by Roniece N. Gilkey

My aunt encouraged me to be a teacher when I was in college. She told me if I planned to have a family I would have the same schedule as my children and have the summers off with them. I have a Bachelor of Arts in History and I was a stay-at-home mom for 12 years. Over the years, I have worked as staff or a volunteer with numerous non-profit organizations that provide educational services for children and youth. I began working with Blues City Cultural Center in 2015 as the coordinator for a summer arts project. Currently, I am the program and education director. While I am not a traditional classroom teacher, the BCCC projects provide me with opportunities to include history within our artistic programming, particularly those that engage youth in learning about the rich history and heritage of their communities.

In 2016, BCCC implemented “This is Orange Mound,” a project based at Melrose High School. It includes exposure to the performing and visual arts, theatrical productions, and a neighborhood tour. The youth-led tour, which includes cultural interpretations at key Orange Mound sites, was named “one of the best things that happened in Memphis” by WMC-TV in 2016. During MLK50, BCCC collaborated with residents to present an original production depicting the Orange Mound response to the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We recently opened the Orange Mound Heritage Room at Melrose High School. The room serves as a quasi-museum to tell the story of the neighborhood. Middle Tennessee State University Center for Historic Preservation and the University of Memphis Art Department were key partners in contributing to the exhibits in the room.

Additionally, Orange Mound residents and other stakeholders provided artifacts and memorabilia for the exhibits.
In 2018, BCCC launched Whitehaven 38116. Similar to the project in Orange Mound, youth are exposed to the performing and visual arts by local professional artists. In learning about the history of their community, students broadened their perspectives about Whitehaven and the importance of their roles as cultural interpreters and stewards in shaping authentic narratives about their neighborhood. They presented an original production -“Speak the Truth: Whitehaven Seen through the Eyes of the Youth” – at Southwest Tennessee Community College. Our partnership with Memphis Music Initiative through a Summer Beat grant funded musicians and vocal artists for both summer programs.

BCCC was exposed to the MMI fellows program by former fellow Justin Merrick, when he directed our production, “Down on Beale” written by BCCC co-founder Levi Frazier, Jr. Levi and Deborah Frazier produce original plays such as our upcoming November production, “Wade in the Water: A Concert with History” (Nov. 17 and 20). It will feature the history of Negro spirituals, gospel music legends Reverend William Herbert Brewster, Lucie Campbell and Thomas Dorsey. We have a senior series, “If You Can’t Stand the Heat,” that addressed issues that senior citizens experience. Our program SEW MUCH LOVE is a social enterprise that provides transitional income for homeless woman who design and create marketable handmade art and crafts.

Each program encourages participants to live out our motto: Arts For A Better Way of Life. Our participants may come to programs fully operating in their unique gifts and talents, be that in music, acting, singing, dancing or making art, and others may discover their gifts and talents as a result of participating in our programs. It is my honor to watch those gifts come to life, to celebrate the positive contributions of our youth to our community, and to be able to teach – even if it isn’t in the classroom – in the way that my aunt encouraged me to many years ago. I am fortunate to be a part of an organization that will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. BCCC has used the stage and other venues to enlighten, empower, and transform lives through the arts.


Roniece N. Gilkey is a married mother of four amazing sons. She has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History from the University of Memphis.  She is passionate about African American history, youth involvement, being creative and she is an avid reader.  She currently  serves as the Programs and Education Director for Blues City Cultural Center.  She is committed to being involved in exposing youth to the arts in order to make a positive impact in their lives and in the community.  She is most satisfied when operating in her gift to nurture creativity, to teach history and to bear witness to the creative process in other artists.