Dedrick “Teddy” Withers’ vision – making Memphis an International World Trade Center – was glorious in its magnitude. A great pyramid was to be the headquarters of African nations trading and purchasing goods with American businesses.
In 1974, Withers became the youngest person (22) elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives. After being re-elected multiple times, Withers became consumed with connecting the countries of Africa directly with American companies.
This week’s “Talk About It Tuesday” forum at the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery on Beale St. brought together three surviving members of Withers’ audacious, exploratory trip to Africa in 1983. Dedrick Brittenum Jr., Chuck O’Bannon, and Alfred Campbell remember it as “the trip of a lifetime.”
“That story was never told,” said O’Bannon. “There are only three of us left. Mr. Withers Sr. (Withers’ father, renowned photographer Ernest C. Withers, has passed on. Teddy is gone, and the three of us are getting older. We thought it was important to share the story of what went on in Africa. We don’t want to forget Teddy’s International Marketing and Development Corporation – the IMDC – and what he envisioned.”
Brittenum was a young attorney and had long been a friend of the Withers family and Teddy Withers, in particular.
“Teddy called me and told me, ‘We’re going to Africa.’ He didn’t ask me. He told me and asked how soon I could get over to his office and talk. I said it would be ‘tomorrow,’ and Teddy said, ‘we better make it this afternoon.’”
Alfred Campbell grew up with Withers in Walker Homes.
“He called and told me we were going to Africa. I was all for it because the only thing I knew about Africa is what I saw in the Tarzan movies.”
It took three months to lay the groundwork – visas, itinerary details, etc. – for the trip, a whirlwind visit to more than 30 countries, meeting with the heads of state. The group traveled in a Lear 35 Jet, seven seats.
“Behind the pilot, there were two jump seats. Behind those were two seats in the middle, and three seats in the very back,” said O’Bannon. “Teddy, of course, sat in that back middle seat, ruling over all. His father, Withers Sr., sat in the back with his son.”
The plane first landed on the African continent in Sierra Leone.
“We got off the plane and kissed the ground. Every place we landed, we were given the red carpet treatment,” said Campbell. “Teddy was meeting with heads of state. We couldn’t always go in with him because of security concerns. The people were warm and welcoming.”
The group met with corporate business people, government officials and people in trade and consulate offices.
“It was amazing that we would see people who looked like people back home,” said Brittenum, also recalling the “majesty and the power” associated with the presidents.
The trio noted great enthusiasm about the IMDC and the possibilities for financial enrichment to people in both Africa and America.
“They were totally open and receptive to the concept. Everyone wanted to be a part to the IMDC,” said Brittenum.
The trip was not without its mishaps, however.
“There was the time when the plane caught on fire,” said O’Bannon. “The cabin began to fill up with smoke. We all kind of panicked, but Mr. Withers remained calm, and Campbell was calm, too. Mr. Withers said, ‘OK now, let’s all join hands,’ and he prayed. As we were praying, the plane came out of the nosedive, and we coasted to a landing on the ground. The pilot told us later we ran out of fuel while we were in the air.”
When they took off from Sierra Leone to return home, people lined the runway and waved.
“That last leg of the trip, when we were returning home, everyone was very quiet,” said O’Bannon. “We were just reflecting on everything. I remember thinking of all those presidents of color and their power and how they received us with such happiness. I was thinking that after three-and-a-half months, we were coming back to America, back to Memphis. It was 1983, and given the way things were with race, I didn’t want to go back.”
A rush of emotion surfaced for O’Bannon, as if he was reliving that moment.
Back in Memphis, there was much work to be done.
“Everyone was excited and ready to take the next step,” said Brittenum. “It was time to get to work. There may have been many hundreds, maybe thousands of trade jobs in Memphis and many millions of dollars generated each year. But this one investor, who was most enthusiastic about the IMDC, passed away. After that, Teddy struggled with maintaining the financial backing he needed. Three or four years after our trip, Teddy passed away.”
Rosalind Withers, sister of the IMDC visionary, said “Teddy” worked diligently on the trade center until his death.”
“He was at my house when he passed,” said Rosalind Withers. “I was taking care of him. He had just returned from a trip to Florida when he became really sick. He never gave up on his dream.”
“Teddy” wanted to put agricultural technology right into the hands of Africans so they could feed their people, said O’Bannon.
“The relationship was to be symbiotic, both parties benefiting and not just a western power extracting wealth from African countries.”