When the United States Department of Education complained about the location of Memphis’ all-Black Kortrecht High School in the middle of a noisy, smokey rail yard in South Memphis, the city finally decided to build the new comprehensive Black high school that the Black community had been asking for. The community considered it a victory, until they learned it was to be called the Memphis Negro Industrial High School. Outrage over the name led to one of the first sustained Black protests in Memphis, and though the community did not get their wish of a school named for its principal, Green Polonius Hamilton, they did get the name changed to Booker T. Washington, and the new school opened in 1927. Memphis folklore has it that the school board gave it green and gold colors and the mascot “Warriors” so that worn and used jerseys and jackets from the white Memphis High School (now Central) could be used at BTW. Over the years, Booker T. Washington furthered the hopes and dreams of generations of Black Memphians. It has produced great musicians like the Bar-Kays, and great athletes. A few years ago, it was visited by President Barack Obama himself. Unfortunately, schools’ fates are largely determined by the neighborhood around them, and BTW’s future seems threatened, to say the least. Enrollment took a plunge when open enrollment and transfer allowed people in the district to attend high school elsewhere, and then the city began its program of demolition of the projects including Cleaborn Homes, where many BTW students resided. Now Memphis has received a 30 million dollar grant to demolish and replace Foote Homes, the last public housing project in Memphis, where a lot of current BTW students live. With it being replaced by upscale housing for the wealthy, it is unclear whether BTW will retain enough enrollment to avoid state takeover or closure. But for now, fans and alumni still take pride in their team and band, turning out on Friday nights for the weekly games at historic Washington Stadium.
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.
Back in the early 1970’s, Shelby County formed their own housing authority and built a housing project called Horton Gardens, at the dead-end of Horton Road near Northaven. In 2009, ignoring Federal laws and housing policy, they evicted the remaining residents and abandoned the complex altogether.
The internet is full of blogs that offer pictures of abandoned sites, buildings and whole towns. Much of it is intended to titillate the viewers. But I posted these pictures I took at Horton Gardens in the hopes that you who see this will get mad. I want you to get mad that in a city with as much of a homeless problem as Memphis, our elected officials saw fit to abandon this complex that probably could house a couple of hundred people. I want you to get mad that these sturdy, well-built apartments were allowed to rot and be burned by vandals. I want you to get mad at the complete waste of taxpayers’ money, which was used to build this complex in the hopes that it would offer a solution to very real housing problems in our community. I want you to get mad that funds were available for rehabilitation of these units, but that Shelby County chose to abandon them anyway, and misused the funds according to a government audit. I want you to get mad that they left the personal financial information of the former tenants strewn about the complex at one point. I want you to get mad that the complex has apparently been sold twice at auction since its abandonment, yet there has been no effort at rehabilitation or replacement. Yes, I want you to get mad, because unless you are mad, nothing in our community will ever change. Horton Gardens, as it is in 2015, is an example of everything that is wrong with Memphis and Shelby County. And it will never get any better until you are mad enough to vote the traditional leaders out and select new ones.
Not that many years ago, Broad Street (as we called it then) was largely vacant, except for a bar or two and the venerable Broadway Pizza Company. It had once been the downtown of a separate town called Binghampton, but in 1915, Binghampton voted to give up its separate identity and become part of the city of Memphis. Not long afterwards,a city ordinance changed Broad Street to Broad Avenue, because Memphis had determined that all east-west streets must be avenues and all north-south streets would be streets. (This ordinance also tripped up the legendary “Beale Street”, and getting Beale back to “street” status took almost 30 years). But the remarkable transformation of the Broad Avenue area to Memphis’ second arts district has only taken about two years, and periodically now the district celebrates its new boom with Friday night art walks, similar to the Trolley Nights in the other South Main Arts District. On Friday, November 7, a large crowd was in the Water Tower Pavilion, listening to a great band of students from the School of Rock performing on the stage, with food trucks and clothing vendors nearby. Up on Broad, crowds were making their way to the different galleries and shops, new restaurants like Bounty on Broad, and temporary exhibits highlighting local products like Relevant Coffee Roasters, and some of the best handmade caramel candies I have ever eaten. Broad Avenue is definitely worth a visit as the Christmas season approaches, for unique gifts that cannot be found elsewhere.
One of the cooler things about building renovations is that sometimes they uncover pieces of history, such as old plaques or advertising signs. Such was the case with the building being converted into residences next to the Webster Avenue Stage in Memphis’ River Arts Fest. I had been standing beside it for a couple of hours or so, and hadn’t noticed anything about it, but when the afternoon sun hit it a certain way, I could clearly make out an old sign: “Chero-Cola Bottling Company.” What on earth was Chero-Cola, I wondered? As it turns out, Chero-Cola, founded by a grocery store owner in Columbus, Georgia in 1915 was the predecessor to the far better-known Royal Crown Cola, or RC, the beverage that went with a moon pie in the Southern past. The founder was trying to find a replacement for Atlanta-based Coca Cola when the Columbus distributor for the latter refused to give him a volume discount he felt he deserved. Although the first Royal Crown beverages appeared earlier (a ginger ale and a root beer), Chero-Cola (did it perhaps include cherry flavoring in the formula?) first appeared in 1915, and only lasted through about 1921, when a court ruled that the designation “cola” could only be used by Chero-Cola’s famous competitor, Coke. Without being able to designate their signature drink as a cola, sales flagged, and the company was renamed from Chero-Cola to Nehi. By the time it introduced a new cola formula in 1933, the name had been changed again to Royal Crown or RC. A court in 1944 overturned the old 1921 decision, and RC’s became officially “colas” again. But the coolest thing is that the relatively-short time that Chero-Cola existed helps us place the Memphis building in time between the years 1915 and 1921. A really cool discovery indeed!
In Prichard, Alabama, where there never seems an end to bad news, the neighborhood called Alabama Village is frequently the subject of really bad news- shootings, murders, stabbings, arsons, as well as boarded-up houses and widespread abandonment. But a few years ago, a bold group of Christians called Light of the Village decided to move into a former crack house and try to bring hope to a place that often seems truly hopeless. On the video above, Light of the Village director John Eads discusses the origins and challenges of his organization’s ministry with Colton Bradford. Visit the Light of the Village website to learn more, donate, or volunteer to this most worthwhile goal.