Abandoned schools in the South always depress me. There is hardly a region of the country that needs education more than ours, and I can never understand why such a considerable investment as a school campus would just be abandoned and allowed to collapse, yet it happens all the time, particularly to schools that were earmarked for Black students prior to integration. South of Munford,Tennessee in Tipton County, I came upon the ruins of George Ellis High School, which had been the Black high school for the south end of Tipton County prior to integration. The school had been closed in 1970, and then served as a junior high school for Munford for a time, yet eventually it was sold off to some recycling firm, which later went out of business, and now the buildings are completely abandoned. It seemed to me as I walked around the decrepit and collapsing buildings that the campus could have been renovated to serve as a community center. From the outside, it appeared to have two gymnasiums, and could have been a great place for people of all ages to enjoy themselves during the summer, if Tipton County leadership had made a better decision. Next to a church in front (had they once given the land for the school?) was a sign placed by the Class of 1964 that proclaimed the ruins “Ellis Munford Junior High School,” which was likely the name at that class’s ten-year-anniversary in 1974 when the sign was likely dedicated. One of the peculiarities about George R. Ellis High School was that it was one of the few Black high schools in the South whose name honored a local white man rather than a Black educator. Apparently George R. Ellis was a prominent local man who eventually became a United States Marshal, but I could not determine what he had to do with the school or why it was named for him. I imagine that when Ellis graduates come back to what should be a sacred spot for them, it is not particularly a happy occasion. They deserve better.
For my third photographic journey documenting the blues country of West Tennessee, I stayed mostly in Tipton and Haywood Counties, photographing the historic store in Gainsville, old churches out on the Mason-Charleston Road, and historic buildings in the Haywood County community of Stanton. Perhaps my best find though was a large private ball field out north of Mason, where a Black community baseball team called the Zodiacs once played. Such community ball parks used to be common in Black communities across the South, and were occasionally the sites of Fourth-of-July picnics where fife-and-drum bands or blues musicians played. One such ballfield used to be on Germantown Road near Ellis Road in the Oak Grove community outside of Bartlett when I was a teenager. It has now sadly been torn down.
The Zodiacs Park is in poor condition, and almost looks abandoned, but teenagers from Mason use its basketball courts on warm afternoons, and the fact that some new equipment can be seen on the premises, such as a gas barbecue grill, suggests that the complex is at least still occasionally used. Still, with the park completely empty on a late fall afternoon, it seemed a sad and lonely place indeed.
The other day while riding out Old Brownsville Road, where so much has changed due to development, I decided to take a ride through the Shadowlawn community to see what it looks like these days. To my surprise much was still standing, including the old Shadowlawn Grocery, which had still been open back in 1979-1980 when I went to Shadowlawn Middle School, a forbidden temptation to us students, as we were not allowed to go there.
But when I went to school there, I heard rumors as well, rumors that spoke of a Shadowlawn High School, perhaps a predominantly Black school. Teachers I asked said that Shadowlawn had always been a middle school. Still, there was the spray-painted slogan “Soul Power” on a yellow road sign along Shadowlawn Road.
I would learn the truth in my junior year of high school at Bartlett, when looking through the yearbook from 1971, I saw that the majority of Black students pictured were said to have “transferred from Shadowlawn.” More research on my part uncovered a sad and surprising story. There had indeed been a Shadowlawn High School. Their mascot (like ours) had been the Cougar. They had a marching band, a choir, football, basketball, baseball and track, and even social clubs patterned after fraternities. Unexpectedly, these students’ school was closed by the stroke of a judge’s pen, and then the memory of the school was forgotten, perhaps even actively suppressed,
Shadowlawn School had been built as a first through eighth-grade school in 1958, a consolidation of any number of tiny Black elementary schools, most of which were beside Black churches who had campaigned for their establishment. The main building burned in a lightning fire in 1964, but was quickly rebuilt, despite the NAACP’s request that displaced students be placed in predominantly-white schools instead. In 1967, Superintendent George Barnes told the school board that Shadowlawn would need to “add a ninth grade and grow into a high school.” He offered no explanation for why that would be needed, but Barnes was a man who usually got what he wanted.
In the fall of 1967, when Black students attempted to enroll in Bartlett High School under Freedom of Choice, they were told that Bartlett had no room for them, but that there was room at Shadowlawn. Shadowlawn would add the 10th grade in 1968-1969, and the 11th grade in 1969-1970, but in August of 1970, the U. S. District Courts issued orders with regard to integration in the Shelby County Schools, and while most Black high school students were permitted to remain in their existing schools, two Black high schools were ordered closed, Capleville and Shadowlawn. The merger with Bartlett was not easy, as the Shadowlawn students did not wish to attend Bartlett, and many of the Bartlett students did not want the Shadowlawn students there. Merging was especially hard for those who had been cheerleaders at Shadowlawn, and were not allowed to be at Bartlett. Interestingly, the Shadowlawn cheerleaders were pictured in Bartlett’s 1971 annual as a separate group. Despite the establishment of Brotherhood United, a club intended to create dialogue between the races, fights were common, and at least some students from Shadowlawn were suspended for singing Shadowlawn’s alma mater at a Bartlett school assembly. What I could never find were any pictures, yearbooks, letter jackets, trophies, or any other mementos of Shadowlawn High School. Former students and teachers I spoke with either had nothing, or could not find what they thought they had. Further court orders in 1971 would make Shadowlawn High School a middle school, and at least one teacher told me that things from Shadowlawn High School were taken out behind the school by the middle school administration and destroyed systematically. Today the school is the Bartlett 9th Grade Academy.
In my high school years, there was a small barber shop in the same building with the grocery, where some of my friends used to get their haircuts. The Shadowlawn gym was treated like a community center in winter. It was almost always open, and became the scene of pick-up basketball games, although I never was sure whether the gym was supposed to be open or if someone had picked the lock. Learning about the legacy of Shadowlawn High School helped me understand why the surrounding community treated the gymnasium as their community center. They had once had a spirit of ownership and pride in Shadowlawn High School, the school which never produced a graduating class.
The Mid-South Coliseum was built and completed in 1964, during the administration of Memphis Mayor William B. Ingram, and for many years was an important fixture in Memphis for sports and entertainment, hosting Tiger and Memphis Tams basketball, minor league hockey, concerts and pro wrestling. For many high school seniors, it was also the location of graduation. Unfortunately, after the building of the Pyramid downtown, the Coliseum fell on hard times and was eventually closed. A master plan for Fairgrounds reuse proposed tearing it down, like so many other Memphis landmarks. But the Coliseum means so many good times and historic occasions in Memphis, and as a result, a large number of Memphis citizens have come together in an effort to rally support for preserving the historic structure. They have sponsored events called Roundhouse Revivals, in which pro wrestling, vendors, food and live music are used to call attention to the efforts to save the Coliseum, and the at the second of these on November 4, Memphis’ superb reggae band the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy performed, followed by rap godfather Al Kapone and his hype man Tune C, who were unexpectedly backed by the CCDE as well. Although the weather was chilly, a decent crowd came out to enjoy the music and food, as well as pro wrestling demonstrations by Jerry “The King” Lawler himself, and of course the obligatory visits from political candidates.
This has been a relatively rough year for Memphis, and yet one of the more uplifting things I have noticed has been the spreading of neighborhood-based outdoor artworks and murals. While this has been going on for several years, it has virtually exploded this summer. I was not pleased with the demolition of the historic W. C. Handy Theatre in Orange Mound, but it did cheer me to see the orange-and-white public art on the bricks that remain from the foundation at the site. The slogans emphasize pride in the Orange Mound community and its high school, Melrose. A brightly-colored mural a few blocks away carries a timely message: “Dreams Matter, We Matter”. Just north of the railroad tracks, the historic Beltline neighborhood is celebrated in a building-length mural on the wall of a grocery store. In Binghampton, the artwork near the basketball courts celebrates the game of basketball, for which The Hamp is known, being the neighborhood of Anfernee Hardaway. But perhaps the most striking effort was the long series of murals on the inside flood wall along Chelsea between McLean and Evergreen in the Evergreen neighborhood. The different panels celebrate many different aspects of hip-hop culture or Memphis culture, with the word “REVIVAL” prominently featured in the first one. It is an appropriate slogan for a city that is long overdue for renewal.
When I had first arrived in New Orleans on Wednesday night at Celebration Hall, there were rumors about a second-line being held on the following Sunday. Ultimately, they proved to not be true, but the second-line activist Big Red Cotton sent me a Facebook message that indicated that there would be a Stop The Violence Picnic uptown at A. L. Davis Park sponsored by the Kings of Kings Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and that brass bands would likely appear. So after breakfast, I headed out to A. L. Davis Park, formerly Shakespeare Park, which is the scene of the annual Uptown Super Sunday at which the Black Indian tribes appear. I found that there was a picnic going on, with basketball under the pavilion, youth football games in progress, and a DJ, but no brass bands, perhaps because there was also a heat emergency, and the temperature was near 100 degrees outside. Still, some little kids were having fun playing football and basketball, or watching the others, and the event called attention to the problems New Orleans has been having this summer with street violence.
Memphis has exceptional talent in all sports, but our city is particularly known for basketball, and much of this is due to the frequency and quality of street ball in the city. Each summer, the Orange Mound neighborhood sponsors a basketball tournament at a neighborhood park that pits the best hoopers from the neighborhood against each other. Although the competition can be fierce, it’s always nothing but good fun and good food. This year, Memphis R & B artist Iyse Gibson also performed a couple of songs for those who weren’t in the thick of the game.
Sunday was the last day of A3C, and I was invited to a breakfast at the Melia Hotel with the conference staff. Afterwards, I drove over to the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood for the Soul in the Hole basketball tournament sponsored by the Atlanta Entertainment Basketball League. The AEBL runs a recreational basketball league for artists and performers in the Atlanta area, and A$AP Rocky was one of the artists who came out to participate. The tournament also gave us an opportunity to try something called Grind Hard Endurance Drink since they were a sponsor of the tournament, and the drink didn’t taste bad at all, particularly when chilled in a cooler full of ice on such a hot day. Since I wasn’t hooping, I can’t speak to the endurance part of it!
Kids showing their skills at the South Memphis Block Party, 6/8/13
On the internet, much had been made of a trendy spot called Wild Eggs on Dutchman’s Lane in Louisville, so I drove out there after checking out of the hotel, and ate breakfast there, noticing the dramatic glass case full of eggs of various sizes, shapes and colors. The restaurant was very crowded, but I managed to park and find a table, and the breakfast was quite good. I then drove out to the West End to leave Haystak posters at Better Days Records on Broadway, and from there I drove back to the east side to visit Exclusive Wear and, I thought, Q-Ball’s. The latter store had closed, however, and I was quite sad to see it gone. My last stop was in Jeffersonville, Indiana at LB’s Music & More, but they weren’t open yet, so I left some promotional items in their mailbox. I got a fairly early start out of Louisville heading toward Lexington, and with no record stores between the two cities, I saw no reason to stop. My hotel in Lexington was actually the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort, and was by far the most impressive and luxurious of the hotels on my trip so far. There was a golf course, a restaurant in a 19th-century house, an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, tennis courts and a basketball court. After checking in, I headed through downtown to The Album, where I was surprised to find a lot of African LPs and Black gospel LPs, which I purchased. Practically next door to The Album was CD Central, which doesn’t always carry rap but does carry Haystak, so I left them some posters and postcards. After I visited the two Muzic Shoppe locations with materials, I headed out to Lexington Green, but there I learned that the Disc Jockey store, the last in that once-venerable Owensboro chain, was now closed. I had discovered that there was a restaurant and marina called Riptide on the Kentucky River south of Lexington, so I drove out Old Richmond Road to the spot, and it was on a lovely spot between two bridges on the riverfront. However, I was soon concerned when I learned that the restaurant was out of filet mignon. I had to settle for the New York Strip, but it was very good. I learned that the restaurant was more of a bar and club at night, and while I ate, employes were stringing up lights outside over a sandy beach area in front of the outdoor stage where a duo was playing and singing country music. There was an outdoor bar as well directly beside the river. After I drove the 20 miles back into Lexington, I stopped at Common Grounds Coffee House on High Street and had a dessert and coffee. Despite being a college town, Lexington can be boring at night, as I had learned on a previous trip. There were no rap clubs, no jazz clubs, and my hotel was the type of place where a lot of rich retired people were vacationing, so I checked the iPhone to see what was going on in Cincinnati, only an hour to the north, and found that there was a Reds game, with tickets as inexpensive as $20. I had not been to a major league baseball game since I was little, so I decided to make the hour drive north on I-75 to Cincinnati. As I expected there was plenty of parking, but, after parking, I found myself somewhat confused, for there was some sort of football game going on in Paul Brown Stadium, a high-school game or jamboree, probably, although it seemed early in the month for high school sports. I was tempted to go there instead for a minute, but finally, I walked the opposite direction toward the Great American Ballpark, which is exactly that, bought a ticket and headed into the very crowded game. Unfortunately, the Reds didn’t do very well, but I soon learned that the game was to be followed by a fireworks display over the stadium and the Ohio River. Long before the game was over, I could hear and catch glimpses of another fireworks show coming from over on the Kentucky side, Covington perhaps. The fireworks on our side of the river were dazzling as well, and then I walked out into the street to head back toward my car, listening to the hypnotic cadence funk of several young Black marching band drummers, mixed with the boom of nearby African drumming, all playing for tips from the sports fans walking past on their way home. I thought about cities like Cincinnati, how they have a soul, culture and personality all their own, and, looking up at the dazzling skyline, I wondered if there was something to get into. I debated heading over to the Blue Wisp Jazz Club, but the last time I had been there, the musicians quit playing at midnight, and it was nearly midnight now, so I drove back across the bridge into Kentucky. At Florence, with some difficulty, I found a Starbucks that was still open, and I drank a latte to keep myself awake on the 70 minute drive back to my hotel. Although I turned the lights out and went to bed, I was amazed to hear voices and the pounding of a basketball from outside my window. Looking out, I saw that a pickup game was in full action out on the court at about 1 AM, and it still was when I awakened at about 2AM. I don’t know when it broke up, but the next time I awakened, the court was dark and silent. The Griffin Gate is known as a golf resort, but it’s a streetballers dream as well.