What happened at the corner of McLemore Avenue and College Street in the 1960s is nothing short of extraordinary.
Students rehearse at Stax Music Academy, a key component in the Soulsville revival.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
At the crossroads of segregated neighborhoods in South Memphis, two white business partners would open the doors wide to whites and blacks alike, who congregated to write and record songs that would set off a soul explosion heard around the world.
What’s happening at that same corner today is too great for Deanie Parker – a Stax Records songwriter, performer and its first African-American salaried employee in 1964 – to squeeze into a single, simple word.
“There are so many great things about what we’ve been able to do in Soulsville, USA,” she said.
The “great things” Parker speaks of are initiatives and revitalization and a vision that has sprung from the site of the old Capitol Records building that would become Satellite Records before Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton joined their names to bring the world Stax Records.
The Ewarton Foundation, a moniker formed from the remaining letters of the founders’ names, was founded in 1998 with a $3 million challenge grant from the Plough Foundation matched by the city of Memphis, Shelby County and the federal government, and a $3 million donation from an anonymous donor.
The mission of the foundation, renamed Soulsville Foundation in 2005, is “to preserve, promote, and celebrate the many unique cultural assets of the Soulsville, USA, neighborhood in Memphis, while supporting the development of new educational and community-building opportunities.”
To that end, there are three components within the Foundation – the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School.
“Soulsville has been a catalyst for community redevelopment and it’s a source of pride for the residents of this neighborhood,” said Mark Wender, CEO of the Soulsville Foundation.
The buttoned-up former bank executive seems an unlikely leader for what might be the funkiest block in the city – and perhaps the world – but Jim Stewart was a banker as well, and Wender’s passion for the vision of the Foundation is limitless.
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music honors the city’s musical past.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Five acres in the neighborhood, including the site of the original Stax building, was purchased after the foundation’s initial funding. On that site was built a replica of the original theater that would become the museum. It acts as a “beacon,” as Robert Gordon, author of “Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion,” recently called it, and draws people from the world over to see the wall of vinyl records, instruments played by the MGs and others and Isaac Hayes’s gold-trimmed Cadillac.
Once there, says museum director Lisa Allen, the tourists, music enthusiasts and journalists invariably ask about the other buildings on the campus.
“We are the gateway to the rest of the organization,” Allen said. “I think it took the museum to get attention to this corner.”
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the museum sees approximately 50,000 visitors annually. With only three full-time employees and an annual operating budget of $800,000, it is a wholly self-sustaining entity within the Soulsville Foundation family. Revenue is generated through admission prices and rental events.
Two years prior to the opening of the museum, the Stax Music Academy began its programming in the cafeteria of nearby Stafford Elementary School. A dedicated facility on the Soulsville campus was opened in 2002.
Funded by the Plough Foundation, the program works with middle and high school students from throughout Memphis and Shelby County. Students must audition to enter the program each year and tuition is $1,000 per student, though 90 percent receive scholarships. It’s an after-school program as well as a five-week intensive summer program called the Summer Music Experience, where students work with their instruments while learning the science of recording and business side of music. The summer program culminates in a live performance at the Levitt Shell.
More than just performing locally, the students become ambassadors of their community and city, traveling to places as far-flung as Italy, Australia, New York and Washington, D.C. For many of these young people who have never traveled further than the city limits, it is the experience of a lifetime. And though some may carry their talents to their fullest potential with careers in the music business, most will not.
“But,” Wender said, “the skills that they’ll learn – teamwork and the social interaction skills, the confidence building and self-esteem – these are all things that, by being a part of Stax Music Academy, they’ll have with them for the rest of their lives.”
The Soulsville Charter School, unlike the music academy and museum, is its own 501c3 entity, yet is run by the Foundation. Started in 2005 with classes held in trailers on the property before completion of the 50,000-square-foot building in 2011, the school pulls students from across the city, though a third of them are from the immediate Soulsville neighborhood. The first graduation was held in 2012, with all 51 seniors accepted to college and earning a combined scholarship amount of $3.8 million.
A visitor in the campus parking lot will see students clad in button-up shirts and blazers walking from building to building beneath speakers oozing the grooves of Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett and Carla Thomas.
“Soulsville has been a catalyst” for the community, says Mark Wender.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Though not a performing arts school, music “is in the fabric of our being,” said NeShante Brown who began as a sixth-grade math teacher when the school opened and is now executive director. “When all of our staff comes on board, we start basically with a ‘Stax 101’ session and we talk about the importance of soul and the importance of soul music, and how what happened on that corner years ago, and what continues to happen, is the reason that we can even exist … a result of the legacy created by the folks who made beautiful music there, soulful music, years ago.”
Justice Washington began with the charter school in sixth grade. Now a senior, he plays first guitar in the jazz band yet doesn’t harbor aspirations for music as a career. He does, however, have every intention of going to college and has filled out the necessary applications – every senior is required to apply to at least six schools.
“It’s amazing,” Washington said of his experience at Soulsville Charter. “At a normal school, you wouldn’t get this level of rigor and this level of other extracurricular (activities) that you can do. Back when I was in sixth grade in middle school, orchestra was required. You had to take orchestra to get that first three years of whatever instrument you’re put on or whatever instrument you already know.”
Enrollment at the charter school is at 586 and expected to grow to a capacity of 630. All members of the most recent class of graduates were again accepted to colleges with $9.2 million in scholarships. When she considers the success of the students, Brown said, “I’m literally reduced to tears, and I have been on more than one occasion. … It truly floors me to see the progress the kids make.”
The Soulsville Foundation’s stake in the neighborhood can be measured in dollars with the existing buildings and land totaling a $30 million investment. A new multipurpose building under construction will add another $5 million. What it means in community pride for their neighbors is harder to gauge in any tangible way. Wender and Kirk Whalum, the academy’s chief creative officer, created the signature event Stax to the Max to bring people outside the community into the neighborhood every year. Last April more than 9,000 attended. Wender recalls an elderly man from the neighborhood coming up to him.
“He was crying,” Wender said. “He said he never thought he’d see something like this ever happen in this neighborhood.”
The investment by the foundation is a catalyst for growth in the area, evidenced by the new construction across McLemore from the museum. Renovation of the Memphis Slim house across College Street into a co-op music studio is funded by a $678,000 Community LIFT grant.
Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen Community Development Corp., said that the stakeholders in the neighborhood “talk to each other every day. We all support each other, we all know what each other are doing, we don’t make many moves without touching base with each other, we all use each other’s stuff, we’re all connected at the hip, we are not in this individually and we understand that.”
Since 1999, the CDC’s investment in projects in the neighborhood has been approximately $150 million, including the Hope VI College Park housing program and the FireHouse Community Arts Center on Bellevue, among others. Plans for future improvements include a grocery store returning to the area, a priority named by the Soulsville Neighborhood Association.
“What Stax did was they made a big step by rebuilding the museum and the academy, and the college has been around for 150 years,” Higgs said. “All of this plays off of each other and creates this synergy.”
To discount the role of education in this revitalization is to miss the point entirely. This is the corner where neighborhood kids, regardless of race and with few prospects, found a home and a school of sorts. The Soulsville Foundation is built upon the foundation laid by a Hammond B3 organ and the lyrics of a generation being pulled apart by forces outside their control. Now within their control, the students of the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School will realize their potential, find their dreams and should never find themselves disenfranchised.
Jonthan Lee, left, and Marquis Mason in rehearsal at Stax Music Academy, whose students have become ambassadors of their community.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Parker remembers the beginning and the end. She recalls Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination leading to the National Guard bivouacked atop the Stax Records building and the Big D Supermarket across McLemore where songwriter David Porter had sacked groceries as a young man.
“What it is today defies everything that I ever imagined that it could be,” Parker says. “I always believed that it was possible to have something meaningful there to recognize that great and wonderful, indelible music had been made at that space … but to see how contagious that revitalization movement became and how it has attracted others to invest even more in that neighborhood, that’s such a model of what one can do with one’s culture and art and how both can be used to create things new and preserve what’s made that area what it was before it deteriorated, and just breathe new life into an area that deserved not to be erased, but rather acknowledged and celebrated.”