My Memphis, My Home

Veverly Edwards

City of Memphis. Photo courtesy Veverly Edwards.

Before construction started in Tom Lee Park, I sometimes visited the park after a stressful day. I’d sit on a bench positioned on the green lawn overlooking the Mississippi River, close my eyes, and allow the sounds of the fast-moving currents to soothe my anxious thoughts and relax my tense muscles. As calming as the water can be, the dark deep dirty river is also intimidating and smelly, swallowing anything that enters its path. I often see unidentifiable objects floating in the waves and wonder what else is hidden or lost in the deep bowels of the river. A body? A gun from a crime? While it’s not quite like the beaches I visit on the Gulf Shores, it’s the closest I get to sitting under an umbrella chair and inhaling the fresh scent of water. Lately, I’ve driven by the muddy river and marveled at the facelift taking place in Tom Lee Park. The large dinosaur-sized animal fixtures in the children’s play area and newly planted trees and shrubs raise questions: Memphis is cleaning up the front lawn, but the makeover won’t hide the blemishes from blight, the scars from crime, and the pain of poverty impacting many Black communities within the city.

An article on the internet has again listed Memphis as the most dangerous city in the nation.[1] The recent killing of Tyre Nichols leaves us without much of a rebuttal. Five Black police officers were filmed brutally pummeling a young Black man for a suspected traffic violation that was never substantiated; it left people around the nation gasping and incensed, seeking answers. Who is to blame for the carjackings—the dangerous days and murderous nights in Memphis? Nostalgia inspired me to Google When was Memphis considered a safe place to live? Unfortunately, the search only brought up her present reputation—most dangerous. Any memory of her good standing has escaped the internet.

I sometimes long for the 1970s, the Memphis of my youth. Back then, my baby brother was free to roam our front lawn with a paper-cap gun, and no one feared him being gunned down because a police officer mistook it for a weapon. I miss the days when children wandered their neighborhood with no fears of drive-by shootings. I miss the days when neighbors had concern for neighbors. I miss the days when parents in the neighborhood watched out for each other’s children. I miss the days when children were expected to live long lives and parents could be reasonably hopeful for their futures.

As a licensed real estate agent in Memphis, Tennessee, I am also concerned about the impact of investors buying up Memphis and outbidding potential homeowners. In Memphis the wages paid to many citizens fail to keep up with the current surge in rental properties and home sale prices. During the beginning of the pandemic, investors flocked to Memphis because of the affordable price of houses. From 2020 to 2021, rental costs in Memphis rose 19 percent.[2] For a city that does not regulate landlord pricing tactics, what are the consequences when citizens’ income does not rise to accommodate the soaring housing market? Could this be a variable contributing to the label “Most Dangerous City in America?”

When my family moved to Westwood in 1971, we were part of the reason for white flight in that area, evident in a Memphis Press-Scimitar headline from March 15, 1972, that stated, “For Sale Signs Abound in the Westwood Community.”[3] As a seven-year-old, I had no idea of the boldness of my parents’ actions. They dared to buy into the “American Dream.” We moved from a two-bedroom rental property, paying about $91 per month, to a three-bedroom home, paying about $121 dollars per month toward a mortgage—wealth building.

For many families, home ownership is their only source to build wealth, but many Memphis citizens may not achieve the “American Dream” because of multimillion-dollar and billion-dollar investors outbidding them. Between 2019 and 2021, Cerberus Capital Management bought more than 1,400 homes in Memphis, Pretium Partners bought over 1,300 homes, Homes SFR Borrower LLC bought 905 homes, and American Homes 4 Rent bought 450 homes.[4] What are the effects investors have on the Memphis housing market? Per the 2022 census, only 46.8 percent of housing units in Memphis were owner-occupied which means 53.2 percent were rentals.[5]

More and more, I view my childhood memories as a fantasy of treasures, a time when many Black families were buying homes and investing in the “American Dream.” When community was important. When my community consisted of a lot of God-fearing/praying people. During those years, my home life consisted of at least two to three days a week of church: on Wednesdays we had prayer meetings and Bible study; Thursdays, there was choir rehearsal; and Sundays, we were there all day. On Sunday mornings, before my siblings and I rose, my mom was in the kitchen at 5:00 a.m., shredding, grating, rattling, and filling pots and pans. The smell of tangy sweet peaches mixed with nutmeg and cinnamon often permeated the walls of my bedroom, crept into my nostrils, seduced my olfactory nerves, and made my mouth water for a bite of peach cobbler.

Sundays, for my family, were just about etched in stone: Sunday school at 9:30 a.m., where we learned and grew in the word of God; a fifteen-minute break to attend to personal needs; then the 11:00 a.m. service where we were extended hope and salvation in Christ, followed by a break after the service to go home and eat dinner and return to the church for Baptist Training Union in the evenings. In Baptist Training Union, you learned how to, for example raise your index finger to exit during a service, never move while the scripture is being read or when an invitation to discipleship is being offered, and, lastly, not let the ushers catch you chewing the gum or eating the candy you slipped off to the store to buy with your offering during the fifteen-minute break between Sunday School and service. The last lesson we learned from experience. We also had to memorize Bible verses. My go-to was “Jesus welk.” I know . . . it was a while before I realized it was “Jesus wept.” I was glad no one heard the “lk” at the end before I self-corrected.

My mom’s voice gently nudged me from my sleep during the school week, but I seldom rose. I lay in bed and listened to her sing songs of praise in the mornings, “How I Got Over” and “Amazing Grace.” She was a fan of Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. I watched her sing praises over a pot of turnip greens during the lean years after she and my father divorced. I watched her trust God to continue to fill her pots with manna, and he did. That increased my faith. Even though I would usher my friends out of the house when my mom started praising God, because they often teased me, I felt safe with my mom’s faith because she never excluded anyone, even my shady friends, who I’m sure she knew would influence me and vice versa—like the time we stole candy from the neighborhood store. She took us back to the scene of the crime and made us confess, apologize, and pay for the candy.

While my friends thought my mom was strict, she allowed me the opportunity to enjoy my youth with reasonable restrictions. Westwood High School is home to the “Mighty, Mighty Westerners,” a cheer we sang during sports events. My friends and I spent our fall Friday nights at football games, sporting Jheri curls that loosened our tight coils, dressed in red and blue sweatshirts and tight-fitting blue jeans. After the games, we attended house parties and danced to songs like “Ladies’ Night” by Kool & the Gang, which lured our sweaty swaying bodies onto the dance floor with arms flailing and feet sliding to the rhythm of the beat. Sometimes fistfights broke out, but no one was killed. We had no worries about guns, and the police seemed friendly enough.

Today, I am leery of events held in people’s homes and large events at facilities, such as concerts. With Tennessee’s open permitless carry gun law, the streets of Memphis have become battlegrounds, and the fights that were once settled with fists are now resolved with drive-by shootings, and most often, an innocent bystander is the victim.

While Memphis has its challenges, I can’t negate the enormous talents and treasures that exist in the city located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. I’m often allured by the colorful murals that transform sides of old buildings into showpieces. In January of 2017, I participated in a women’s march in downtown Memphis, and I remember passing the Upstanders Mural on Huling Street in downtown Memphis, across from the Civil Rights Museum. The mural included a large portrait of Ida B. Wells and other activists. For a brief moment, I closed my eyes and imagined them marching alongside us as I remembered the words of Ida B. Wells: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” It was an amazing experience to feel her gaze upon me as I walked with other participants protesting for women’s rights.

Memphis is also known for its unique sound. Should you visit Memphis, don’t pass over Beale Street—slow your pace, and take note of the brass keynotes of the past. Let your feet tap and dance past the legends of yesterday, and if you’re not careful, you may wake Ruby Wilson and hear her belt a few lines of “The Feelin’s Still There.” Or you may rouse B.B. King and hear him tickle the keys of his guitar while belting “Let the Good Times Roll.” Okay, that is not going to happen, but you’re sure to hear the euphonious sounds of jazz and blues as you stroll.

***

Memphis is a city of citizens with immense potential, but each community needs cultivation and attention to thrive. Giving a facelift to Riverside Drive is awesome, especially for those living in Downtown Memphis; however, if Memphis is to become one of the safest places in the nation to live again, she must address the challenges in all the communities under her watch, and investors shouldn’t have a controlling interest in Memphis communities—the citizens of Memphis should hold that power.

[1] “Most Dangerous Cities in America,” PropertyClub, accessed August 20, 2023, https://propertyclub.nyc/article/most-dangerous-cities-in-the-us.

[2] “Why Is Rent So High In Memphis, TN?” Stella Maris Property Management, https://www.stellamarispm.com/why-is-rent-so-high-in-memphis-tn.

[3] “History of Westwood,” Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis, July 7, 2013, https://memphissouthwest.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/history-of-westwood.

[4] Jeni Diprizio, “‘The Hunger Games of housing’: 7,000 Shelby County owner-occupied homes turned into rentals in 2 years,” ABC24, last updated October 11, 2021, https://www.localmemphis.com/article/news/investigations/i-team/the-hunger-games-of-housing-7000-shelby-county-owner-occupied-homes-turned-into-rentals-in-2-years/522-70020e57-8d24-4e46-ae52-c558281b6bfa.

[5] “QuickFacts, Memphis city, Tennessee; Shelby County, Tennessee; Tennessee: United States,” United States Census Bureau, July 1, 2022, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/memphiscitytennessee,shelbycountytennessee,TN,US/PST045221.

Graduation photo of Veverly Edwards and her mother (Shirley Myers), taken in 1987. Photo courtesy Edwards family.

Photo of Ida B Wells taken by Veverly Edwards at the women’s march in Memphis in 2017.

Photo of Veverly Edwards standing with a green sign at the women’s march in 2017. Her sister Stephanie Lewis took the photo.

Veverly Edwards

Memphis, TN

Veverly Edwards lives in Memphis, Tennessee. She is an Assistant Professor of Teaching in the English Department at the University of Memphis. She teaches first year writing classes, African American Literature, and Creative Writing courses. She has a self-publish nonfiction book, God’s Miracle Among Corruption in Idaho, and an essay “On More Than Conquering” published in an anthology, They Tried But Failed: Thriving Despite Trauma, Tragedy and Systemic Practices to Block the Progression of Black Women in America. She is also  a “mostly”  self-taught visual artist. In addition, she is also the founder of a cultural arts nonprofit organization in South Memphis: The Arts Café’. The purpose of the organization is to bring African American Literary arts and visual arts to the community. In addition, Veverly is also a licensed real estate agent with Purple Reign Realty LLC, in Memphis, Tennessee.