Saturday, May 13, 2017

Honoring youth who triumph over adversity

Beat the Odds honorees: Nadir Muhammad (left), Melody Holmes, Christen Dukes,
Kelsea Washington and John Christopher Cooper. Back row: James Robinson, who received
the Cathryn Rivers Johnson Award. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
Several students with varied challenges and one adult assembled around the dinning room table at Dr. Theresa M. Okwumabua’s home in Midtown on May 5 to discuss last-minute details for an upcoming awards banquet. They also went through a dry run to mitigate any problems when they recount how they beat the odds to make life better for themselves and others.
“As you share your stories, some young person can say, ‘If they can do it, I can do it, too,’” said Okwumabua, encouraging each honoree receiving this year’s Memphis “Beat the Odds” Award to speak up unabashedly at the awards banquet on May 18 at Lindenwood Christian Church, 2400 Union Ave. The banquet will start at 6 p.m.
“You’re distinguished. In addition to what you are challenged with, you are giving back to the community, and that’s why you’re being honored,” said Okwumabua, executive director of Memphis “Beat the Odds” Foundation (MBTO), now celebrating 24 years of honoring youth-driven accomplishments.
Okwumabua founded MBTO in 1994 after attending an awards dinner sponsored by children’s activist Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund, of which she is founder and president.
Christen Dukes, 20, is one of seven students MBTO is honoring. He is shy and speaks softly, but his annual fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital speaks volumes.
Born six months premature and weighing two pounds, Dukes wasn’t expected to live no more than 24 hours. Since then he’s struggled with sickle cell anemia, but the pain hasn’t stopped him from advocating for St. Jude and others struggling with the disease.
“Having sickle cell as a child put everything in perspective for me,” said Dukes, an accomplished trombonist studying music at Visible Music College in Memphis. He has been the recipient of many awards and honors and often draws media attention to his cause.
Other MBTO honorees may not be as media savvy, but overcoming their adversities warrant attention. Melody Holmes, 17, was involved in a car accident during her freshman year and sustained a brain injury and other damages.
Although Melody struggled physically and underwent cognitive rehabilitation, she focused on academics at Middle College High School, from where she will graduate this year with top-tier grades. She has a 4.1 GPA. A career in accounting is part of her immediate plans.
When MBTO volunteer Christin Webb asked the honorees to write three words that define them, Melody came up with “driven.” She pondered two more words, but they wouldn’t come to mind.
Kelsea Washington, 15, is visually impaired. She’s had several surgeries to correct a condition known as Retinopathy of Prematurity, the result of being a preemie and weighing a mere 1 pound and 5 ounces at birth.
“I feel my experience being visually impaired will help kids and adults who are legally blind. My story will give them hope,” said Kelsea, an inquisitive student who plays basketball at Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering. She sings at church too.
Don’t count 16-year-old Nadir Muhammad out. He is autistic, but doesn’t consider the neurodevelopmental disorder a hindrance. Autism is characterized by speech difficulty, language and abstract concepts. Nadir is on the opposite end of the spectrum, Okwumabua said.
Nadir is a whiz at math and science. A junior at W.E.B. DuBois Academy of Arts and Technology, he averages an ‘A’ in physics. His GPA is 3.67. While school is important to him, so is volunteering to feed the homeless, collecting “pennies” for leukemia patients, and working in soup kitchens.
“My challenge has inspired me to be the best that I can be and never give up,” said 18-year-old John Christopher Cooper, explaining how his life changed after he was diagnosed at 2 with Coates’ disease, a rare congenital, nonhereditary eye disorder.
John is shy and unassuming, and doesn’t like speaking out in public, said Rochelle Cooper, John’s mother. His work, however, speaks for itself. He will graduate on May 18 from Houston High School with a 3.0 GPA.
John’s inability to see out of one eye hasn’t stopped him from focusing on extracurricular activities: participating with the Kappa League Leadership Organization, Bridge Builders, mentoring youth, and serving at church.
Natalie Lopez Gill, 19, is Hispanic. She is graduating this year from Cordova High School. The language and cultural barriers would have tripped her up, but she has persevered and learned to speak English. She volunteers a lot, too.
Corian McLemore is developmentally challenged. The label, however, hasn’t deterred this 17-year-old from giving his best at Germantown High School, where he works hard to succeed academically. He also manages the football and basketball teams and advocates for students with disabilities.
Five years ago, Okwumabua started recognizing one adult who has worked tirelessly in the community on behalf of youth and young adults. James Robinson, founder, executive director and facilitator of Metamorphoses, Inc., met the criteria. He will receive the Cathryn Rivers Johnson Award, named for the children’s advocate.
“It’s nice to be recognized. But what I do I do from my heart,” said Robinson, who teaches behavior modification to juveniles from Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court, the Department of Children’s Services, and Shelby County Schools. He also teaches parents to modify their behavior.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Interpreting the Fort Pillow Massacre with art

Aisha Raison marvels over a Confederate battle scene created by artist Ronald C.
Herd II in mixed media. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
“If you don’t tell their story, the ancestors get no glory,” said Ronald C. Herd II, expounding on the Fort Pillow massacre of 1864, the year Fort Pillow, a Union garrison in Henning, Tennessee, fell to Confederate troops.
Fort Pillow wasn’t the only casualty during the Civil War. That year on April 12, nearly 300 Union prisoners were shot to death. Most of them were black soldiers, said Herd, an artist, musician and activist speaking to a small group at Art Village Gallery in Downtown Memphis. 
“Nathan (Bedford Forrest) gave the order even though he wasn’t there,” said Herd, holding the Confederate general, slave trader and reportedly the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan culpable.
The art gallery was the destination for some observers and a pit stop for others who sauntered in on March 31 to view a collection of paintings, drawings and other media based on the artists’ interpretation of the massacre.
The exhibit will run until April 14. The contributing artists are Darlene Newman, Frank D. Robinson, Carl E. Moore, Roy Hawkins Jr., Marion Joyner-Wilson, Iris Love Scott, Sr. Walt, and Ronald Herd, the exhibit organizer.
 “Using Our Art to Tell Our Stories: Remembering Fort Pillow” is the title of the art exhibit, which kicked off the Fort Pillow Massacre Commemorative Project honoring the black soldiers and civilians who died on that fateful day. 
The project commenced last year on April 12 when the Memphis Area Branch of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH) held a wreath laying ceremony to honor the fallen soldiers.
A memorial service will be held on April 11 this year at Christian Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, the church that the late Dr. W. Herbert Brewster, a composer, poet, lyrist and dramatist, pastored when it was named East Trigg Baptist Church.
On April 12, at 10 a.m., a national wreath laying ceremony will be held at the Memphis National Cemetery at 3568 Townes Ave., where the soldiers were buried in 1867. ASALH again is organizing this ceremony along with W.E. A.l.l. B.E. Group, Inc.
The acronym stands for World, Enriching, Activating, Liberating, Love, Beautification, and Experience.
Ronald Herd is the founder of W.E. A.l.l. B.E. Group, Inc., an umbrella organization advocating responsible social entrepreneurism and activism via the arts, media and education.   
He and his mother, Callie Herd, who spawn the idea to educate people about the massacre through the arts, thought it would be a fitting tribute to the soldiers. The historic significance of the project is “God-ordained,” she said.
“We wanted to create a story through the eyes of the artists to allow the audience to see the importance of knowing one’s history so that we will learn from the negatives,” said Callie Herd, an activist and author of a college preparation blog.
 “These are black artists paying homage to their ancestors,” said Ronald Herd, a social justice artist, blogger, and jazz aficionado known by the moniker “R2C2H2 Tha Artivist.”
Aisha Raison was smitten by the artwork and the controversial imagery emanating from the surface of the paintings and drawings.
“There is so much history behind this exhibit,” said Raison, including the sordid history surrounding the Fort Pillow massacre.
Her grandmother, she said, lived in Fulton, Tenn., one of the oldest settlements in Lauderdale County, and talked about finding skulls along the banks of the Mississippi River.
Fort Pillow, also in Lauderdale County, is nearby.
“They were kids playing by the riverbanks,” said Raison, an author, poet and essayist who works at WABN Radio, a gospel station in Southaven, Miss.
Stanley Campbell noted the importance of the exhibit and its attraction. “I feel the energy from up high,” said Campbell, the proprietor of the House of Mtenzi (Swahili for artist), a museum and venue for the performing arts.
“I’m delighted to be a part of the past history, the presence, and what’s to come,” he said.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Historical marker a fitting tribute to the Lee sisters

The story of the Lee sisters in now etched in bronze. From left: Peggy Jayne Lee, Sandra
Faye Lee Swift, Elaine Lee Turner, Ernestine Lee Henning and Brenda Lee Turner
(Photo by Wiley Henry)
Going to jail is not at all pomp and circumstance. But for a family of courageous sisters, it was a “badge of honor” to be carted off to jail 17 times during the turbulent civil rights movement.
On March 25, more than 50 years later, a historical marker was unveiled honoring Ernestine Lee Henning, Sandra Faye Lee Swift, Brenda Lee Turner, Elaine Lee Turner, the late Joan Lee Nelson, Peggy Jayne Lee and Susan Carlotta Lee.
“This is living history,” said Jimmy Ogle, county historian for the Shelby County Historical Commission, which preserves, educates and approves requests for historical markers.
The marker was unveiled in front of Royal Furniture at the corner of South Main and Gayoso, site of the former Black and White Store before it was renamed Shainberg’s, where Ernestine and Elaine were arrested.
“We’re here because we are indebted to the Lee sisters,” said the Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., senior pastor of New Sardis Baptist Church and member of the Commission. “We’re here to pay a debt that we owe the Lee sisters.”
It was Gray and Markhum “Mark” L. Stansbury Sr., a WDIA luminary and fellow Commission member that set in motion the process to preserve the legacy of the Lee sisters after the death of Joan Lee Nelson last year in September.
“Tell the Lord thank you for the Lee sisters,” Stansbury told the intimate group of family and supporters that gathered around the marker to witness living history and the story of the sisters’ gallantry.
Vasco “Smitty” Smith III, son of the late civil rights activists Vasco and Maxine Smith, referenced the Lee sisters’ tenacity to stay the course despite the fact that some activists were injured or killed in their pursuit of justice and equality.
“This is one strong, brave group of women,” Smith said.  
Grace Meacham, a retired schoolteacher who attended the former LeMoyne College with Ernestine and likewise sat in with her at libraries and lunch counters, said the Lee sisters deserve recognition for their contribution to civil rights.
“It has taken 57 years for the sit-in movement to be recognized,” said Meacham.
There were accolades aplenty during the unveiling ceremony, including a reference to a 1965 Jet magazine article hailing the Lee sisters, and brothers, as the most arrested civil rights family in the United States.
“I was in high school at the time,” said Brenda Lee Turner, reflecting on her arrest record with three of her sisters at Peggy Jayne Lee’s law office a couple of days before the marker unveiling.
“We knew the risk we were taking,” said Brenda, adding: “We were excited about getting arrested.”
Peggy was around 12 years old when her older sisters were getting arrested for sitting in at department stores along Main Street. She couldn’t wait to follow their lead. Neither could Susan, the youngest sister.
“At night when they came in, they were like conquering heroes,” said Peggy. “We would be waiting on them so they could tell us what happened during the day.”
Ernestine, the oldest sister, was compelled to fight for justice, determined to end discrimination, and hell-bent on dismantling Jim Crow laws. She led the charge to desegregate lunch counters, libraries, stores and other facilities.
“It just wasn’t right,” said Ernestine, who lives in Los Angeles.
Elaine was arrested three times. “After Ernestine had been arrested for taking part in the first sit-in, we were just excited,” she said. “There was so much excitement in the Lee household.”
Getting up every day to picket, march or sit in was a “daily duty” the sisters took pride in. Elaine said their parents, the late Robert and Alversa Lee, encouraged their 14 children to stand up for justice.
They stood up and sat in, too, to call attention to the city’s unfair treatment of African Americans and the upheaval that had spread throughout the South across political and social spectrums.
“We brought attention to injustices,” said Brenda. “We made a difference and I’m glad that we got a chance to be a part of it.”
More than a decade after the civil rights movement, Elaine and Joan would continue to fight and educate people eager to learn about local African-American history. In 1983, they founded Heritage Tours.
“We have a civil rights tour,” said Elaine. “This [marker] will fit right into that type of tour, as groups come from all over the country. They come to learn the history of Memphis.”
And they will come to learn about the Lee sisters too.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Widow of fallen soldier shares her story in new book

Author L. Latrese Dixon
Death could be described as the final chapter in the life of the decedent. But not for the late Staff Sgt. Donnie Dixon, who lives on posthumously in an intriguing book written by his widow, L. Latrese Dixon.
“From Tragedy to Triumph: The Life of a Widow” is the recounting of an enduring love story told by Dixon, who was shattered after the Army sent her husband home from Iraq in a flag-draped coffin.
 “The life I once had, I had no more,” Dixon writes. “Donnie’s unit was set to return home by October 2007. I went from preparing Donnie’s homecoming to now having to prepare for his home-going.”
It was extremely difficult, she explains, “but I had to tell myself to breathe. I’d lost many people to death – even family members – but to lose a husband, a spouse, was a totally different level to me.”
Loneliness and sadness added to Dixon’s grief. The loss was nearly too much to bear and would have overtaken her if it had not been for the children: Ta’Mya, Sha’Bria, D’Andre and Donnie Jr.
“I’ve had people to ask how I overcame the challenges,” said Dixon, who was encouraged by Col. Dave Sutherland (retired U.S. Army), Kim Mitchell and others to speak about her travails as the widow of a fallen soldier.
But Dixon was too shy to speak out in public and needed a mouthpiece to speak in her stead. So she enlisted Sutherland and Mitchell, founders of The Dixon Center, an outreach for veterans and military families.
Friends and loved ones, however, continued to encourage Dixon. They wanted to know how she was able to grieve and yet maintain her sanity. Since speaking about it wasn’t going to happen, she decided to write it down.
Nothing would go on without Dixon’s children having their say in the matter, though. “I wanted them to write their own piece…how they felt about the tragedy of their dad,” said Dixon.
But then Dixon didn’t want the children to relive that moment after breaking the news to them that their dad wasn’t coming home. They were grieving in their own way, so she took the burden off them and opted to write “From Tragedy to Triumph: The Life of a Widow.”
“Once they realized they couldn’t do it, I just let it go,” said Dixon, who had lost her father 18 months after Donnie’s death, her brother when she was 18 years old, and her mother when she was 12.
Prayer got her through each time death came knocking. But after Donnie’s death, she needed fervent prayer to put her life back into perspective. She couldn’t afford to crumble under the weight of grief, because she had to stand in the gap for her children.
“Death is never easy,” she said. “Having to explain it to my children affects them as well.”
The book explains it all – her life with and without Staff Sgt. Donnie Dixon.
“I want people to understand that what you’re going through, you’re not by yourself,” said Dixon. “Everybody has difficulty dealing with tragedy. It’s how you deal with it in the end.”
In Dixon’s case, she would overcome death without turning to drugs, alcohol, medication and other addictions. She chose instead to embrace friends and loved ones and frame those unforgettable memories of Donnie for posterity.
“There’s life at the end,” she said. “But I don’t think you can ever be healed.”
Ta’Mya, Sha’Bria, D’Andre and Donnie Jr. are constant reminders that Dixon’s late husband and the children’s father is always present.
“Each one of them has something that reminds me of their dad,” said Dixon. “The kids are a precious gift. With them, he will never be forgotten.”
The children, however, managed to find solace after the death of their father. It was a melodious chord to Dixon’s ears.
“As I got older, the children said, “‘Ma, life has to keep going. He wouldn’t want you to stop.’”
She hasn’t stopped moving since penning “From Tragedy to Triumph: The Life of a Widow.”
For more information, call L. Latrese Dixon at (254) 466-8262 or email her at “From Tragedy to Triumph: The Life of a Widow” can be purchased through

Two members from ‘Memphis State 8’ die days apart

The Memphis State Eight: The late Rose Blakney-Love (l to r), the late Eleanor Gandy, Bertha
Rogers-Looney, Luther McClellan, John Simpson, Marvis Laverne Kneeland-Jones (seated).
Not pictured are Ralph Prater and the late Sammie Burnett-Johnson. (Photo by Mark Stansbury Sr.)
On Sept. 18,1959, eight black students walked onto a white college campus when racial tension was seething and forever became known as the “Memphis State Eight.”
Three of the members have died – two recently: Eleanor Gandy, 76, on Feb. 6 in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Rose Blakney-Love, 75, on Feb. 12 in Memphis. Sammie Burnett Johnson, 71, was the first to die in 2011.
Five of the eight members remain: Luther McClellan, Marvis Kneeland Jones, Ralph Prater, John Simpson and Bertha Rogers Looney.
Their courage and determination to integrate the former Memphis State University during the burgeoning civil rights movement may have gone unnoticed if Markhum “Mark” L. Stansbury Sr. had not recognized their historical significance as trailblazers.
“We need to recognize the Memphis State Eight,” Stansbury urged Dr. Shirley Raines when she served as president of the current University of Memphis where he worked as her special assistant.
A photojournalist and trailblazer himself, Stansbury did not want the actions the group took in 1959 to become just a footnote in history or, worse, languish in obscurity. He knew their actions were just that important for posterity.
Raines was convinced the eight trailblazers deserved the recognition and their rightful place in the annals of history. She welcomed them back on campus in 2006 to a rousing reception and ceremony in their honor.
The group’s exploits would catch the attention of the media from time to time and eventually lead to the presentation of a historical marker in front of the Administration Building.
“My life was made richer by knowing them and admiring their courage,” Raines wrote in an email. “It was my distinct honor to have the historical marker honoring them placed on the University of Memphis campus.” 
Stansbury admires the eight trailblazers’ courage as well for defying the University’s racist admissions policy and their disdain for black students at that time. He once tried to enroll, but was denied. He would serve four different presidents nearly 20 years.
Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis, who tried to enroll in the university’s graduate program two years before the group’s decision to challenge the all-white faculty and student body, was not accepted either.
An activist, scholar, author and retired university professor, DeCosta-Willis said Gandy, Blakney-Love and Johnson are a passing generation of civil rights fighters. She was shaken by the recent deaths of Gandy and Blakney-Love.
“I mourn the loss of those two valiant individuals,” said DeCosta-Willis. “Now three of the eight are gone. It’s very troubling.”
She was saddened too “when I read that two very courageous fighters were down. I hope people will understand their courage and fortitude. What they went through was abominable.”
They were vilified, harassed and ostracized even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate education was “inherently unequal.” Still, torment and loneliness would follow the eight students on campus each day they were subjected to the harsh reality of racism.
In spite of all the hoopla surrounding their contentious enrollment, the eight students kept their eyes on the prize: a college degree – whether it was conferred by the university or obtained at other colleges where some of the members opted to attend.
Equating the courage and moxie of the Memphis State 8 with Maxine Smith, Vasco Smith and Benjamin L. Hooks, DeCosta-Willis said Gandy, Blakney-Love and Johnson were treasures.
“I hope young people understand the sacrifice they made,” she said. “Sometimes we take for granted what they were able to accomplish.”
Gandy would go on to graduate from the University in 1963. In 1996, she earned a master’s degree in education from Mississippi State University. After graduation, she taught French in Memphis City Schools for more than 20 years.
Two years after integrating the University, Blakney-Love left to get married and went to work for the Tennessee Board of Parole.
“We extend our sympathies to the families of Eleanor Gandy and Rose Blakney-Love,” said U of M president David Rudd in a released statement. “As we continue to grow as a University, we hope the courage and strength shown by these two groundbreaking students will inspire future generations to stand up for what they believe in, and to fight for social justice.”

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Carolyn Hardy: ‘We don’t play’ when it comes to business

Carolyn Hardy was the keynote speaker at a business symposium that  The Carter
Malone Group hosted in 2013 at Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist Church. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
“If Memphis is going to survive, black businesses must survive,” said Carolyn Hardy, founder and CEO of Henderson Trans-loading Services, a company that stores and transports grain products – wheat, soybeans, corn and milo – by rail and boat.
Hardy drew this conclusion based on the virtually nil percentage of gross receipts from black businesses in Memphis and Shelby County after she served on Mayor Jim Strickland’s transition team.  
“We’re over 52 percent of the population and enjoying only 1 percent of receipts,” Hardy pointed out. “It’s less than 1 percent, to be quite honest. What it tells me is whatever system is in place, it means the status quo is working pretty well.”
In June of 2015, the city contracted with Griffin & Strong P.C. to conduct a Disparity Study to ascertain the problem or lack of diversity when it comes to minority and women-owned businesses obtaining contracts.
The Disparity Study was released in 2016. GSPC found “sufficient statistically significant underutilization of minority and women-owned firms as prime contractors and some areas of subcontracting in all five work categories that GSPC analyzed.”
The five categories were “Construction,” Architecture and Engineering,” “Professional Services,” “Other Services,” and “Goods.” The purpose of the study was to determine if the Equal Business Opportunity ordinance, which was set to expire on June 30, 2015, was fulfilled or not.
“What I learned is when you look at the Disparity Study that the city paid for and looked at, the feedback they got from the business community…they got the answer to solve this problem,” she said.
“If the business community is going to survive – I’m not just talking about government – the city government should be doing what it’s doing to try to increase minority gross receipts.”
The county mayor (Mark H. Luttrell Jr.), she added, should be doing the same thing. “We got to dig a little deeper to make sure that all of government in the Memphis community is participating in the same way.”
The business community is where the money is made, said Hardy, whose business pedigree dates back to 2006 when she purchased Coors Belle brewery in Hickory Hill for $9 million. She worked at the company prior to becoming the owner.
Hardy turned that investment into a $30 million windfall five years later after selling Hardy Bottling Co. – which manufactured carbonated and non-carbonated beverages – to Blues City Brewing LLC, an affiliate of La Crosse, Wis.-based City Brewing Co.
Chism Hardy Enterprises LLC, the parent company to Hardy Bottling, which cast Hardy as the first African-American female to own a major brewery, brokered the million-dollar deal.
Hardy upped her game in the business community after paying $403,980 via the Hardy Family Trust for 33.6 acres of land in the Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park for her trans-loading and docking business.
In some respects, Hardy has managed to defy the grim statistics for women and minority-owned businesses the city’s Diversity Plan reported when it was rolled out last year.
The lack of healthy minority businesses in Memphis is contributing to the status quo, she said. “The people who are controlling the purse string have to be willing to approach businesses differently. [They] have to be more inclusive of black businesses.”
Start-up capital is often a sticking point for most up-and-coming minority business owners. “You have businesses out there that are not starving for capital,” said Hardy. “They’re starving for sales.”
When it comes to divvying up contracts, the rules of engagement for awarding contracts are pretty much set in stone, said Hardy, who was tipped with this information by some top-level business owners.
“If you’re the lighting subcontractor, the lighting sub decides where they buy their supplies from,” said Hardy, noting that many minorities aren’t big enough to handle big projects.
“On the supply side, those subs make the decision,” she said. “If you look at the Disparity Study, you’ll find that we have a good concentration of supplies.”
Hardy points to the $9 billion in capital expansion underway in the city as a yardstick of where relatively little money is being spent among the varied minority and women-owned contractors.
A different set of rules, however, was applicable for the Crosstown Concourse project and the International Paper-Tower 4 project, Hardy said. “They used new rules that were very inclusive.”
When Hardy started Henderson Trans-loading, she had more of an advantage than other African-American entrepreneurs and minority firms: She didn’t have to hunt for start-up capital.
After a decade in business, Hardy was able to self-capitalize the trans-loading business. However, “If it’s something they (investors) understand, they’ll fund it,” she said. “New startups take a lot of years, a lot of capital.”
Because Hardy is adroit in business, she’s been successful in moving Henderson Trans-loading forward in terms of gross receipts. “We have a few customers in Memphis, but the majority of our customers are always outside of Memphis.”
 Henderson Trans-loading has credibility too, said Hardy, who also owns an industrial supply company.
“We’ve been at it for a while and we’re the best at what we do,” said Hardy. “The customers that we work for don’t mind telling other people that. We don’t play.”

Monday, February 20, 2017

Michel’le lends her voice to ending domestic violence

It would be difficult to mistake the unmistakable voice of Michel’le Toussant in casual conversation. That’s because her seriously high-pitched, squeaky voice rings with familiarity.
Now if you’ve only heard Michel’le (pronounced MEESH-uh-lay) sing soul-stirring rhythm and blues songs, you wouldn’t believe she is the owner of that spirited, child-like voice.
The duality of Michel’le’s voice is her claim to fame. However, those who know the two sides of the Grammy-nominated vocalist and actress would also find it difficult to believe that she is a domestic violence survivor.
Michel’le will share her story when she keynotes the YWCA of Greater Memphis’ 20th benefit luncheon at the Holiday Inn – University of Memphis, 3700 Central Ave., on March 8 at 12 noon.
Michelle Toussant
Proceeds will be used to provide services and shelter for women and children grappling with domestic violence. More than $100,000 has been raised so far since the benefit luncheon’s onset 20 years ago.
 “We have a speaker each year and Michele’le has agreed to be our speaker this year,” said Pamela Williams Kelly, board member of the YWCA and benefit luncheon publicity chair.
“We wanted someone who could speak to the issues, challenges and opportunities of the women that we service each and every day,” said Jacquelyn Williams, YWCA’s executive director. “She can speak to a lot of things that our clients are going through every day.”
As a doctor, I know that domestic abuse is more than a physical scar. It also affects the person emotionally,” said Dr. Sylvia Ritchie, board chair of YWCA of Greater Memphis.
Michel’le’s “scars” were more than she could handle, which literally forced her from the music scene after scoring such chart-toppers as “Turn off the Lights,” “Nticety” and “Something in My Heart.”
The songstress went missing from the limelight for a while and returned as a reality TV star on R&B Divas: LA from 2013 to 2015. The world would learn why Michel’le went missing in the October 2016 Lifetime made for TV movie “Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge and Michel’le.”
She tells the story of how she struggled with substance abuse, financial uncertainty, and physical abuse by the fathers of her children, N.W.A founder, Dr. Dre and Suge Knight, founder of DeathRow Records.
Michel’le once attempted suicide years after the physical abuse ended. She is not alone. There are countless women and men teetering on the edge of suicide in a desperate attempt to end the constant pain and abuse.
“By her coming and speaking to the audience, which should include some clients of ours as well, hopefully she can leave a message that they can take back and have their lives changed as a result,” said Williams.
Domestic violence is a scourge that affects tens of millions in the United States. Women suffer the most at the hands of their intimate partner (1.3 million each year). Men are victimized too.
A lot of victims are afraid to come forward, Kelly added.
One in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence within their lifetime, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has reported.
“At the YWCA, we are aware that our clients need services that extend beyond medical care,” said Ritchie. “The community’s support of this luncheon helps us to meet those needs.”
Service programs at the YWCA include a Domestic Violence Crisis Line, Emergency Shelter, YWCA Memphis Family Shelter, Victim Advocacy, Immigrant Women’s Services, Job Training, Community Education, Racial Justice, and Childcare.
It has been a 97-year effort and commitment from the YWCA to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and liberty for all. Ending domestic violence is the cornerstone of that commitment.
Luncheon tickets are $100 and can be purchased online at For more information, call (901) 210-6551 or (901) 320-6002.