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Memphis’s Future Is Built On Fulfilling Dr. King’s Dream
From the outside looking in, with only a superficial lens, the city of Memphis, Tennessee revolves around three things: barbecue, blues music and the world-stopping murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But only when you are on the inside looking out do you realize that Memphis’s true identity revolves around the community of people who not only champion King’s dream of equality, but push foward boldly with entrepreneurship, cuisine and culture. It makes Memphis one of the most unique cities in the United States.
Recently, Bossip was invited to visit Memphis to get an intimate look at the city through the eyes of the men and women who have built it up into the enterprising hotbed that it has become.
Let’s be clear, the food in Memphis is bomb, fie, lit, good af and whatever other savory superlatives you can cook up. That said, it wasn’t just the flavor of the food that earned Memphis’s culinary culture our high praise. It’s the pride that so many Black restauranteurs feel in serving their community and adding to the city’s legacy. We got a chance to speak to some enterprising sistas like Cynthia Daniels, founder of Memphis Black Restaurant Week, Chef Fran Mosely of HM Dessert Lounge, Ayren Moore-Alston of G. Alston Restaurant and Valerie Pevey, owner of The Office at Uptown. Each and everyone of them told the story of building their businesses from scratch and they credit generous Memphian support as the number one reason for their initial success and continued growth. In turn, these businesses reciprocate in offering opportunities to their communities.
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For example, the very first Black Restaurant Week took place on March 6-12, 2016. It was launched with 8 restaurants and as a result created 38 jobs. One-third of those turned into full-time positions due to the additional revenue. That’s community building. That’s pride.
In speaking to people around the city, we couldn’t help but notice another source of Memphian pride, philanthropy. Memphis is one of the most charitable cities in the U.S. and the arts and culture in the city are better because of it. The Hattiloo Theater and founder Ekundayo Bandele exemplify this benevolence best. The New York native says that Memphis’ affluent Black residents had been longing to put their money into African-American theater, but had no outlet to do so.
“There just never was that opportunity for Black wealth to invest in the city. So going to them and asking for $50,000 or $100,000, they were more than happy to do it.”
Since 2006, that Black affluent support along with donations from white allies has allowed Hattiloo to flourish for over a decade and remain debt free in their multi-million dollar facility, a rarity in non-profit sector of the arts.
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Today, thousands are gathered in Memphis to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy and there will without doubt be several replays of the famous “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech he delivered the day before he died from a sniper’s bullet at the Lorraine Hotel. King’s speech was primarily a rallying cry in support of the sanitation worker’s strike, but he also spoke of “strengthening Black institutions”. The unprecedented success of Hattiloo and many other local Black-owned businesses are a realization of that ethos. We can only imagine the pride he would feel seeing the fruits of his labor.
Cuisine and culture are not the only things bringing people together in Memphis, visionary infrastructure is as well. Crosstown Concourse is a sprawling mixed-use “urban village” that houses restaurants, retail spaces, health services, a charter high school, art gallery, podcast recording studio and almost 300 apartments. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before and has helped bring over 800 new jobs to the area. Many of the property’s business models work in tangent and are geared toward providing opportunity in education and employment.
With all due respect to the hope that Dr. King had for the future, we have to think even he would be pleasantly surprised by how the city of Memphis, Tennessee has banded together to turn a dream into a reality. No place is perfect, no place ever will be, but there is a huge difference between a place mired in the tragedies of the past injustices and Memphis, where the mountaintop of freedom is reached by cooperation, community and combating separatism. Memphis is in this thing together, just like Martin wanted all of us to be.
Written by: Jason “Jah” Lee, Associate Editor