July 20, 2022

Anasa Troutman and the Future of Historic Clayborn Temple

In Memphis, Tennessee, the Historic Clayborn Temple is central to recognizing the city’s legacy within the Civil Rights movement.

On February 1, 1968, the deaths of two Black city sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, was the last straw for the city’s sanitation workers who had been enduring low pay, no benefits, and horrible working conditions for decades. In response 1,300 Black workers went on strike. A central gathering point for the strike was Clayborn Temple, serving as the starting place for marches, a meeting point for strategy sessions, and the site where Clayborn Temple’s pastor printed the iconic “I Am A Man” signs.

"I Am A Man" 1968 March in front of Clayborn Temple, Memphis Tennessee

photo by: Getty Images

The historic march from Clayborn Temple in 1968.

Almost two months later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Memphis to support the Sanitation Worker’s Strike and delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3rd. He was assassinated the next day at the Lorraine Motel. A few days later, his widow, Coretta Scott King, led his planned march, with an estimated 42,000 people. Eight days later, on April 16th, the City Council and workers reached an agreement, and it was again at Clayborn Temple where they gathered to hear the terms: union recognition, a wage increase, dues check off, promotions based on seniority, and a nondiscrimination clause.

For years, the story of the Sanitation Workers' Strike was a footnote in a story that centered on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2018, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began working with the nonprofit Historic Clayborn Temple (HCT) to fully incorporate the context of King’s visit and the strike into the history of Memphis, and to emphasize the role of the Temple as the epicenter for the organization, execution, and resolution of the strike.

HCT and the National Trust worked together to develop not only a 10-panel exhibition on the 1968 Sanitation Strike, but also a 54-page guidebook with information from the exhibition, additional history and context, an additional section on how the media reported on the strike, and more. While the exhibition will travel across the country, the work also included digitizing the material for access to those who cannot visit the site directly. To support this work, the National Trust received an African American Civil Rights Grant from the National Park Service, with additional support for staffing provided by the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

To learn more about the importance of this exhibition, we interviewed HCT’s executive director Anasa Troutman who brings her unique cultural heritage philosophy to programming (which includes a live musical!) and preserving the history of Clayborn Temple.

Exterior of Clayborn Temple, Memphis Tennessee

photo by: Steve Jones

Exterior view of Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.

As the executive director of Historic Clayborn Temple, why is it important to share its role in the Civil Rights Movement?

On a very basic level, history is important. What happened in the past shapes the present and is something that we need to be more aware of, particularly here at HCT. The conversation that was being had at the time is still being had, and the past not only informs us, but also inspires us to translate the wins from 54 years ago into our current and future strategy.

It is also important because Memphis is a place where there's a specific kind of sadness. It is here where a lot of people take responsibility for the death of Martin Luther King, Jr, the death of the movement, and without enough emphasis on the power and the inspiration that the sanitation workers provided—both to King and to the future of the Civil Rights Movement. This was a moment where the movement was transitioning into one focused on multiracial economic justice work, work that is incomplete and needs to continue.

There is also a sense of pride, [both] for the people of Memphis and the descendants of the sanitation workers that can come from that work. Many people think of Memphis as a place where King was assassinated, as opposed to the place where King was inspired to further and deepen his work. As we tell the history of Clayborn Temple, it is the possibilities that it provides—the hope, the inspiration, and the story—that are so critical to our collective future, regardless of your race, color, creed, or economic status. This, for me, is one of the most critical things we need in this moment.

As we tell the history of Clayborn Temple, it is the possibilities that it provides—the hope, the inspiration, and the story—that are so critical to our collective future, regardless of your race, color, creed, or economic status.

The new exhibition, which will be a touring exhibition as well as available virtually on your new website, shares this important history. Why was it important to you to develop such an exhibition?

Again, this goes back to story. Any way that we can share the story of this place is important for us to pursue. At a basic level, having another mechanism to tell the story is exciting, and specifically in this moment when we are closed to the public and people cannot experience the permanent exhibit, and they can't experience the building, or the majesty of that place.

For us to be able to have a way to take that story to people is important for us because it will help future visitors understand the context of our work, why we do what we do, how we do what we do, for whom we do what we do. It is a way to spread the word about the work that we're doing and the building that we're restoring. The hope is that it will serve as an invitation for people to not only show up and see and experience the space, but also to participate in the work in Memphis, as well as in their own homes, towns, schools, businesses, and organizations.

For me, that traveling exhibit and those books are our ambassadors into new communities, new relationships, and new collaborators.

Two women standing in front of exhibit panels telling the story of Clayborn Temple.

photo by: Historic Clayborn Temple

Sydney Wessinger, the historic preservation specialist at HCT (L) and Anasa Troutman (R) with the traveling exhibition panels at Clayborn Temple.

It's exciting to think about the fact that we have a way to share this space and to share this story with people without having to do it one by one by one by one. If we have a couple sets of the exhibit, one can tour Memphis, one can tour the country, and one can tour with the show, Union: The Musical—which was originally produced in 2018 for the 50th anniversary of King's assassination. Then once we are open, you're walking into the building to experience the story of Clayborn Temple, and you are greeted in the lobby with these gorgeous 10 panels that provide the important historical context.

Then, the dream is for visitors to have those facts illuminated by this magnificent production with all these amazing songs and fantastic Memphis-based artists. I think it could be really magical and it's super exciting to us.

I'm so grateful to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and to the National Park Service for all of the work and support that went into us being able to have these amazing storytelling objects.

Stained glass window, Clayborn Temple, Memphis Tennessee

photo by: Steve Jones

Stained glass on the interior of Clayborn Temple.

Tell us about your social impact methodology, Culture Shift. How has that philosophy fit into your work at Historic Clayborn Temple?

I love this question. My methodology is called Culture Shift. It is a cultural strategy model, which means the use of story to further social impact. The model has four components: transformative storytelling, public engagement, opportunities for embodiment, and the use of technology to go to scale. We very much use the Culture Shift Model at Historic Clayborn Temple. Clayborn is a perfect place to use that model because it is so rich with story, and because there's been so much movement building and movement strategy involved in that story. It's literally rich with possibilities.

The first and most prominent way we used the model is through our work with Union: The Musical, and packaging the story in such a way that we could share it over, and over again, transforming audiences not only in Memphis but across the South. Of course, we had to stop because of the pandemic, but still as we think about moving back into in-person programming next year, the intention is to bring that show back and do that work again.

Clayborn Temple, Memphis, Tennessee

photo by: Steve Jones

Interior wide view of Clayborn Temple.

In addition to creating the musical, we also have a very comprehensive public engagement strategy that allows not only the audiences, but the individuals bringing the show to their town, to engage an embodiment practice around what it means to have multiracial economic justice conversations around safety, abundance, joy, and loving communities. The ability to translate the storytelling into actual real-time opportunities for people to personify the values and the practice in the story is very much our way.

Another element is the use of technology, not just social media, but community engagement platforms and other tools that we will employ in 2023. We've done that in other ways with social media, and I feel like we have a big opportunity to do that now with the new traveling exhibit, the booklet, and the museum, not to mention [the restoration of the] stained-glass windows and the organ. After all, every place that is an opportunity for storytelling is also an opportunity for Culture Shift Model in use.

You mentioned Union: The Musical. What’s next for the piece, and how does it relate to the future of Historic Clayborn Temple?

I'm so excited about the future of the musical. We now are in the process of preparing to write a second version of Union. The first version was a very simple show because we did not have time to do a full script. So we really just did an enhanced stage reading. When we think about the future of Union, this year it will be focused on updating the script for the show.

My dream of dreams is to be able to tour the show in '23 and '24, as we lead up to the opening of the building and to be able to employ the engagement strategy that I mentioned earlier, so that we're not just sharing the show, but we're actually sharing the philosophy and the practices of the organization and the possibility of the future of restorative economics work in majority-black cities across the South.

I want the last show of that tour to be the grand opening of Historic Clayborn Temple. And just the thought of that thrills me to no end.

Since becoming executive director in 2018, how have you approached some of the challenges at Historic Clayborn Temple?

With a lot of prayer. Honestly, the challenges we have compared to the challenges of our ancestors don't really amount to a hill of beans. Obviously, there are things that we have to work through and work towards, but my philosophy has really been one of faith. I know that this work is important. I know that this work is mine to do in this moment, and I believe that the future of Clayborn and the future of Memphis is important to the rest of the country.

I persevere because of the moment that we are in history because I have deep faith, because I have a deep belief in abundance, and I have a vision. The challenges, the naysayers, and the barriers are nowhere near as loud as my vision and my conviction for this work and the community of people that we serve. And so it never occurs to me to turn back or to slow down or to stop. It just is about staying focused and staying open and being in relationship with people who can support and encourage and help us keep moving forward.

Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Leslie Canaan is a senior field officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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By: Priya Chhaya and Leslie Canaan

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