by John Burl Smith
The response to the Memphis Invaders documentary has been tremendous. One of the South Memphis communities – Trigg and Florida – where the youth group implemented a summer program called the Neighborhood Organizing Project (NOP) has taken ownership of the documentary and is fully invested in its success. Last weekend (9-2-12), that community came together in a commemorative celebration at Aunt Cora's Cafe, a community entertainment spot frequently visited by the Invaders during the turbulent 1960s and 70s.
The only remaining party spot from that bygone time, Aunt Cora's has survived demolition while other Invaders hang outs, like the Log Cabin and Living Room, did not. Managed today by Mike Patterson and the grandson of Willie Lee McKinley, the original owner, Rodney, Aunt Cora's opened over five decades ago. Back then, this area was a vibrant community with thriving black and white businesses all along Florida Street. However, segregation ruled with an iron hand and its heavy fist pounded blacks into accepting a second-class status, dictating not only where blacks lived but the places and kinds of jobs they could get.
Old timers remember the area as three distinct neighborhoods – the Puzzle, row houses along the Illinois Central Railroad tracks; Wisconsin Subdivision; and Trigg and Florida. These areas served as a ready supply of cheap black labor for the Illinois Central Railroad switching yard and roundhouse and the Wabash Screen Door Company. Segregation was a harsh system allowing these companies to employ black men at low wages, while black women worked as domestics for whites. Nevertheless, families survived and their communities' economies thrived.
Determined to break the iron grip of segregation on the black community following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968), the Invaders selected the Trigg and Florida area for its first summer program because it was a community under the thumbs of absentee landlords that rented tenements built before the turn of the century. These dwellings were either shotgun-style, three room houses or two-room duplexes, some of which still had outside toilets and no hot water. Moreover, the structures themselves were dilapidated and in ill repair – windows missing or boarded up. Many had wood burning stoves and leaky roofs with missing shingles. The vast majority of the residents lived well below the poverty line and the area received the bare minimum in city services.
The Invaders summer program – the NOP – was design to highlight the needs of these communities. The Invaders served breakfast and lunch to neighborhood children, held nutrition and health classes, as well as community improvement seminars to educate residents about their rights. Prior to the NOP summer program, these communities – Wisconsin Subdivision, Trigg and Florida and the Puzzle – had a history of gang warfare. But, after the Invaders began organizing in the area, Aunt Cora's, which is located on the corner of McLemore St. and Main Extended Ave. and divides the three communities, became the place where everyone gathered after a long hot day of work to hang out and unwind.
This community celebration was a commemoration of the unity began during those days. Now, covered by blight and demolition, these neighborhoods are a mere shell of that bygone era, leaving Aunt Cora's standing as an iconic remnant in a community that the Invaders helped bring together. Residents are very supportive of the Invaders documentary because by telling that story the film will preserve some of the community's history.
Stax recording artist and lead singer of The Mad Lads, John Gary Williams, who is also involved in the revitalization of Stax/Soulville USA, hosted the celebration. John Gary, the Minister of Defense for the Invaders, spoke with Chad Schaffler, producer of the Invaders documentary, about the personal significance of Aunt Cora's and the celebration.
Here is what he said:
"My family lived just over there, which you see is a vacant lot now. There used to be a row of two-story tenement apartments there when I was a kid, and we would stand on the upstairs porch and watch all the partying on Friday and Saturday nights. We all wanted to be down here having a good time. Today, even though I don't live on Trigg and Florida any more, I still come here to hang out with people I know that come from all over the city. It's my way of staying in touch with my roots – the community and the Invaders.
"It is gratifying to be a part of something like this put on by the community. It shows that people were aware that the Invaders were doing things to help the community and were not like they were described in newspapers. Today shows they appreciated what we did. With the new Invaders coming on, some of which you met today, our goal is to galvanize enough economic and political support to rebuild this community."