Announced with no more fanfare than an emailed press release, the South City Museum & Cultural Center is a relatively modest proposition that nonetheless aims to tell and celebrate an important slice of Memphis history.
Real estate developer and consultant Archie Willis III first conceived the idea of a museum on South Memphis — the area where he was born and raised — about five years ago.
“I started to think about the fact that we needed a place where we could collect, store and appreciate the important contributions of African Americans in particular who worked or came from this part of the city of Memphis”, a- he declared.
According to Willis, the roll call of categories that have benefited from the participation of “South City” residents is long and diverse. “Civil Rights. The entire music scene. The Church of God in Christ and other churches and religious institutions. LeMoyne-Owen College. Negro League baseball. The first high school built for African Americans in the history of the town…”
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Some museum projects require a significant investment. The new Memphis Brooks Art Museum, to be built on a downtown bluff, is expected to cost around $100 million and span some 112,000 square feet. But the South City Museum – reportedly located about a mile and a half southeast of so-called “Brooks on the Bluff” – will occupy a reworked school gymnasium on the campus of the old Porter School at 620 S. Lauderdale, at the heart of the geographical region which will be the focus of the museum.
Willis puts the cost at “several million”.
“It will be small but impactful,” he said.
He compared the project to other relatively compact local museums like the Blues Hall of Fame Museum on South Main and the Cotton Museum on Union Avenue.
“We’re not trying to create a huge museum that requires a lot of operational support. It would be something like I’ve seen in a lot of other cities, where you go into a building or a house and it tells you the story of the neighborhood you are in.”
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A collaboration with the Memphis Museum of Science & History
Organized as a nonprofit, the project represents a collaboration between the South City Museum Board of Trustees and the Memphis Museum of Science & History (MoSH), the long-established alliance of attractions that includes the Pink Palace, the Lichterman Nature Center and other educational and historical sites. sites.
The Pink Palace family of institutions has rarely been involved in such collaborations in the past, but “when I heard about this, my eyes lit up,” said MoSH executive director Kevin Thompson.
He said people sometimes forget that the Pink Palace covers cultural, regional and even local history as well as natural history. “What we’re trying to do is reconnect with the community as a whole, so that fits right into our wheelhouse,” he said. “I feel like it’s something we should be doing as the Memphis History Museum.
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Thompson said a professional museum design firm would likely be hired to figure out how to turn the former gymnasium into a museum and cultural center. During this time, MoSH staff members would help organize artifacts, organize exhibits, and manage the museum.
He said the gymnasium space is about 15,000 square feet, or three times the size of Bodine Hall, the upstairs space where the Pink Palace locates animatronic dinosaurs and other traveling exhibits. “So it’s a very manageable space.”
Celebrating South Memphis History
Willis, 64, credits his family history for his interest in South Memphis history. His grandfather, Archie Willis Sr., co-founded Universal Life Insurance, which became one of the nation’s most successful black-owned businesses, while his father, commonly referred to as A. W. Willis Jr. (namesake of the Avenue and Bridge in Harbor Town), was a lawyer and civil rights activist who in 1964 became the first black person elected to the Tennessee legislature since Reconstruction.
Because of this background, Archie Willis III knew many of the city’s most influential black citizens from childhood, many of whom lived, were from, or were educated in South Memphis.
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According to its mission statement, the South City Museum & Cultural Center is intended to “celebrate the achievements, achievements, and history of South Memphis and surrounding communities through the preservation of significant artifacts, the presentation of informative exhibits and to commemorate the residents and organizations that have contributed to this history.It will also create a community space to serve the immediate neighborhood and the wider Memphis community.
The so-called “South Memphis” area covered by the museum covers a wide swath of space, from the Mississippi River in the west to East Parkway South and Airways in the east, and from Beale Street and Vance in the north to Mallory Avenue/Norris Road/Ball Road to the south. The space is a melting pot of civil rights activism and artistic inspiration, home to landmarks such as Aretha Franklin’s birthplace, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and Mason Temple, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his 1968 “Mountaintop” speech.
Among the influential residents of South Memphians were – to name a few – Robert Church, considered the first black millionaire in the South; school activist Maxine Smith; Willie Herenton, the first elected black mayor of Memphis; the Rufus Thomas musical family; and Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, who became a national leader as executive director of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992.
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The South City Museum will be a “people’s museum”
Willis said the museum is not intended to position South Memphis as superior to any other part of the city. He said if South City is successful, it could pave the way for similar projects in Orange Mound, North Memphis, etc.
According to Willis, the old Porter School is a logical location for a museum and cultural center in South Memphis. The campus — which after Porter’s closure also served as the public school, Martin Luther King Student Transition Academy — is part of a $210 million mixed-use “South City” redevelopment project funded by the federal government and led by ComCap Partners of Willis and already approved. by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
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The “South City” plan has long called for an early childhood education center and a new Girls Inc. location on campus, with the South City Museum & Cultural Center a relatively recent addition, under the direction of a council of three people. Willis is the chairman of the board, while other members include Estella Mayhue-Greer (longtime former president of the Mid-South Food Bank) and Marlon Foster (founder of Knowledge Quest, a South Memphis organization that oversees various health, parenting and education initiatives) . Earnestine Jenkins, professor at the University of Memphis and specialist in African-American history, is a consultant.
Willis called the South City Museum a “passionate project” that will be a “people’s museum.” This is partly because he expects residents and former residents of the area to contribute many of his artifacts, once it is time to solicit historical photographs and other items from public.
“One of my aspirations is to get a lot of support from the African-American community,” he said. “I hope it will be a living museum.”