5 Star Stories Black History Month: How Soulsville’s past now shaping the future

Updated: Feb. 9, 2021 at 9:32 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Most Memphians are familiar with the location of Soulsville, USA, but for the uninitiated, it basically fans out in South Memphis from the McLemore Corridor running roughly from Mississippi to Bellevue Boulevards.

And at the heart of that neighborhood, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School.

This 5 Star Story not only celebrates Black History Month, but it also shows how Soulsville’s past is shaping the future.

The corner of McLemore and College Street in South Memphis intersected history with new beginnings when Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons debuted their new song, “Better Days” using the Stax Museum of American Soul Music as a backdrop during the 2021 inaugural festivities.

They also tapped Stax Music Academy students for background vocals allowing them to steal the spotlight.

Rachael Walker, who’s studied with Stax Academy for four years, was one of the students who took part in the outdoor taping.

“Well, first of all, I was cold. It was freezing outside, it was so cold, but it was kind of surreal. I teared up watching it. It was so good,” recalled Walker.

Desmond Thompson, who’s been with the academy for six years and also happens to be a senior at Soulsville Charter School, said the experience was a “blessing.”

“It keeps reminding me every time I see it, there are still people who believe in the Black community, believe in the Black youth as a whole,” he said. “That says they are not the stereotypes that you all place them to be. They are talented. They are gifted.”

But, the inaugural performance, as exciting as it was, is just one of many experiences academy students have enjoyed with prominent musicians.

According to SMA Executive Director Pat Mitchell Whorley, “Throughout the 20 years of Stax, people come and do workshops and they come visit the school, come visit the academy, talk about their career trajectory.”

Whorley also has strong family and religious ties to the neighborhood, as well as a child in the program.

The music academy sits adjacent to Stax Museum, which sits in the former Stax Recording Studio location, both operated by the Soulsville Foundation.

Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist and former SMA CEO and president Kirk Whalum believes it’s no accident the past sits so close to the future of Memphis soul music.

“I’m not crazy. I know that in the soil of this neighborhood, which by the way is where I lived when I was 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 on this property, by the way, that’s where we lived, for me I knew that it’s in the soil and that the flower that will bless the world is these kids.”

SMA is an after school and summer music program for up and coming music professionals. But, the 6th through 12th-grade Soulsville Charter School, located behind the academy and museum, educates about 650 students from all across the city with roughly 30% of them from the Soulsville neighborhood. And that kind of school choice is personal for principal NeShante Brown.

“Parent choice is very important to me because I think about my own mom’s choice and her choice process for me with the schools,” said Brown. “She told me that when I was a kid so, there was this imaginary line down the middle of the street and that line dictated where kids could go to school.”

Soulsville Charter School is also a U.S. News and World Report nationally ranked high school and 2015 SCORE prize winner for leading student learning in Tennessee.

Also, 100% of the public charter schools graduating seniors to date have been accepted to two and 4-year colleges.

Soulsville staff and teachers, like 6th grade English teacher Sanam Cotton, say they also get the opportunity to see their students through some of the kids’ toughest years.

“So you see a kid coming in 6th grade unsure of themselves and kind of uneasy and not really sure how to navigate the world of middle and high school,” said Cotton. “And then you gradually see them through these years, and it’s really special because you see them grow so much, not only academically but as a human, in general.”

It’s much the same for Stax Music Academy where Whorley says students usually start the program around 6th grade.

“I would say that our goal at SMA is not to create the superstars, it’s to create amazing musicians who are amazing people who can make a living at what they do,” said Whorley. “There’s no reason for any artist to be a starving artist. There are opportunities for you to make money and be able to make a living and buy a house and, you know, be a part of a community and do it as a musician.”

Walker agrees.

“It’s opened so many doors for me. Like, I wanted...I always wanted to be a singer when I grew up but I just didn’t know how to get from where I was to the stage,” Walker explained.

And for Thompson, a serious student academically and musically, it’s a safe place to collaborate with other young people with the same passion as his own

“And have some fun and just enjoy what we do best. That’s just what we do and we love making music,” he said.

Defining their own futures, while preserving the past, which, as Whalum reminds us, “It hasn’t gone away, you know. And that’s the important thing about it is that the Music Academy, the charter school, the museum is that we make sure that it doesn’t go away.”

Related | Stax Museum, music academy launch worldwide virtual Black History Month events

Starting Feb. 10 the Stax Museum of American Soul Music will begin an all-ages virtual tour. You can find more details and to register at staxmuseum.com.

And beginning on Feb. 17, Stax Music Academy will host a pay-what-you-can virtual Black history program. Go to staxmusicacademy.org for more information on that.

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