To her right, as far as the eye can see is a changed neighborhood. The old properties have been replaced with luxury apartments, lofts and condos, and even an old boarded-up warehouse is now Central BBQ.
But Smith is not at peace. Perhaps she will never be content. “We don’t own one thing down here. Look at that, they didn’t put a BBQ across from Graceland.
Memphis has always been a city where the two biggest attractions are memorials to two dead men: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Elvis Presley. Near Smith’s perch is a sign that reads, “Stop worshiping the dead.”
And Smith is troubled that King’s legacy in Memphis is tangled up with gentrification. She points out that many blacks can’t afford to live around the Lorraine Motel, which is now a museum. Even using the bathroom is hard for her, she said. “I used to have a friend down here where I could go, but now they are gone.”
Smith pulled a paper from under the tarp and read me a line about her belief that Memphis is the second-most segregated city in the U.S.
And yet Jacqueline Smith stands fixing her tarp to protect her papers and books from an evening storm. As we talked, she pulled a literature book and read a quote from poet T.S. Eliot: “We fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything triumph.”
As I headed back to my car, I noticed a big rainbow. “It was double rainbow, did you see it,” she asked me.
“What are you going to do with this information?”asked Smith, who worked as the desk clerk at the motel for 15 years in addition to being a tenant.
I remember visiting that motel before it became the National Civil Rights Museum.
“They have so many museums, but Mrs. King wanted the focus to be on King’s life, practices and the principles of Dr. King and not just focus on his death,” said Smith who signed an old newspaper article and gave it to me before I left.
“Hamil, keep trying to help others in memory of Rev. King, J Smith,” she wrote.