They had me at "Pomp and Circumstance." Some of you know that I work by day at the Soulsville Foundation, the nonprofit organization that operates the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Stax Music Academy, and the Soulsville Charter School. And I know that this has already been in the news, but I can't help it. I have to weigh in on a group of high school students who will forever be known as the Soulsville 51.
Last week, six years in the making, the Soulsville Charter School had its first-ever graduation. You may have heard or read that 100 percent of the graduating seniors were accepted to college and that they earned a combined total of more than $3.8 million in scholarships and awards. And they got accepted to some good schools, including Smith College, Wesleyan University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Tennessee, Oberlin College, Tufts University, and others. If you saw Friday's edition of The Commercial Appeal and read Geoff Calkins' article about this, you probably saw the photograph of a young man, Jameel Best, in his cap and gown at the ceremony. As recently as last summer, he didn't think he was going to college at all. He was accepted to all eight colleges to which he applied and got a full-ride scholarship to Tuskegee, where he plans to study forestry because he loves animals. He is one of my new heroes.
Lots of these students came to the Soulsville Charter School at least two years behind in school. And of this first graduating class, 45 percent of them have been at the school since it was founded in 2005 with 60 sixth-graders. I can't begin to tell you what it was like last week. The excitement around Soulsville was palpable on every inch of the campus. On the day of the graduation, some of us had to be there at 4:30 a.m. to meet the crew to film a live remote for MSNBC's Morning Joe with ESPN analyst Digger Phelps, who flew in to attend and speak at the graduation because he believes so passionately in the school. Reporters and videographers were all over the place for days. James Alexander and Larry Dodson of the Bar-Kays came and had a congratulatory impromptu jam session with and for the students that was so off-the-chain it was like they and the students had been rehearsing together for years. By the time the graduation was over last Thursday night, I had been going at it for 18 hours; not one minute of it was work.
I say all this because when I first started out in this Soulsville project back in 1998, the corner of College Street and McLemore Avenue looked like an urban war zone. The original Stax Records building had been demolished a decade earlier and the site was nothing but a weeded, cracked-concrete empty lot covered with broken glass and garbage. Next door to the lot, where the Stax Music Academy now stands, was an abandoned 65-unit apartment building with no windows and knee-high trash in every unit. There were few opportunities for the kids in the neighborhood, which, by the way, is a great neighborhood, with a lot of older residents who have lived here all of their lives.
I just never imagined back then that I would be watching 51 high school seniors graduate from a school here. I knew having a Stax Museum would be great, but who would have known that a young lady I've watched grow up since the sixth grade would leave as our valedictorian on her way to Wesleyan?
I can brag on this school all day long every day because I don't take any of the credit for it. I've never before seen teachers and administrators like the ones here. They come before the sun is up and stay until after it's down and they do truly care about these kids. This is not to criticize any other school or any other teachers because there are great ones here in the city, but I think this is one remarkable success story for the students, their families, the faculty, the city of Memphis, and all of the former Stax Records artists who made all that great music to merit having a museum in their honor and a way to carry their legacy into the future forever. We know we stand on their shoulders. They are the ones who should be the proudest of all because if it weren't for them, Soulsville wouldn't be what it is today — and who knows if those 51 students would have done what they have done?