By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — Dr. Erma Clanton had one life to live. Much of it was devoted to teaching, nurturing, mentoring, developing and illuminating the artistry within young people – whether it was in song, public speaking, or onstage in the theatre.
Her reputation was widespread. She was known to bring out their best and shaped many of them into professional singers and actors on the local and national stages. A lyricist, playwright, stage director, and educator, she was their guiding light.
Dr. Clanton was born in Memphis on Feb. 5, 1923. She was 98 when she died Aug. 24 and left behind an enduring legacy that loved ones, and those she mentored, had no problem putting into words. The outpouring of love and respect for the pioneering educator/playwright was undeniable.
Deborah Manning Thomas, choked with emotion, reflected on her relationship with Dr. Clanton, whom she had spoken with just a few days before her passing.
“Even though she was planning her funeral…memorial service, we just did not accept the fact that she was gonna leave us so soon. The irony of it all is a bit overwhelming. [But] we accept what God has allowed,” said the singer and actor, who began her career as a young upstart under Dr. Clanton’s tutelage.
Thomas’ vocals were maximized in Dr. Clanton’s theatrical production in 1970 called “An Evening of Soul.” She was an undergraduate student at then-Memphis State University (currently the University of Memphis), where Dr. Clanton was an associate professor.
“She was my mentor and like a mother,” Thomas said. “The first airplane trip I ever took, she was designated as my chaperone. My mother did not trust anyone else with me, but her.”
Thomas was accompanied to the 1972 Wattstax Festival in Los Angeles, where she was a featured singer. “She was special to me,” Thomas said, “and she called me daughter. That was a blessing.”
Losing Dr. Clanton has been quite painful, she said. “I loved her like I loved my own mother. It hurts. I’m reliving 2002 all over again. That’s the year I lost my mother.”
Gospel singer Reginald Gaston thought of Dr. Clanton as a second mother as well. “She taught me quite a bit, not only about the theater, but about life,” said Gaston, a retired educator and retired probation officer.
Gaston was a budding singer in 1973 when he began performing in a few of Dr. Clanton’s productions including an “Evening of Soul,” “God’s Trombones,” and “Black and White and Red all Over.”
He said Dr. Clanton’s death is heartbreaking. “She will be sorely missed in this community,” he said. “She gave a lot to the community. She helped people. Period. Sometimes she didn’t know them.”
Social media is replete with comments, tributes, sympathies and heartfelt expressions. Many of the posters were mentored by Dr. Clanton or were impacted by her in one way or another.
Thomas said Dr. Clanton “wanted to do something to lift the spirits of the people and to try to bring us together” in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s after the trauma of Dr. Martin L. King’s death.
After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, Dr. Clanton went to Alabama State University and earned a Bachelor of Science in 1945; a master’s degree in theatre and communication at the former Memphis State University in 1969; and a doctor of humane letters from the Tennessee School of Religion in 2001.
She chose education as her career path and began teaching English and speech at Melrose High School, where her knack for writing and producing plays was apparent. While teaching theatre and communication at the U of M, she produced “Roots, Rhymes & Righteous Times (An Evening of Soul)” in 1971.
Other productions would follow over the years including “Listen Children,” “God’s Trombones,” “Black Pearls of the World,” and “Gifted & Black – On the Right Track.” She retired from the university in 1991.
“She was the GIFT that kept on giving! Erma Clanton played a huge role in my love for stage/theatre. As a child I performed in one of her productions God’s Trombones at Memphis State University,” posted Tracy Bethea, 95.7 Hallelujah FM radio personality on iHeartRadio. “Praying peace and comfort to her family. Her work will continue to shine through soooo many creatives.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, representing Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District, noted his friendship with Dr. Clanton. He posted: “A wonderful woman who was an icon of theatre and the arts in Memphis. My friend for 50 years. A life well lived.”
Dr. L. Lasimba M. Gray Jr., pastor emeritus of New Sardis Baptist Church, first met Dr. Clanton in the mid-seventies when he headed the Sickle Cell Anemia program. They would become good friends.
In 1991, “she joined me at the New Sardis Church, and what a joy that was,” he said, noting that Dr. Clanton directed the Christmas and Passion Play productions. “She took on the drama ministry, man, and we went to a whole new level.”
She had magnetism, charisma, Dr. Gray said. “Erma Clanton could do it all and was just a gifted woman, unselfish. I mean, she just gave, gave, gave and gave. She was a beautiful soul.”
A memorial service for Dr. Erma Clanton is Sept. 4 at New Sardis Baptist Church, 7739 E. Holmes Road. Visitation will take place at 11 a.m.; a celebration of life will follow at noon.