Saturday, August 10, 2013

Glynn Johns Reed: An enduring legacy on two fronts: Memphis and New Orleans

Glynn Johns Reed and family. From left, Reed's son and daughter-in-law, Reuben and Helen Johnson, Reed, daughter Crystal Chopin, husband Arthur Reed and grandson (Photo by Wiley Henry).

          Never one to shrink from civic responsibility or her role as standard-bearer, Glynn Johns Reed has made headway in a world where the travails of life have prevented a many African Americans -- past and present -- from realizing their true potential.
Those travails can be traced back to the slave trade. But it wasn’t until Reed matriculated at Tennessee State University in the late ‘60s that she made a conscious decision to shake up the status quo that had unleashed the fury in women such as Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer.
“All my life I've been sick and tired. Now I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said Hamer, a civil rights activist protesting her right to vote in the ‘60s.
Reed’s protest wasn’t political per se, but donning an Afro on the campus of TSU was an outward sign that she, too, was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She protested vehemently by celebrating her African-American ethnicity, asserting her right to be heard, and challenging a system that had given rise to Jim Crow and thus permeated Southern thinking.    
“I was with a group that burned down the ROTC building at TSU,” said Reed, disclosing a decades-old secret that no doubt baffled campus officials at the time. Though she admits not starting the fire, the sideline view she’d taken was her way of protesting the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War, and what she’d considered to be an unjust system that had relegated African Americans to menial jobs, a back-of-the-bus experience, and an uncertain future.
That epoch was vintage Jim Crow – or somewhere afterward where unjust laws against African Americans would soon be dismantled -- but the vestiges of racism and discrimination would linger. Reed thus began asserting pride in self and in a race of people that had struggled mightily to break shackles in the arts, entertainment, education, medicine, business and other noteworthy professions before and after Reed left TSU.
“I never liked working with the system. I always bucked it. I was always in protest mode,” said Reed, who was determined to find her own way in life, including rejecting that which would bind her tenacious pursuit of self-awareness and cultural identity.
Perhaps what drove Reed’s awareness of self early on and her afro-centric bent is the fact that she grew up in the Douglass community in Memphis where the center of her universe was speckled with black people: friends, neighbors, school chums, “Mom and Pop” businesses.
“I thought it was more black people in the world,” she said, “because I grew up in a sheltered black neighborhood and went to black schools and college.”
But then something happened after Reed ventured beyond the periphery of the Douglass community in pursuit of a higher calling. “It was a culture shock when I found out there were more white people than us,” said Reed, who would solidify her pro-black stance and look for opportunities to promote the African-American experience. She also would start budding as an entrepreneur and take on a few jobs in between to support herself.
But the spark that first ignited Reed’s passion for serving her people has not been extinguished to this day – for she’s since championed from Day 1 many causes and endeavors to help as many African Americans get ahead as possible in Memphis, where she was born, and in New Orleans, a city that has shaped who she’s become today. And those who benefit the most from her sensibility and sensitivity to the African-American cause understand what motivates her to succeed.
Success, in large part, is predicated upon the persistent effort that a person puts into his or her work. And Glynn Johns Reed, who has made an inedible mark in the African-American community in both cities, doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
And why should she?
          Because Reed is at the apex of her career and has always been at the ready when transacting business or managing to be in the right place at the right time in history. Each step forward, for example, has ensured her legacy and a luminous vita in the annals of history.

Creating a business climate in New Orleans…

After graduating from Douglass in 1966 and receiving a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration from TSU in 1971, Reed worked as a bookkeeper for the Memphis Urban League, took an administrative job in a sickle cell office, set up an office for acupuncturist Dr. I.K. H. Chang, worked as a commodities broker, and left for New Orleans in 1976, where she began honing her entrepreneurial skills and investing sweat and equity in the community.
            Though Memphis was slow to satisfy Reed’s insatiable appetite for social and cultural uplift, the “Big Easy,” on the other hand, drew Reed to the arts, entertainment, food, music, the business community, and the granddaddies of them all -- the Jazz Fest and the Mardi Gras. The collective experience – which started when she first set foot in New Orleans -- is simply “electric,” she said.
           “The first thing I want when I get to New Orleans is an overstuffed Shrimp Po’ boy.”
           After Reed’s acclimation to New Orleans’ culture, the entrepreneurial ideas in her head started churning. In no certain order she launched the Message Board Telephone Answering Service, started publishing the Black Pages to promote black businesses, taught aspiring models at the Barbizon School of Modeling and managed the agency for a year, performed in over 50 television commercials and movies, became a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild, and was the first black concierge hired at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, next to the Super Dome.
            “People like Dr. J (Julius Erving) and Pelé (a Brazilian soccer player) were staying at the hotel and would ask me where they could find a black restaurant or a black cab company,” said Reed, who would soon launch “An Official Guide to New Orleans,” the precursor to “The Black Pages New Orleans,” after she herself couldn’t find someone to shape her Afro. 
            “I love Memphis, but my heart is in New Orleans,” said Reed, who, within 20 years, solidified her reputation as a businesswoman and became an inextricable part of the city’s cultural mix. Her sojourn to the city along with her business acuity has enabled her to network effortlessly between Memphis and New Orleans, which earned her the moniker of “master networker.”
            It was Reed’s networking ability that enabled her to bring the first Black rodeo to New Orleans in September of ’95. The Cherokee Bill Wild West Rodeo was held at the University of New Orleans - Lakefront Arena, which honored noted cowboys such as Nat Love, also known as Deadwood Dick (1854-1921), Willie M. “Bill” Pickett (1870-1932), and James P. Beckwourth (1798-1866).
           “I introduced that culture to New Orleans,” said Reed, who was living in Memphis at that time. “People never realized there were real Black cowboys.”
           Though Reed’s parents never ventured outside the Douglass enclave to live, Reed wanted something else. So she created a haven in New Orleans that has earned her kudos from the elite and people in the community where she has a vested interest in creating a climate for African Americans to succeed.
           Reed’s two decades in the cultural mecca included building a family structure. Her son, Reuben Johnson, was born in Nashville, but enrolled in first grade at St. Louis Cathedral School. He graduated from St. Augustine High School, both within the Catholic Church, and afterward attended Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La.
Reed’s daughter, Crystal Chopin, was born in New Orleans, and lived there for a while after she obtained her Business Administration degree at the University of Tennessee. She now lives in Memphis, after evacuating from Hurricane Katrina, and works with her mother as the multi-media coordinator for the Black Pages.   
           Reed raised Crystal and Reuben on the culture, pizzazz and splendor of New Orleans and once lived at Gov Nicholls and Dauphine, and at 601 Esplanade and Charters in The French Quarter. “When my son became an adult, he thanked me for raising him in The French Quarter,” said Reed, who’d learned much about living in an international environment as did her children.
“In New Orleans, it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white or Ethiopian. It’s a melting pot of cultures,” said Reed, recalling the blues song “Let the Good Times Roll” as an example of how she’s lived her life.

The advent of Juneteenth…

            Reed moved back to Memphis in 1991 after folding the Black Pages that she’d started in 1978. “We had a brain drain,” she explained. “When it was time to deliver the Black Pages, businesses had shut down. People were struggling and the city couldn’t cut the grass on the neutral (median) grounds.”
            Networking had come relatively easy -- perhaps innate -- for Reed. Although she left behind the ambience of New Orleans – temporarily, that is – another idea was planted in 1993 that took root in Memphis: The Juneteenth Freedom & Heritage Festival.
            Reed said the idea had come to her after her pastor at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church had requested that she oversee the June birthday month celebration, since her own birthday is in June. “We did a Juneteenth program and 27 people showed up on a Friday evening. So they said, ‘You must take this to the community.’ So we took it to Douglass Park because of the shade trees.”
            Reed had given much consideration to the aggregation of people and wrote a proposal called “Summer in the Shade.” She presented the proposal to the executive director of Memphis in May, then a burgeoning organization celebrating the rich culture and historical significance of faraway countries to Memphis. Needless to say, the proposal didn’t go anywhere in the MIM organization.
            The first time that MIM saluted the Netherlands, Reed was busy in the office working as a bookkeeper after answering an ad in the classifieds of the local daily. The job lasted about five months, she said. During that time, “I saw how they put Memphis in May together, and it wasn’t rocket science. Their poster unveilings were also an inspiration to me.”
            What Reed had taken away from MIM was hands-on experience in organization, structure and management. But there was another side to the growing organization that troubled her the most: the artist contract-for-hire.
“If it had not been for Memphis in May, there might not have been a Juneteenth,” concedes Reed, who was teaching inner-city preteens, teens and young adults the importance of etiquette and social grace at her own Ms. Glynn’s Charm and Finishing School. Over 300 participants would graduate.
The festival has grown considerably; drawing approximately 45,000 festivalgoers during its annual three-day run in late-June. It is an anchor in North Memphis and undoubtedly one of Reed’s crowning achievements. However, after 18 years at the helm, Reed has moved on, choosing to re-focus instead on the Black Pages New Orleans.
“New Orleans is for me,” said Reed, who commutes to and fro, and still the master networker. “I want to be buried there.”
The ‘60s and ‘70s had opened Reed’s eyes to the systemic problems that negatively affected African Americans. But Reed found another way to sidestep those problems and focus on the culture, heritage and entrepreneurial spirit of her people.
Bringing African American culture and heritage into the spotlight is second nature to Reed. In 88 years, for example, the “Sojourner Truth Memorial Time Capsule” that Reed and her husband buried on June 19, 2000, in Robert R. Church Park in downtown Memphis will be unearthed to reveal the historical items from Memphis’s first Black mayor, Dr. Willie Herenton, the late photojournalist Ernest Withers, and other contributors. The time capsule was the climax of the 7th Annual Juneteenth Freedom & Heritage Festival.
“For me, it was about blackness,” said Reed, ending the conversation with her motto: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”

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