Thumbnail: The Levitt Shell’s special concert series for Black History Month is about more than great music.  It’s also about a nonprofit organization defining its own unique contributions to equity in Memphis.   


The Levitt Shell’s special Black History Month concerts have a dual purpose – both internal and external.

First, external.  The month is a way to celebrate African Americans central contributions to U.S. history.  With that in mine, it’s hard to think of a place that owes more to Black culture, cuisine, and character than Memphis.  It’s not like the appreciation has always been shown, and that fact gives Black History month even more meaning each year.

Contributing to this special celebration, Levitt Shell will stream four special Saturday concerts:

February 6 – The Mcrary Sisters

February 13 – Bette Smith

February 20 – Rhodes Jazz featuring Joyce Cobb

February 27 – Occupy The Shell Concert

All shows begin at 7:30 p.m. CST on Facebook Live.  

“The concerts are being presented in gratitude to Memphis and Shelby County,” said Levitt Shell Executive Director Natalie Wilson. 

Invention’s Mother

Second, the internal purpose.  The concerts are evidence of the commitment by the staff and board to equity as a driving force in its work.  In June 14 of last year, the Shell was one of the approximately 150 nonprofit organizations that signed an open letter calling for an end to systemic racism in Memphis and advocating specific policy and program changes, chiefly to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

Since then, the Shell board and staff have been identifying ways to make equity come alive in its organization.  “It is super important to build equity and inclusivity into the fabric of our organization,” said Ms. Wilson.  “This (Levitt Shell) is a gathering place for all of our neighbors.  We want to celebrate Black voices from our archives.  We looked deeply into all things critically, what sustainability looks like and how this pace serves for another 80 years, and who we are and the process of integrating equity to meet what Memphis’ needs.  We are unpeeling the layers of our mission to make sure we achieve it.”

If necessity is the mother of invention, it was the pandemic’s shutdown of live concerts that gave the Shell time to evaluate where it was and map out where it wants to go.  It’s certainly a case of making the best out of a terrible situation.

After all, a year ago, the Shell was preparing to launch its turnaround year, but instead, it ended up cancelling 55 concerts and losing 80% of its revenues. “it was the hardest year of the Shell’s history,” Ms. Wilson said, “but we have never been as humbled as we were with the outpouring of support from people who said the Shell is part of their lives.”

The Virtue of Transparency

After being knocked to the mat, the Shell got back on its feet by being honest.  “We were honest about our needs, which was a humbling thing,” she said.  “We managed through it and now we get to come back.  It’s going to be a challenge and a lot of uncertainty.  We are excited about it.”

It was an act of faith when Levitt Shell put the archived concerts online in hopes of someone watching them.  

Between April and October, 250,000 people in 39 states and 99 countries tuned into the virtual concerts.  It was the encouragement to look optimistically toward the future that the Shell needed.

“We had no idea that it would go like wildfire,” she said, recounting how a family in Syracuse tunes in each week and said they are coming to Memphis once the pandemic wanes to hear a concert in person at the Levitt Shell.  “It’s our way to serve.  It may be different but it’s very special.”

Passing The Bucket

Most special of all to the staff and board is the support that the WPA-built Shell receives from its virtual bucket, which allows viewers to make a “pass the bucket” contribution online. 

It’s a tradition that originated when the Shell opened in 1936.  Back then, the Shell was called the Memphis Open Area Theater (MOAT).  Light opera, orchestra performances, and musicals were performed, and after one performance, a bucket was passed in the audience for contributions.  It has continued until this day and without any live performances, it has gone virtual.

Back then, it was just a show of support for a night of entertainment.  It still is, but even more, it is an investment in survival as the Shell prepares for a new era post-COVID.

It’s been 12 months of unexpected adventure for Ms. Wilson, named executive director in December, 2018, and in the 85th year of the Shell, it’s never needed our support more than it does now.


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