In Memphis, One Woman Honors History in Her Fight for Economic Justice – Next City

In Memphis, One Woman Honors History in Her Fight for Economic Justice

EDITOR’S NOTE: This sponsored content is paid for by the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI), as part of its AmbitioUS initiative. This series explores how alternative economic models can empower artists and culture bearers, with an eye toward financial freedom and long-term sustainability.

Walking into Clayborn Temple, says Executive Director Anasa Troutman, is “like walking into your great-grandmother’s heart.”

The first time she entered the building, she swears she heard it speak. She still talks about the church as if it’s alive — something holy, personified. In a way, maybe it is. The sanctuary is painted in gold; vaulted ceilings arch overhead. An enormous pipe organ — the oldest in the city — fills multiple stories in the interior architecture of the church. When sunlight spills through the stained glass windows, it’s magical.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, Clayborn Temple stands on the corner of Hernando and East Potontoc Ave. in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. It was originally constructed in 1892 as a church called Second Presbyterian, then purchased in 1949 by a Black congregation who changed the name in honor of local African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Jim Clayborn and turned the building into an organizational hub for the nascent Civil Rights movement. In 1968, civil rights and labor activists organized together inside Clayborn, and during the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, the congregation’s pastor printed and distributed “I AM A MAN” signs to marching protesters; the now-iconic signs are recognized worldwide as a declaration of civil rights.

After the strike, in the wake of white flight and urban disinvestment, Clayborn’s community began to dwindle. Even as the church maintained a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen, congregation numbers dropped, and in 1999, the building closed its doors for the last time. For more than 25 years it remained in disrepair; in 2015, it was purchased by Memphis entrepreneur Frank Smith, who planned to restore the building in a project he called “Clayborn Reborn”. At the end of 2019, Troutman and her team purchased the building from Smith; they’re currently revitalizing it as both a hallowed historical landmark and a restorative community space.

Anasa Troutman describes herself as a Black female cultural strategist, producer, and writer; her work with Clayborn started initially as a short-term project to revive and honor the church. But as executive director, her mission became more profound: to reclaim this sacred space for the city’s Black community.

“To revive a space, the last space where [Martin Luther] King worked before he was murdered half a mile down the road, and to light that light of hope and justice and thriving for all of us — I don’t see how you can get any better,” she says. “What else can I do with my life besides facilitate that?”

“Anasa is incredible, and she’s pulled together an incredible team,” says Justin Merrick, a Memphis artist and Troutman’s frequent collaborator. “[The work] continues to shift and change as she’s involved. … She’s a visionary.”

“My life and my work is really about learning the practice of levering art and culture for social impact,” Troutman says. “I’ve been doing it literally my whole life.”

She brought that work to Memphis two and a half years ago, for what was supposed to be a six-month contract. At the time she commuted from Nashville, three hours away. And she wasn’t doing organizing work. Instead, she was co-writing and producing a musical.

The musical was “Union”, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. King’s written work indicates that he was inspired by the connection Memphis’ workers drew between racial and economic justice, and Clayborn was a key site for that. “In Memphis,” Troutman explains, “[King] thought that the work they were doing… was the example of what he was trying to get the rest of the world to see.”

Troutman and her team members — Kristen Adele, Greg Thompson, Amisho Baraka, Justin Merrick and Art Hooker — condensed about two years’ worth of work into six months. They staged the show inside the 200-year-old church building, which had no pre-existing performance or production infrastructure.

“We didn’t have enough lights and there was no sound, so we had to figure out all that … and write the show, and write songs, and figure out the musical production, and hold auditions for an [all-Memphis] cast, and find crew, and find musicians. … Looking back, I don’t know how we pulled it off,” Troutman says, laughing. “It was divine intervention.”

In producing the musical, Troutman gradually became more familiar with the history of Memphis itself. “When you think about race and class in America, Memphis is an amazing ground zero,” she says. The city is 65.5 percent Black, with a poverty rate of almost 30 percent. In the early months of the project, Troutman remembers reading an article about the legacy of Memphis businessman and philanthropist Robert Reed Church, and his struggle to build Black political power in the city. “When I finished it,” Troutman says, “I was like, ‘This isn’t just about the sanitation workers, this is about the longer legacy of [Memphis].’ I realized… I had to stay.”

The rest of the production team felt similarly. Merrick, singer, songwriter, and co-director of “Union,” described its history as the “connective tissue” of the city. “Everyone can identify and relate to the story of Clayborn … [it’s] in the bricks and mortar of every building across the city and across the nation,” he said. “It becomes a calling point — a beacon.”

As the musical production progressed, other conflicts in the Clayborn project began to surface.

Frank Smith, a local entrepreneur who had purchased the church building in 2015, was one of the original backers of Clayborn Reborn. But his initial plans — which Troutman says included using the church as a biergarten and event venue on weekdays and a venue for his church community on the weekends — met with pushback. While Smith saw Clayborn Temple as an abandoned building in need of fixing, the Black and creative communities in Memphis saw it as a sacred space to honor and preserve.

The interior of Clayborn Temple awaits renovations. (Photo courtesy Anasa Troutman)

“There was a lot of animosity here, and so I walked into this environment of complete and utter distrust and I didn’t understand why,” Troutman says. “So part of my first six months was getting to know the people in the building and the truth of their behavior, while also building relationships with the city so that I could figure out what I thought needed to happen.”

While Troutman was interested in engaging the majority-Black community in and around Clayborn, Smith struggled with building and maintaining the relationship needed to be fully present in that work. The continuing social, logistical, and financial load of the project, which Troutman describes as “exciting but daunting,” had turned out to be more than he and his team signed up for. In July, less than three months after “Union” concluded, he offered the management responsibilities of the project to her. She accepted.

But as Clayborn Reborn continued to move forward, Smith still wasn’t satisfied. In March 2019, he decided to stop funding the project’s operation; he told Troutman there was no more money in the organization’s account, and told her to lay off all staff. She refused. If the Clayborn project was about economic justice, she told him, laying off workers suddenly was an action that lacked integrity. For the next two weeks, she would put them on leave and cover their salaries herself.

“I paid for the staff for two weeks,” she said. “And in those two weeks we went out and raised $300,000 [to continue].”

Troutman says that after this, Smith (who could not be reached for comment on this piece) pulled financial support for Clayborn completely. In order to continue the revitalization project, she and her staff needed to raise more than $1.5 million and purchase the building from Smith before the year ended on December 31st.

In comparison to this, running a musical was easy. For the remainder of 2019, she spent night and day working to raise the funds to make the building theirs.

“I literally felt like I was fighting for my life for a year straight,” she says. “It was really hard; I’ve never been that stressed out, and I’ve never had that hard of a time doing anything in my life. I remember coming home and feeling the cortisol coursing through my veins.”

On top of the anxiety of fundraising and development, she added, she was dealing with the power dynamics of race, class, and gender as a Black female leader in the development sphere of Memphis. Troutman credits countless names, both local and national, as part of the community that pulled her through that year: Memphis developer Montgomery Martin, nonprofit program officer Adriane Johnson-Williams, and Merrick, her musical collaborator.

Only weeks before the Dec 31st deadline, Troutman got a call confirming they’d been granted enough money to cover the cost of the building.

“I was in the car headed to the airport and I burst into tears,” she says. Her voice shakes slightly. “It meant so [much] … on a very basic level the satisfaction of knowing we did it, but over and above that, knowing that I had done my ancestors proud. … It was a feeling of possibility. Like before that moment, nothing was possible, doors slammed in my face, there were angry words … and then that was the ‘yes’ I needed in an entire year’s worth of ‘no’s.”

Anasa Troutman and her board closed the building’s sale on Dec 19, 2019. Clayborn Temple was theirs.

Seven months later, Troutman is still riding that feeling of possibility. Her team is renovating the building’s sanctuary and exterior envelope, as well as developing long-term programming for Clayborn’s future. At the forefront of that effort is Troutman’s desire to build what she calls “restorative, not extractive” development; Clayborn’s history, and that of the sanitation workers’ strike, was centered around the connection of race, class, and militarism — a connection she says is just as critical in Memphis now as it was 50 years ago. For decades, the city’s churches have held space for Black community members to build cultural capital, and Clayborn is no exception; Troutman wants to leverage that cultural capital into economic and social equity.

This summer, Clayborn’s team is brainstorming possibilities for collective ownership, shared decisionmaking, and transparency in next steps. They’re hosting a series of virtual gatherings around healing, community, and racial and economic justice. And Troutman’s built collaborative relationships with previously established local nonprofits, like the Memphis-based Center for Transforming Communities, to foster multi-neighborhood networks after those virtual gatherings end.

“Where I used to teach voice to students, now I’m helping to raise an authentic voice in the community,” Merrick, now the current executive director of the CTC, says. Clayborn Temple, he adds, is a key part of building that community voice. “When you’re teaching people voice, you’re teaching them how to have pride in their own instrument. … It’s about fostering pride, honoring the assets that your community has, knowing how special the place you are and the people you live with are.”

Even the global COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t stop Troutman’s team’s conversations; if anything, it fuels them. “There’s this whole ecosystem of inequality that’s been lifted up and highlighted by this pandemic. … What we thought was politically or financially feasible has been destroyed,” she explains. She reels off a list of new possibilities: universal healthcare, worker protections, environmental responsibility. “For us at historic Clayborn Temple, we’re really interested in working to take advantage of this moment. We’re having exciting, innovative conversations that we could not have had two months ago.”

“We keep talking about normal. But maybe we shouldn’t go back to normal,” Troutman says. The pandemic, like Clayborn’s abandonment and subsequent rebirth, could be an opportunity — one to reimagine society, economy, and community.

“Maybe we should be thinking about what’s next.”

Hannah Chinn is a freelance writer for Next City. She's also a reporter for WHYY News, covering watershed and environmental issues in Philadelphia, PA. Previously, she reported neighborhood news and city planning and policy stories for WHYY’s PlanPhilly.

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