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A group in north Memphis works to redevelop the old Carnes Elementary School

A Black developer and a group of residents are passionate about preserving their history and creating space for the future.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A group in north Memphis has been working to restore an old school building in the center of the Medical District.

It may sound familiar because it is the old Carnes Elementary School on J W Williams Lane.

But when it comes to renovating and rebuilding the community, especially in areas that are predominately Black, it is challenging.

One Black developer and a group of residents are passionate about preserving their history and creating space for the future.

“All 14 of my brothers and sisters, all of us ... we went to school here,” resident Ekpe Abioto said.

Carnes was a place that beyond academics was a second home for generations of families.

“My mother started the PTA here in 1954. She already had 12 children, but that’s how involved we were in the community,” Abioto stated.

That was until 2017, when the Shelby County school board voted to close its doors due to low enrollment, and the need for repairs. Now, just six years later, residents want to see the building put to good use, not boarded up.

“As far as development, business training, we need this in the community. You have people that still stay in this area,” resident Ashley Fields expressed.

Isaiah Franklin who is a local business owner added that he believes other Black men in the community also need more opportunities to flourish.

“I have three different jobs that I have to choose from to be successful. And I feel like if we come together, maybe one of those jobs can grow through some kind of community ... some type of small business,” Franklin said.

Residents also said this big project will be no overnight success story, and it will take a significant amount to strategize for it to be what the city will need.

“It’s going to take all hands on deck. It’s going to take everybody buying into a project like this. This is something that’s going to need to happen to be the community it should be.” County Commissioner (District 6) Charlie Caswell said.

Real Estate Developer Justin Merrick has been working on this project through the organization he is a part of called Center for Transforming Communities Incorporated, which works closely with residents and institutions to support equitable community change work.

He said this project is now five years in the making.

“It’s important when we talk about developing neighborhoods in communities that it’s coming from the space of being healing-centered and preservation,” Merrick said. “The distinction, the difference is when you look at sister cities like Nashville and how they’re developed, that we have an opportunity to find ways to develop the city that’s authentic to what Memphis is.”

Some ideas include turning the space into new apartments or maybe a learning center.

Right now, the organization is also working with city, county, and state leaders on the planning and funding.

If you would like to learn more about this or become a developer, The Black Coalition for Housing will be hosting the 2023 Black Developers Housing Summit at the Hilton Hotel on Ridge Lake Blvd starting at 8 a.m. until Saturday. 

If you are a student or an emerging developer, you can attend for free. Just click here.

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