Millennials Honor Memphis’ Own Black History Figures

Each February we highlight some of the most inspirational African Americans that have ever lived. Some of us revisit and debate Dr. Martin Luther King’s “​I’ve Been to Mountaintop​” speech, some try to make it through all of Alex Haley’s “Roots” series, and others ride down Union Ave. blasting Beyonce’s “Formation”. 

I slay. 

While keeping these iconic figures and their contributions to society alive, it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t highlight a few of Memphis’ own Black History treasures. We decided to ask several millennial Memphians who they believe all residents of the 901 should know and celebrate this February. Here’s who they offered up:

Danielle Inez – Chief of Staff for Shelby County Government 

“As Shelby County Government’s first Chief of Staff, it is an honor to highlight Mrs.TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, former Memphis City Schools board member and former chairman of the Memphis City Council. Most notably, Mrs. Mitchell served as the first-ever black female appointed to executive leadership at the City of Memphis. She built, carried, and placed her proverbial chair at the table. She’s a devoted wife, mother, philanthropist, public servant, and champion of women leaders. In a time when black women are on an unapologetic mission to shatter society’s glass ceilings, I love to say, ‘all of us need a TaJuan in our corner.’” 

Brian Malone – Account Supervisor, The Carter Malone Group 

“I believe​ ​Robert R. Church Sr. is a Memphian that we should all know. He was successful in business, and a bridge for the black community in terms of political advancement. With him being one of the city’s first black millionaires he felt it was his responsibility to rebuild Memphis after the Civil War. He was born a slave and grew to be one of the most respected and admired names in this city to date. With that list of accomplishments he deserves to be immortalized in the minds of every generation of Memphians.” 

Jasmine Worles – Specialized Planning Advisor to the Chief of Staff, Shelby County Schools 

“When thinking about Memphis Black History, the first name that comes to mind is Julia Hooks – The Angel of Beale Street. Mrs. Hooks was a Jane of all trades, one of our city’s most renowned musicians, social workers, educators, caretakers, and activists. Mrs. Hooks was a teacher and principal, she founded her own in-house private school and was an advocate for quality public education. She was an officer of the Juvenile court, known for building unique bonds with children and advocating on their behalf. She supervised a Juvenile detention home, founded the Old Folks and Orphans home, was a charter member for Memphis’ NAACP chapter AND she was a bomb pianist, so good that folks like W.C Handy came to listen and learn from her. She’s also the grandmother of Benjamin Hooks…yes, the one that the main library is named after. Get your Google on and learn more about this Queen.” 

Maarifa Arnett – Owner, Easy Moving Services 

“I think every Memphian should know about Orange Mound’s finest – Alcine Kountz. Born in 1933 in Lexa, Arkansas, she was a preserver of legacy and a community activist. She moved to Memphis at 6 years old – overnight – when her father, Alphonso Kountz was escaping their hometown under threat from the KKK. Upon moving to Memphis, her family moved to the historic Orange Mound. In the 1990s, after retiring from a 30-year career at the Kellogg’s factory in South Memphis, she led the fight to preserve the historic Melrose High School grounds. When the city planned to tear the school down, she fought to turn the school into a community center – which resulted in the demolition being overturned. She was a nurturer, a minister, a teacher and a fierce lover of her family and her city. Alcine Kountz was a Memphis warrior and an Orange Mound Legend.” 

Britney Thornton – Community Organizer 

“Hands down, every Memphian should know about Mrs. Ruby J. Payne. A quick google search will reveal all of her amazing talent and influence over the decades. Her impact on my life began in her role as Principal at Hanley Elementary in Orange Mound. Much of my pride in being a Black, intellectual woman can be attributed to her mentorship and guidance. Memphis is definitely better because of her unyielding dedication to setting and raising the bar of excellence.” 

Jeremy Calhoun – President, STS Enterprise Corporation 

“I believe every Memphian should know Bernal Smith II. Bernal was a leader in every way and he made it a priority to give the black community in Memphis a voice. As the Owner/Publisher of the New Tri-State Defender, one of the country’s leading African-American newspapers to establishing the “Best in Black Awards” Bernal made sure blacks in the Memphis community had a platform to share news, and recognize and celebrate those making a difference in both in business and in the community. Bernal was a Memphis treasure, a man of purpose, and someone whose names should be remembered across the city.” 

Chris Porter – Principal, Creative Director of Creative Punch Marketing Group 

“Every Memphian should know Dr. Ernest C. Withers. His story shows how passionate we all are as Memphians and how your passions can flourish here in our city. He first worked for the Memphis Police Department, but his side hustle as a professional photographer turned into greatness. “The Picture Taker” documented nearly 2 million photos ranging from everyday life in Memphis to performances from B.B. King, Tina Turner, and Ray Charles, to sporting icons like 

Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. We can look to him as inspiration to follow our dreams and view his work at the Withers Museum on Beale.” 

This Black History Month, make sure you add these names to your celebration. Of course, we know that this is only a few dynamic Black Memphis figures, so we would love to hear from you. Who else should we uplift from Memphis this February?

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