The Memphis Center
By Richard J. Alley
When Rhodes College, founded in 1848, moved from Clarksville, TN, to Memphis in 1925 under the leadership of President Charles E. Diehl, it was, Diehl said at the time, “the chance of a lifetime” to recreate an institution of excellence in a central location that provided easy access to students from all over the region along with greater opportunities for them to learn both inside and outside the classroom.
Today, as in 1925, people driving by the college are impressed with the idyllic scene of beautiful Gothic architecture and grand oak trees shading students walking to and from classes. But that’s just part of the picture. There are “classrooms” all over town.
But how does the college work within the community? How do the philosophy and theory from textbooks, lectures and the Internet seep from the campus into the surrounding neighborhoods, the arms of the city, the region of the Delta? Consider that almost three-quarters of the Rhodes student body come from places other than Tennessee and the question becomes, “How do we encourage our students to become part of the Memphis community at large and engage with our culture, people and causes?”
There are a number of ways students garner knowledge from real-world experiences and activities, and several Rhodes institutes and groups are leading the charge in ensuring that the college contributes to the greater community.
Through the Mike Curb Institute for Music, students engage in research, leadership and preservation to foster awareness and understanding of the distinct musical traditions of the South and study the effects music has had on its culture, history and economy.
The Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies furthers academic research and understanding of the Mid-South and the ways in which Memphis has figured prominently in the social, cultural, political and economic life of the nation.
The Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts (CODA) promotes leadership that will expand the impact of the arts in the lives of members of the Rhodes community, Memphis and the region.
The Rhodes Learning Corridor partners with adjacent neighborhoods, nearby public schools and other community organizations to provide learning opportunities for Rhodes students and extend these educational opportunities beyond the classroom and into the immediate Memphis community.
The Crossroads to Freedom Digital Archive promotes preservation and supports conversations in our community regarding the impact of the civil rights era on Memphis today.
The Rhodes Archaeological Field School at Ames Plantation is a working site for archaeology and archaeological methods, expanding our knowledge of West Tennessee.
The Shelby Foote Collection is an archive of the novelist and historian’s papers, manuscripts, signed first editions and personal effects available for scholarly study.
Within the next year, these programs and organizations will be gathered under one umbrella, and their research promoted and discussed within the Memphis Center. The center is seeded with a $250,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to focus on the human experience of Memphis and the Mid-South region, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement and beyond. Eventually, physical space within the Paul Barret Jr. Library will be set aside as a place for seminars, lectures, and to visually showcase research from the member programs. The search is currently under way for a two-year postdoctoral position in the history and culture of Memphis, the Mid-South region, or the Lower Mississippi Valley. The holder of that position will teach classes and work closely with students and faculty within the Memphis Center.
“We foresee the Memphis Center becoming a lively working space where faculty and students can collaborate on new and existing projects, and together build a community of engaged scholars who are interested in a wide variety of topics related to our region,” says Milton Moreland, chair of the Archaeology program and associate professor of Religious Studies, who is heading up the working group for the Memphis Center. Other members of the committee overseeing its implementation are Tim Huebner, the L. Palmer Brown Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities (History), Charles McKinney (History), John Bass (Curb Institute), Suzanne Bonefas (Learning Corridor, Crossroads) and Darlene Brooks (Library Services).
To experience regionally connected research currently being done by Rhodes students and faculty, a person now must travel from building to building, from space to space, and must know just what will be available and where. The Memphis Center hopes to be a gathering place for regional research from a wide variety of departments across the campus with events and archives that will attract people who seek access to such materials, and to be home to a permanent space that will attract students, faculty and the Memphis community at large.
Rhodes prides itself on its tradition of sharing research and information, which will be made simpler by having the clear, focused voice of the Memphis Center to speak for all the work coming from the programs.
“I think the physical space is important because we’re talking about multiple programs,” says Russ Wigginton, vice president for External Programs. “The center will allow people to understand intimately what it means to be a liberal arts college with an interdisciplinary focus in a dynamic, culturally rich, complicated, historically significant city like Memphis. I think when you walk into the center you’ll grasp that pretty quickly.”
But looking toward the physical space is getting ahead of ourselves. The programs and materials beneath the umbrella of the Memphis Center exist now and, with pinpoint dedication, have been reaching out into the community for years with relatively little fanfare. The Memphis Center aims to pull these programs from the shadows and throw a spotlight on them, fanfare and all.
It is clear that these “foundation programs,” as Wigginton refers to them, have common themes, and it has become apparent and necessary that Rhodes view Memphis and its communities through an academic and intellectual lens.
Rhodes has had phenomenal success over the years with growing programs like these. Through the process of theorizing and then implementing what works best, the college has won favor with partnering organizations. The umbrella concept brings Rhodes and the Memphis Center team to a higher level, “a more comfortable level because everything we’re talking about here has a foundation and has merit and success,” says Wigginton.
While the overarching plan appears grand as it swirls about overheard, the fundamentals of the smaller entities will not be altered in any way; their foundations are solid. The Memphis Center will simply be there to bolster those programs and help bring them to the attention of students, faculty and the community at large. “This is not an administrative restructuring as much as it is an ability to grow from our success and provide more access for relevant research in and on our region,” Moreland says. “The directors of the existing programs will continue to have autonomy, but the Memphis Center will provide for more collaborative efforts between the students and faculty involved in these efforts.”
The Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies
Rhodes College sits nestled in the center of Memphis, yet it is also swaddled within a region as disparate as the foothills of the Appalachians and Ozarks, to the battlefields of Vicksburg and Shiloh. It is an area as diverse in culture, ethnic backgrounds and literature as it is in history, politics and commerce. Going into its 10th year, the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies capitalizes on its place in such a fertile region for research and celebrates all that this area has given to the world.
The eight-week summer program promotes teamwork among faculty from the disciplines of Art, History, Religious Studies, Political Science, Theatre, Economics, Archaeology, Film, Music and Philosophy, all working within the liberal arts tradition.
“Students are given opportunities to conduct original research in this region on topics that develop from their classroom experiences and the research interests of their faculty mentors,” says Moreland, director of the institute.
While there is a great deal of self-design and self-guidance within the individual projects, the students work closely with one of six to seven faculty members, typically three students to one faculty mentor for the eight weeks. Rhodes Institute fellows receive housing, research expenses and $3,000 stipends to pursue their work.
Students are immersed in the culture of Memphis by spending the first full week of the summer within the community taking field trips to museums, community centers, churches, sites key in the civil rights movement, music venues, archaeological sites, cemeteries and locations relative to current events—all places that might relate directly to students’ research projects.
“There has been a great deal of success in terms of students developing papers and projects that have had a direct impact on the community. Students learn a great deal about Memphis, while they assist the local community by contributing their research on many issues of great importance to Memphians,” Moreland says.
While the intention is not for students to work for a particular group to write its history and tell its story, many times students do get involved and the result is beneficial to all parties. A recent student project researching the history of the collections at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Artled to a show at Brooks that began in December.
The history of Memphis is infused with that of blues music and students have spent time researching the history of the Blues Foundation and the annual International Blues Challenge held here. “All of the projects, in one fashion or another, also fit within the scholarship of the faculty who are involved, so that’s part of the collaborative nature; the faculty member has an interest in some aspect of politics, religion, music or history here in Memphis and these students are able to do research with the faculty member as well as, hopefully, reach out and serve the community,” Moreland says.
History makes us who and what we are, from our beliefs to our morals to our music, and should be studied with an eye toward learning from it and bettering ourselves. The Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies is helping to document that history and the Memphis Center will help to make it readily accessible.
The Learning Corridor
In the five minutes it takes to travel from Rhodes to Cypress Middle School to the northeast, income levels drop perceptibly from the bucolic campus and nearby Hein Park neighborhood to one of fading storefronts and boarded up homes. The area is part of the Rhodes Learning Corridor and students are engaged in it in grand ways.
Though the area is bounded by Jackson Avenue on the south, Hollywood Street on the east, the Wolf River on the north, and University Street on the west, the work done knows no bounds. It is as broad and limitless as students’ hearts and empathy will allow.
Schools are a primary focus of the Learning Corridor and those that fall into its domain are Cypress Middle, Springdale Elementary, Snowden, the charter school Promise Academy and, just outside the geographical boundaries, Central High School.
There are tutoring programs within all of the schools, and many Rhodes students have “adopted” a Snowden student to work with in a mentoring capacity for up to four years as part of the signature Kinney Adopt-a-Friend program. “It’s been a gateway program to get students into the community,” says Suzanne Bonefas, director of Special Projects. The proximity of Rhodes to Snowden makes the bond special as many of the Snowden students spend time on campus as an introduction to the idea of one day furthering their education.
“At all of our partner schools, there are certainly plenty of kids who are at risk and probably a lot of kids whose horizons don’t include thinking of themselves as someone who goes to college,” Bonefas says.
The Learning Corridor is a popular program and extends to students across the board, giving elementary and middle school students a broad spectrum of interests to consider. Science is of special interest and Rhodes has sent hundreds of students from three of these schools to Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL, via the NASA Stars program. Another initiative is Science Saturdays at Springdale in which Rhodes students and faculty take the kids and their parents on field trips to places across Memphis such as Lichterman Nature Center, Mud Island River Park, the Memphis Zoo and the Children’s Museum of Memphis to have learning experiences together.
Rhodes students get a perspective on Memphis they might not have had before, typically saying that they’ve had a lot of opportunities in life and are eager to go out and give back. “They also want to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and figure out ways to apply that in the community,” Bonefas says. “And in the Learning Corridor, there is a component of reflection … they have to turn around and connect these experiences with specific classroom learning.”
With funding through the Plough Foundation to support Learning Corridor programming, recent graduates are staying in the community to work full time and lead Rhodes students under a Transforming Community grant. “They’re alumni who stay here for a year and serve as peer leaders,” Bonefas says.
Their focus is on leadership and business development in the targeted neighborhoods such as working on facelifts for businesses adjacent to Cypress Middle School, building relationships and instilling a sense of pride and ownership within the community.
“Our students are engaged as citizens of Memphis at the same time that they’re students of Rhodes, and that can be a seamless experience after they graduate,” Bonefas says. “So not only are you graduating as a person who has an academic degree, you’re a citizen and you know how to be a good citizen in this community.”
Crossroads to Freedom Digital Archive
Memphis is known far and wide for its history as a battlefield in the fight for civil rights. It is equally known through the lens of photographer Ernest Withers, the pen of crusading journalist Ida B. Wells and the world-renowned National Civil Rights Museum for documenting that struggle.
Students involved in Rhodes’ Crossroads to Freedom Digital Archive program go into the community to interview those involved directly or indirectly with civil rights. It is a program to collect primary sources and build an oral history of Memphis, a way to salve its wounds while picking at its scabs. As a bonus, they take members of a younger generation along to teach them about an era that still affects us today and will continue to guide their own futures.
Crossroads is a parallel program to the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, and is “a way to engage our students in the preservation of Memphis’ historical and cultural heritage,” says Bonefas, director of the program. “I’m learning about Memphis culturally and historically, and its whole history of racism,” says Gayle Hughes ’13, a History major and Memphian who has been working with Crossroads since last summer. “It puts a new perspective on things.”
Crossroads involves not just Rhodes students, but those from Learning Corridor partner schools such as Central High, where students think of the civil rights movement in terms of Martin Luther King Jr., but not much beyond that, says Bonefas. “This history is all around us, there are such important stories in our community, so it really engages our students hands-on in being part of preserving those stories.”
Students from a variety of academic backgrounds are involved in Crossroads. “It really is an opportunity for students who may not have thought about historical or sociological perspectives to bring their own disciplinary lens to this,” says Bonefas.
Rhodes is on the map for those looking to delve into civil rights era history and interested researchers from all over log on to Crossroads regularly.
“The ultimate hope for Crossroads is to work with all the cultural heritage organizations in Memphis so we can support one another in our efforts to tell these stories,” Bonefas says. All of the digital archives are available online at crossroadstofreedom.org, and the Memphis Center will be yet another outlet for history to be watched and accounted for. “The more we build the collection, the better the learning tool it becomes.”
The Mike Curb Institute for Music
For many people born and raised in Memphis, the first connection, culturally, to their hometown is through the music. For those who seek out Memphis as a place to attend school, live or work, the music is the first and most obvious item to pop up on any search of the city. There are the names everyone has heard—Elvis, Handy, Phillips, Perkins, Rufus and Isaac—but just as many influential musicians who remain under-researched. For the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes, the simplest, clearest way to connect with community is through music, and it’s just this sort of outreach that John Bass, director of the Curb Institute, has been conducting with other programs on campus.
The Curb Institute works with other projects falling under the heading of the Memphis Center such as the Crossroads to Freedom Digital Archive and the Learning Corridor. Through the Learning Corridor, the institute’s outreach fellows have gone to Cypress Middle School to begin an after school guitar club. Meeting twice a week, one hour per session, the Rhodes fellows work with Cypress students on the fundamentals of guitar playing. Being in the club is something the 15 Cypress students have taken to heart and, Bass says, “It is really a sense of pride for them.”
In addition, last year the Curb Institute sponsored a jazz concert and clinic at Snowden with The Inventions Trio—trumpeter Marvin Stamm, pianist Bill Mays and cellist Alisa Horn (both Stamm and Horn are Snowden alums). “They performed, answered questions and talked to students from Snowden and Cypress about what they do and their lives in music,” Bass says.
Bass hopes the Memphis Center will be a place to hold similar concerts, clinics and lectures and serve as a resource for the Curb Institute to “centralize the message from Rhodes about our involvement with the community and bring together various departments and programs on campus that do these kinds of things.” The Curb Institute, he says, will be the “musical wing” of that center.
The institute has brought in such artists as Mose Allison, Bobby Rush and Ellis Marsalis, yet there is always an academic component to the events, such as the recent symposium on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the African-American clubs throughout the South that were central in the formation of rock ’n’ roll.
Bass taps into resources from other departments within the Rhodes campus as well as alumni around town and beyond. “The Memphis Center,” he says, “will be a focal point, and will bring the college and larger communities together in a very deliberate way.”
Cypress Middle is a mile from the Rhodes campus, yet it’s a different world for Rhodes students. This “gives them a different perspective,” Bass says. “When you go there and start meeting the kids and working with them, you create this really strong bond with them. It’s what community learning should be—getting past all the labels and sitting down and working with kids, in our case on music and specific skills.”
To become well-rounded, productive citizens, college students should burrow deep into their interests, whether it’s business, education, finance or philosophy. But they should also ingratiate themselves with the arts—visual, musical or performance. The high level of such artistic familiarity is the watermark of a good liberal arts education.
CODA—the Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts—led by Liz Daggett since 2008, is working to bring art closer to the community of Memphis and Rhodes students closer to the world of art. “We strive to increase the impact of art, both within the Rhodes community and the greater Memphis area,” says Daggett, who is an assistant professor of Art.
CODA fellows, initially funded through a grant from the Robert and Ruby Priddy Charitable Trust of Wichita Falls, TX, receive $13,000 annually in scholarships in return for 10 hours of service to the arts each week. The fellows are “engaging in the arts in some way, and that can vary from student to student,” Daggett says.
Many are practicing artists while others are arts leaders, taking on organizational roles to involve people in art within the community. And there are myriad ways to do it, such as taking the beauty of opera to a local halfway house and arranging for the residents to sit in on a dress rehearsal of Opera Memphis, or putting on a Middle Eastern fashion show with the collection of Dee Birnbaum, an associate professor of Commerce and Business, or participating in Exhibition Momentum, the juried exhibition that pairs visual with performance art. The Rhodes-Hill Mural that towers over AutoZone Park downtown, and the Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association Greenline sculpture are both CODA projects and sources of pride for Memphians everywhere.
“Traditionally, the emphasis has been on leadership in the arts, and the Priddys’ initial idea was to take people who maybe weren’t studio artists or concert musicians, but who were going to be successful in general, maybe in business or other areas, have them understand the importance of art and make them comfortable in perpetuating and helping increase appreciation of the arts,” Daggett says.
The concept behind CODA is a self-perpetuating idea, a cyclical return on investment in art appreciation from academia to city leadership to artists and the community. To further such awareness, CODA funds competitive grants to students and faculty for various endeavors such as Justin Deere ’12, a Bonner Scholar and the James A. Thomas ’62 Service Scholar, who handed out disposable cameras to members of the area homeless population for the exhibition “Unsheltered:Unseen.”
CODA, however, is probably best known on campus for its $5 tickets, encouraging students, faculty and staff to attend area events that link to the curriculum, such as performances by the Tennessee Shakespeare Company. “The $5 ticket program is a beloved one—people can see the ballet or the opera for an affordable cost and a lot of students take advantage of it,” Daggett says.
There is art all around us. Daggett and the CODA fellows are simply making it more apparent and ensuring that leaders of tomorrow understand and appreciate its importance in our communities and our lives.
The Shelby Foote Collection
Since spring 2011, Rhodes has been home to the Shelby Foote Collection of writings and papers, a collection that includes hand-drawn maps, photos, memorabilia, letters, more than 2,000 volumes from Foote’s private library, which includes first editions by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Walker Percy, leatherbound and hand-written manuscripts, personal diaries, an extensive collection of music and sculpture, as well as family correspondence.
The acquisition of the collection prompted Rhodes President Bill Troutt to say at the time, “With the acquisition of the Shelby Foote Collection, we take another step forward in the excellence we offer at Rhodes.”
It is a collection that will provide a seemingly endless supply of research materials for students, not just of history or literature, but opportunities to learn the processes of archiving and preservation as well.
“I didn’t really know much of what an archive was before this summer, and I really enjoyed processing and getting to see how people organize their lives,” says History major and Foote fellow Lauren Peterson ’13. “It’s been really interesting to see an entirely new aspect of Shelby Foote that I might be able to get if I were researching, but not to this extent.”
Foote is best known for writing The Civil War: A Narrative, published in three parts in 1958, 1963 and 1974. It’s a massive, 1.2-million-word trilogy, the whole of which was written in Memphis. The original drafts now find a home at Rhodes.
Because Foote was at home in the worlds of both history and literature, a task force made up of the Library and Information Technology Services division and members of the History, English and Religious Studies departments, along with fellows Peterson and Jordon Redmon ’13, have been working to index, catalogue, archive and display the collection.
“The opening of the Foote Collection will allow scholars and students alike a chance to delve deeply into the life and work of one of the region’s most important writers,” says History Department chair Timothy Huebner “Foote was a gentleman, a scholar and in some ways, a provocateur. The opening of his papers will fuel our continued fascination with the Civil War and the American South.”
It’s a collection for scholars and researchers everywhere, those interested in storytelling, American history and Southern ways, and one that one day soon will be found, in part, at the Memphis Center.
Ames Plantation—The Rhodes Archaeological Field School
The Ames Plantation, for all intents and purposes, is a 20,000-acre classroom. Located 50 miles east of Memphis in Fayette and Hardeman counties, the historical area is home to approximately 250 different archaeological sites, both historic and prehistoric.
Students work in excavation during a three-week extensive course in archaeology. While all artifacts belong to the Hobart Ames Foundation, Milton Moreland, director of the field school, hopes that many will be exhibited in rotation in the permanent space of the Memphis Center.
“Everything that we excavate comes through the archaeology lab here at Rhodes, so there could be some definite collaboration and informational displays about our work. Students are conducting really amazing research at Ames, and it would be great to discuss and display their work in the context of the Memphis Center.”
The massive land base was purchased in the early 20th century by Hobart Ames, part of the Ames Manufacturing family from Boston, who bought it as a winter retreat and hunting reserve. The plantation functions as one of the University of Tennessee’s AgResearch and Education Centers across the state and oversees 2,000 acres of commodity row crops, 700 head of Angus beef cattle and 40 head of horses.
Since the 1950s, the site has been under the purview of the Hobart Ames Foundation, which has a very strong education component, and Rhodes is partnered with its board to further its mission.
Of the 250 sites, only six have been excavated in the five years Rhodes has worked with the foundation. “We could be there forever,” Moreland laughs. “There is an immense amount of work that can be done. It’s an amazing area because it’s so extensive. It allows us to get a very interesting perspective on the long settlement pattern and the use of the land in the changing landscape here in West Tennessee.”
With the hiring of a new environmental archaeology specialist, Kimberly Kasper, a Mellon postdoc in Anthropology/Sociology, students are able to get a science foundation credit by working with the field school and participating in one of the courses offered there in environmental archaeology. “The new class offers a hands-on experience outside the normal classroom setting, allowing students to study environmental archaeology at an actual archaeological excavation,” Moreland says.