Council of Elders, clockwise from left: Andrew “Rome” Withers, James “Deke” Pope, Charles Todd, Ramon Ferguson Jr., Dr. Coby Smith, Willie L. “Hank” Henry Jr., Calvin Taylor, and Jibril Shabazz. Photo by Wiley Henry

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — After a clarion was sounded for a select group of Black men to coalesce around the idea of learning and preserving the rich history of their community, 10 answered the call.

The group met May 9 at the Sugar Hill Museum, a small building on Walker Avenue housing a photographic collection of Black history-makers from eras past and present, courtesy of the museum’s proprietor, Charles Todd. 

It came as no surprise that four former members of The Invaders, a 1960s Black power group, were present, including a fifth Invader, who identified himself as one of the “Sons of The Invaders.”

Ramon Ferguson Jr. came seeking guidance and wisdom from “the elders.” Since this was an informal meeting, Willie L. “Hank” Henry Jr., who convened the group, suggested calling the group a “Council of Elders.”

Henry, Dr. Coby Smith, Calvin Taylor and Jibril Shabazz were delighted that the “young brother,” representing the new-era Invaders, would seek their counsel and follow in their footsteps.

Now in their seventies, the original Invaders recalled their place in history when they sacrificed their lives during the civil rights movement when racial conflict rose to a crescendo. 

In fact, each person at the meeting had either protested, marched, demonstrated or fought for justice in their own way including James “Deke” Pope, Andrew “Rome” Withers and Clarence Christian. They, too, were present. 

But it was Henry who sounded the alarm that something needs to be done about the plight of African Americans – young people included – whose knowledge of their own history is miniscule.

Take for example the corner of Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue. Once known as “the Curve,” it is where the museum is located, on Walker Avenue, just east of the historic Four Way Restaurant, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once dined.

On the southeast corner of the Curve stood the People’s Grocery, a once bustling establishment that was owned by Thomas Moss, a Black man, who ran afoul of a white business owner in the area. 

Feeling economically threatened by Moss’s entrepreneurial prowess, the white man took matters into his own hands and a melee ensued. Moss, William Stewart and Calvin McDowell – both clerks at the grocery – were eventually lynched and mutilated by a white mob in 1892.

A historical marker was erected for posterity where the People’s Grocery once stood and to call attention to the lynching of Moss, Stewart, and McDowell. The marker was temporarily removed in 2020 to correct a misspelled word. 

“I want people to know the history of the Curve. I don’t want children growing up with lies,” said Henry, a minister and noted counselor, expressing his disdain for inaccuracies, book banning, and “denying people information”

“It hurts history,” added Smith, a founding member of The Invaders and a retired educational administrator and professor.

Pope, a retiree, interjected a comment. “It hurts this man’s business (referring to Todd’s museum).” Though Todd has limited resources, he finds a way to chronicle African American history.

Withers, a photographer and the last surviving son of the late internationally known photojournalist Ernest C. Withers, said, “We need to set the record straight about history.” 

This was a call to action essentially and the purpose of the meeting.

“We got so much to do,” Smith said.

Shabazz, who retired from the U.S. Air Force, was impressed with Ferguson. “I’d like to see the young Invaders go into the community and try to recruit,” he said, “and to galvanize our young brothers to try to get some order.” 

He doesn’t subscribe to “foolishness,” though.

Neither does Henry, who suggested parameters for the next meeting. “There are no Big ‘I’s and little ‘U’s,” he shared with the group.

Pope said the meeting was a good start.