“I know a place
Ain't nobody cryin'
Ain't nobody worried
Ain't no smilin' faces lyin'
to the races"
The Staples Singers’ 1972 hit, “I’ll Take You There,” imagines a place on earth free from the social and political turbulence of the era. While that hope is still more myth than reality, the neighborhood that was home to the Staples’ record label, Stax, still has a grip on the imaginations of Memphians.
Eric Robertson and his wife, Lori Spicer Robertson, are among Soulsville, USA’s proudest and most vocal ambassadors. “Soulsville is the heart of Memphis. It just has such a sense of camaraderie,” Lori says when asked to explain what makes the neighborhood so special to them.
Her husband agrees. “It’s just got such rich history... It still has an active neighborhood association that takes real
pride and ownership over the assets that are here.”
Artists who were born in or grew up in the area read like a who’s-who of American music masters: Aretha Franklin. Al Green. Isaac Hayes. David Porter. The list goes on and on.
As inspiring as the neighborhood’s past is, the Robertsons are focused on its future, and how they can play a part.
“I worked for the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corporation and wanted to live where I was working,” Eric says, referring to a nonprofit affiliated with the neighborhood’s historically black college. “I bought a house on historic Fountain Court and lived there for years. When Lori and I got married, she moved in and we started our family there.”
Both Robertsons have careers in the nonprofit sector. Eric is the president of Community LIFT and Lori is chief communications and engagement officer for United Way of the Mid-South. They understand better than most the vital link between adequate funds and good works. The Robertsons’ involvement with the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis provides the professional services and guidance they need to make the most of their giving.
“Our donor-advised fund allows is be as targeted as we want to be to the neighborhood we love,” says Eric. “Lori and I don’t have the wherewithal to give as much as we’d like, but we want our gifts to make an impact. The help
we receive from Community Foundation’s staff makes sure that happens.”
One of their proudest achievements includes the massive mural occupying the entire face of a building at the intersection facing Mississippi and McLemore Avenues proudly declaring, “I LOVE SOULSVILLE.”
“Before this was here, there was another mural that the residents didn’t feel reflected well on neighborhood,” explains Lori. “It had to go.”
Today, the I LOVE SOULSVILLE mural is maintained with help from the Soulsville Neighborhood Association and support from private donors. Around the corner, the Soulsville Charter School, one of the city’s highest-achieving middle and high schools, continues to grow. Across the street, Memphis Rox Climbing Gym anchors a mixed-use development focused on health and fitness. Farther down, the Memphis Slim House has been reimagined as a studio and gallery for local creatives. The neon of the famous Stax Records marquee glimmers over it all.
Soulsville still faces many challenges, including some of the highest poverty rates in Memphis, but the Robertsons remain undaunted. While their donor-advised fund at the Community Foundation allows them to support the organizations developing Soulsville, they know that the secret ingredient will always be what drew them here in the first place: the people.
“It’s just all about the relationships you build,” says Lori, waving to a friend and neighbor. “There’s just no other place like it.”
Excerpted from the 2019 Community Foundation Annual Report. Top photo credit: Demarcus Bowser