This week StoryCorps Griot concluded a six week stay in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis is a city defined by proud and storied neighborhoods like Orange Mound and South Memphis (a.k.a. Funky Town), legendary musicians from WC Handy to Issac Hayes to Three 6 Mafia, triumphant moments – Dr. King’s Mountaintop Speech, and deep sorrow – Dr. King’s assassination.
Between the lines of news-makers and note-worthies stand the people whose pulse has given endless life and vibrancy to the city, its triumphs and sorrows. The news-makers and note-worthies are worthless without the shoulders they stand on. They stand on the shoulders of the people you pass on the street, stand behind in line, and celebrate with on holidays. It is the people who were driven from their rural homes by racist brutality, refugees in a strange city called Memphis. They stand on the shoulders of the first family member to attend a newly segregated school, swim in a pool or use the front door of a restaurant. History is made and the future is paved by everyone striving to eat and raise their children with love, compassion and the tools to triumph in a wicked world, and all those others who don’t quite make it but we can’t help but love anyway. So often people insist they don’t have anything to share. But anyone who has lived long enough to hold a memory has something to share. What seems mundane to you will become monumental to a relative who hears your voice years from now.
We are all trying to live our lives the best way we know how. Dr. King wrote “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” You had better believe everyone has something to say. Here are some Memphians who had something to say:
Mrs. Childress came to talk about her beautiful quilt work. In the picture above she poses with her “Civil Rights Quilt”. The tiles are filled with quotes by African-Americans from throughout history.
Mrs. Childress holding her homemade pickled jalapenos and Cha Cha. The two facilitators in the booth that day made sure she didn’t leave before we got some homemade jam, pickled watermelon rinds and some of that Cha Cha. (The best Cha Cha we found in Memphis.)
A quilt hanging at SlaveHaven Underground Railroad Museum.
Each title is a secret code that served as trail markers along the Underground Railroad. According to the stories, conductors or people along the routes would hang a quilt in a window or on a clothesline with patterns like these guiding runaways to freedom.
Joan Nelson (R), director of Slave Haven Museum on the Burkle Estate, shows facilitator Michael Premo (L) an area of the property believed to be an underground tunnel where Mr. Burkle hid runaway slaves.
Facilitators Michael Premo and Steven Thrasher had the privilege to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon at Mrs. Nelson’s home, listening and sharing.
Marvis LaVern Nelson Jones
Mrs. Jones came to the booth several times, each time bringing a friend or relative. She and her partners came to talk about coming up, family and, of course, Memphis.
Community Partner and Director of the Memphis Black Business Association Robbie Williams (L) and facilitator Steven Thrasher (L) get set to begin an interview. Mr. Williams’ interview partner is behind the camera.
After sitting patiently through his grandmother’s interview, Pastor Irene W. Booker’s grandson Shawn (foreground) gets to check out the recording equipment.
Mr. Willy came in to share stories of the women he’s loved and the things he’s seen. He has worked many jobs in his long life. One of these jobs was owning a club called the Hillcrest Lounge which was a regular spot where B.B. King used to play.
Andre Bailey (L) Catheree Gray (C) and Andrew Bailey (R)
Andrew Bailey first came to StoryCorps Griot with his ex-wife and mother of his children. They shared a beautiful conversation about their children and what they love about each one. Mr. Bailey was so moved by his experience that he came back with his twin brother and grandmother. The brothers wanted to celebrate their grandmother, who raised them, by talking about growing up, family and expressing on a recording for history why they love the beautifully strong and brave women who raised them.