126.
Walgreens is the closest chain pharmacy to 38126, at a 20-minute walk and 15-minute bus ride. Rainbow is the closest chain store to 38126, at about a five-minute walk.
“I know we can’t have a mall in South Memphis, but maybe a one-stop-shop. Somewhere to shop, pick up your prescription, and get your hair done,” said Patrice Bates Thompson, who now owns The Four Way, her family’s restaurant.
Save-A-Lot is the closest chain grocery store to 38126, at about a 50-minute walk and 25-minute bus ride.
“It’s a food desert here,” said Robinson. “There are very few places to go and buy fruit.”
There is a pattern in the requests of 38126 residents, entrepreneurs and employees; one appealing for conveniences.
“The people of 38126 desire to have the same amenities that other communities have. But, are businesses willing to take the risk?” Robinson asked. “The perceived threat is so bad. Giving this community the benefit of the doubt is not provided.”
Complicating the delivery of services are crime-rate concerns. According to 2000-16 data collected by City-Data.com, 38126 received an overall ranking of 780 out of 1,000 for crime.
“It’s a lot of gang violence in this community. Always on some corner there are a bunch of teddy bears where somebody got shot or died,” said Tierra Morris, a LeMoyne-Owen junior.
Still, said Johnson-Prackett, “We do need the resources. We do need the support. …But, make sure that the funds that funnel through South Memphis get to the residents.”
There is a pattern in the charge to supporters outside of 38126; one for collaboration.
“If there could be more unity in serving the community, it would be better,” Robinson said. “A bureau, network or referrals process. Bring the resources together if you truly want to help turn this community around.”
Knowledge Quest, located at 590 Jennette Place, is trying to connect with youth. In 2010, the nonprofit started Green Leaf Learning Farm, a 2/3-acre, USDA-certified organic farm where students are taught to grow their own food.
Last fall, a resource center opened at Booker T. Washington High School. The Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis joined with five local entities on the center, which offers Internet access, computer training and certification prep.
Referring to the area’s most basic resource – its people, Bates Thompson said, “We have some very smart, educated people. We might not always have the resources to do what it takes to get where we want to be. We just need someone to come in and assist, but not take over and ‘save’ us.”
Neighborhood Preservation Incorporated (NPI) is dedicated to empowering residents to take control. Founded in 2012, NPI aims to eliminate or mitigate property impediments.
“For the folks who want to clean up properties or rehab historic homes, there’s so much red tape,” said Austin Harrison, program associate at NPI. “We’re working with local and state lawmakers to make it easier.”
Affordability in subsidized housing is determined by the area median income, said Harrison. “The area median income for Memphis is around $38,000 for a single-person home. But, people in poverty aren’t making that.”
From 2012-16, 83.5 percent of residents in 38126 were renters, according to PolicyMap. During that period, 43 percent of the ZIP code’s housing units reported not having a vehicle.
Commercial property ownership data for 38126 is also striking, but in a different way. According to PolicyMap, only 18.13 percent of all business addresses in 38126 were vacant in the fourth quarter of 2017. Compare that to the 13.3 percent of business addresses listed as vacant during that time in Memphis.
“A lot of African-Americans own the properties here. And, they’re not really quick to let them go, even though they may not have the funds to reopen, remodel or refurbish the business,” Bates Thompson noted.
Matlock Hutchinson’s optimism for the resurgence of Soulsville USA is comparable to Dr. King’s determination to reach the “Promised Land” of equality.
“Soulsville USA will be a vibrant, self-sustaining, economically viable, and bustling community. We will have a grocery store, restaurants, coffee shops, retail, and an information hub,” she said.
“I see Soulsville USA continuing to build on the legacy of our civil rights, arts, music, educational and faith-based history, gaining strength from the skills of the people who live here.”
ZIP CODE 38126
24.7: Median age
2.7: Average household size
2,646: Total housing units
22.1%: Vacant housing units
17.4%: unemployment rate
15,305: Median household income (dollars)
24.5%: Families living on less than $10,000
57.7%: Percentage of families and people whose income in the past 12 months is below the poverty level
Source: U.S. Census Bureau’s the 2016 American Community Survey