Soulsville gets new life thanks to entrepreneurs, musicians & foundations

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If there’s a Memphis community that helped establish the soul of a city through education, churches, restaurants and, of course, music, it was at the corner of College and McLemore, ground zero for Soulsville, USA.

Jeffrey T. Higgs is the executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corporation.

“On the corner of McLemore and College, Richard Pryor walked around and Isaac Hayes and David Porter and those guys,” Higgs said.

Those guys were some of the entertainers and musicians at Stax Records, but it went into bankruptcy in 1975. The music-making died and surrounding neighborhoods stagnated near Stax, LeMoyne-Owen College, Elmwood Cemetery and the Four Way Grill restaurant .

But these days, there’s a slow rebirth taking place in the area. Things are heating up in Daniel Watson’s bakery and in surrounding neighborhoods.

“I’m going back to an area that like you said many would give up on,” Watson said.

This Memphis native and Morehouse College graduate is the CEO and president of Beneva Mayweather Foods. The company was started by his grandmother and Watson is keeping her legacy alive.

“What better way to do it than in an area my grandmother took a risk in 1973. I got her (product) on grocery store shelves and have an opportunity to have her all over the world and without this community, I know I wouldn’t exist,” Watson said.

Watson’s recipe is to use his family’s legacy, along with his own energy and passion for business, to show this community is far from being dead.

This fall he’ll invest some of his own money and expand the family’s company to this building on 849 McLemore. His dream:

“If you come around this corner and instead of seeing dilapidated buildings and then you see a big huge Beneva Mayweather Food sign,” Watson said.

Another sign of the time is the transformation of the once dilapidated Memphis Slim’s house on College Street.

Leni Stoeva is with  Community Lift in Memphis.

“Memphis Slim was is a musican who grew in this area, but went away to Paris and became famous,” Stoeva said.

Today it’s the Memphis Slim Collaboratory. $365,000  in renovations turned this into a state of the art studio and rehearsal space for aspiring musicians.

It’s part of the Memphis Magnet plan originated through the University of Memphis and Community Lift, which is working in Frayser, Binghampton and Soulsville.  It’s goal here:

“Turn this neighborhood into a music district. We actually have drums and an upright piano. That ‘s what Slim used to play and eight hours of recording time (for musicians). We have been getting young musicians to come in here. People from the neighborhood swing by and we’re trying to get people from Stax who are doing the tour to stop here and get more awareness about what we are doing.” Stoeva said.

Two years ago, Soulsville received a $678,000  grant from Artplace Foundation to improve the community and invest in the arts. Local funding has come from the Assissi Foundation and the Hyde Family Foundation.

“In my opinion the city of Memphis doesn’t economically support arts and cultural events like Nashville does. It(Nashville) endorses a concept that’s economically supported by its government.  Here, funds are limited,” Stoeva said.

Jeffrey Higgs said city support is still needed, especially when it comes to demolishing abandoned buildings, but he credits grant money, and the vision of entrepreneurs for helping fuel this change and new businesses.

Higgs said the Town Center at Soulsville USA will soon house a well-known grocery store, a restaurant and recording studio and other businesses.

“They come with their savings and investments they’ve made and they want to be where the action is,” Higgs said.

They’re some of the key ingredients in giving renewed hope and reviving a neighborhood that helped establish Memphis’ cultural identity.

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