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Meet Paul Young: How a preachers’ kid became the new mayor of Memphis

Paul Young, the child of two ministers, took the oath of office as Mayor of Memphis in January 2024.
Paul Young, the child of two ministers, took the oath of office as Mayor of Memphis in January 2024. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)

On New Year’s Day 1992, a Memphis minister brought his two young sons to the brand-new Pyramid on the Mississippi River. The shimmering Downtown arena had opened six weeks before with a farewell concert by the Judds, followed by a season-opener for the Memphis Tigers.

Bishop William Young and his sons, 12-year-old Paul and 8-year-old David, weren’t there to hear music or watch basketball. They went to the Pyramid with about 15,000 other people to see Dr. Willie W. Herenton sworn in as the city’s 61st mayor — and first elected Black mayor.

“This is truly the dawn of a new era,” Herenton said as he stood in the building that over the past three decades has served as a vision for the city’s future, a monument to failed hopes and dreams, and a symbol of reclamation and recovery.

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The Young family today: Paul, Jamila, Zoe, and Paxton.

David was mesmerized. The new mayor was so confident, so articulate, so tall. Paul’s reaction was more measured. Politics didn’t interest him. He wanted to be an engineer. He was more aware of his father’s reaction. William Young was five years younger than Herenton, but they knew each other. Both men attended Booker T. Washington High. Both men graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College.

“My dad was so proud,” says Paul, now 44. “Proud to see a Black man become mayor, a man he knew and had respect for, a man he knew from the neighborhood. He wanted his sons to see that. I didn’t know or understand the gravity of the mayor’s role at the time, but being there showed me that great things are possible.”

The gravity of the mayor’s role has come into sharp focus for Paul Young. On New Year’s Day 2024, he was sworn in as the 65th mayor of Memphis. In last October’s city election, Paul received only a fifth of the number of votes Herenton got in 1991. But he ran against half a dozen other legitimate contenders — including now-83-year-old Herenton, who finished third.

“It’s time … to  create transformation that’s going to take us from hopelessness to hopeful’ from poverty to prosperity; from hurt to healed; from stalled to thriving.“ — Paul Young

“It’s time for us to write the next pages of Memphis history,” Paul said in his victory speech at Minglewood Hall.

In the speech he talked about the transformation he hopes to lead as mayor, “a transformation that’s going to take us from hopelessness to hopeful; from poverty to prosperity; from hurt to healed; from stalled to thriving.”

Paul is the son of two preachers, but he isn’t known for such rhetorical flourishes. His college major, at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, was electrical engineering. He’s spent most of the past two decades working as a government administrator. His mayoral campaign was his first bid for public office.

“Less than two years ago, I’m sure very few people in Memphis visualized Paul Young as the next mayor. Most people had never heard of him,” says Otis Sanford, the veteran Memphis journalist and political commentator. “He ran an effective campaign, the best one of all the candidates stressing his experience in city government, his family background, and his deep roots in Memphis. Plus, people were clamoring for change and to get away from the same old recycled politicians. Simply put, Paul Young fit the bill of a new generation of leadership, and he had no baggage that turned off voters. He was the right person running at the right time.”

At the right time, and in the right place.

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A Kappa Alpha Psi tailgate party at the Southern Heritage Classic, probably in 2015. William was proud that his sons were all Kappas. They had a tradition of attending this game together.

Paul’s mayoral campaign was the product of generations of hard work and sacrifice, faith, hope, and love. It also was the product of a city still striving to overcome generations of poverty, racism, doubt, and despair.

Paul Young grew up in Oakhaven, an often-overlooked neighborhood just south and east of Memphis International Airport. The neighborhood sprouted in the 1950s from a large, multi-phase subdivision called Kensington Gardens, filled with comfortable, affordable three- and four-bedroom homes.

In 1964, Oakhaven was annexed by Memphis, along with Parkway Village, its neighbor to the east. The city added Oakhaven Elementary and Oakhaven Park to the growing neighborhood’s middle-class amenities. Meanwhile, the expanding airport annexed parts of Oakhaven. The city actually moved Swinnea Road a half-mile to the east and through the heart of Kensington Gardens, shaving streets, homes, and trees from the neighborhood’s western edge.

Paul’s parents, William and Dianne Young, moved into a lovely two-story house in Kensington Gardens across the street from Oakhaven High in 1976, just after they were married. Their mortgage was $298 a month. “We thought we were not going to be able to pay that bill, but we managed,” Dianne says. “It already was a changing neighborhood when we moved in.”

In the early 1970s, Oakhaven — like many other areas of Memphis — was vexed by busing, white flight, and the rise of church-based private schools, including Oakhaven Academy, which opened at Oakhaven Baptist Church in 1974. Paul, who was born in 1979, saw first-hand how public policies and private decisions can alter neighborhoods.

“I didn’t have the language to understand it at the time,” he says. “But what I saw was that something’s not right. Something’s off about what’s happening to my community. I could see that more houses were vacant, more businesses were gone. I literally watched the distress take place. And there are so many neighborhoods in our city that have suffered the same fate.”

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Thanksgiving 2021 at Paul’s house was the last one they all celebrated together before William’s death in 2022. The group includes members of the Young and Marshall families, including one of William’s sisters and one of Dianne’s sisters.

Because of its proximity to the airport, Oakhaven was spared the sort of de-industrialization and disinvestment that wracked North and South Memphis, Frayser, and Whitehaven. FedEx’s towering hangar looms over the northern edge of the neighborhood. UPS’s massive Oakhaven Distribution Center sits on the eastern edge along Swinnea Road.

Still, the neighborhood has been challenged. “In parts of Oakhaven,” a county land use study reported in 1990, “the sense of community stability has weakened.”

The Youngs didn’t shelter or remove their children from those instabilities. They addressed them head on.

When Paul Young was two years old, his father became the first African-American chaplain for Methodist Hospital. When Paul was seven, his father became the founding pastor of a church in Bolivar, Tennessee, where he had served as chaplain at Western State Mental Institute. And when Paul was 11, his mother left the U.S. Postal Service to join his father as co-founding pastors of the Healing Center Full Gospel Baptist Church in Oakhaven.

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Thanksgiving 2023 was their second one without William, but their first with Paul as the Mayor-elect.

“Our babies were drug babies for real,” says Paul’s mother, Dianne. “We drug them from one church thing to the next one.” The new congregation moved into the old Oakhaven Baptist Church and Academy. “We didn’t have that many folks,” she recalls. “We’ve never been a huge congregation, but we’ve always done huge things.”

Over the next 30 years, Dr. William Young and Rev. Dianne Young, both licensed pastoral counselors, dedicated their ministries to healing minds, bodies, and souls in their congregation, their neighborhood, and across the community. “The Youngs have done more than anyone in Memphis, and maybe anyone in the Black church, to remove the stigma from mental health,” says Dr. Altha Stewart, a Memphis psychiatrist at UTHSC.

In 2003, the Youngs organized the first National Suicide and the Black Church Conference, now held every other year at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis. In 2008, they opened the Emotional Fitness Center, a network of state-funded, church-based counseling centers that provide free mental health screenings, support groups, access to nurse practitioners, and referrals to Memphis-area mental health services.

“Mental health care gives people hope,” William Young said in 2015, “and the church is in the hope business.”

For the Youngs, the hope business extended beyond the church into their home and neighborhood. Every now and then, someone in crisis would need a place to stay, and the Youngs would invite them to stay in their home for a few days or weeks.

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Rev. Dianne Young became co-pastor of the Healing Center in 1991. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)

“They were such empathetic leaders,” Paul reflects. “When people had substance-abuse issues, or just issues period, down on their luck, my parents would help them get back on their feet. Having someone in need in our home was just something that was natural to us.”

The Youngs also became surrogate parents for many children in the neighborhood. William ran mentoring programs for neighborhood boys. Paul and David participated.

“Mental health care gives people hope, and the church is in the hope business.” — William Young

“We’d be at the church every Saturday morning playing basketball in the gym,” Paul says. “But at some point, my dad would come in, tell us to drop the balls and sit and listen. We’d have this mentoring and counseling session right there on the court. There were so many of my friends that didn’t have their fathers in their lives, at least not in the way they wanted them to be. My dad tried to fill that role.”

One day, Paul was hanging out with a group of young men in the neighborhood. Some were troubled. Some were trouble. Paul’s father found out where Paul was and jumped in his car.

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Rev. David Young, Paul’s younger brother, became co-pastor in 2022. Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

“Those guys were getting ready to jump a fence and go into an apartment complex,” Dianne says. “William made Paul get in the car. ‘You won’t do that,’ William told him. ‘You know I did not raise you like that. You will not become a casualty.’ Not long after that, one of the young men was shot and killed in one of the apartments. We didn’t shelter them [the Young children], but we did raise them to do right.”

The Youngs gave each of their children Biblical names. Dorcas, Paul’s older sister, was named for one of Jesus’ first followers, known for her “good works and acts of mercy.” Paul, the quiet middle child, was named for the first-century apostle who spread the teachings of Jesus. And David, Paul’s younger brother, was named for the brave shepherd who became a King of Israel and the “sweet psalmist” of Hebrew scripture.

“I’m little bro and big bro all at once,” says Paul, a hip-hop fan, repeating lyrics from a 2019 song by rapper J. Cole.

Little bro and his sister both graduated from East High School. “They were always close and always very competitive,” their mother says. “Dorcas studied really hard, but Paul was just a natural. He always got good grades.”

“I’m still the smartest” Dorcas Young Griffin, director of the Division of Community Services for Shelby County, says with a laugh. “Paul’s more level-headed like Mom. I’m more fiery like Dad. When I started to drive, Dad wouldn’t let me go out by myself. I’d have to take Paul with me. I got so used to having him with me, when I snuck out of the house, I took Paul. He was very responsible. He got into trouble sometimes, but he always considered the implications, even as a kid.”

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The Youngs at the Healing Center Full Gospel Baptist Church on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. At the end of the service, the congregation prayed for the new Mayor-elect, his family, and for Memphis. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)

Big bro and his little brother, David, who graduated from Ridgeway High, where he played football, competed in other ways. “Paul and David, they used to just argue all the time,” says their mom. “We had this support group that I was conducting called healing for damaged emotions for youth. I said, ‘Y’all are going to the group because I’m just not going to have a house like this.’ So I took them to the group. They still have friends from that group.”

“There were so many of my friends that didn’t have their fathers in their lives, at least not in the way they wanted them to be. My dad tried to fill that role.” — Paul Young

“Paul would get on my last nerve,” says Rev. David Young, now co-pastor of the Healing Center, “but I always looked up to him and he always protected me. I’ve never known anyone who had such a calm, even temperament. He was calm even when he got angry, which was almost never. Nothing riles him. I’m more temperamental like my dad. Of course,” he adds with a laugh, “I was Dad’s favorite child. They all know that I was the favorite.”

Dianne says she and her husband raised their children to find ways to serve. “They all have servant hearts,” she smiles. “David became the preacher, but all three of them have been called to some kind of ministry.”

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Paul and his wife, Jamila, have five graduate degrees between them. Paul has master’s degrees in city and regional planning and in business administration, real estate, and finance; Jamila has master’s degrees in pediatric nursing and public health, and a doctorate in nursing practice and pediatric nursing. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)

A dozen years ago, Dorcas began hosting a daily morning prayer line. She started with a few family members and friends. Now, at 6:30 every morning, dozens of people join a conference call and pray with Dorcas for each other, for others who are named, and for Memphis. “Some of the people on the call now, I’ve never met,” she says. “It’s been the best journey of my life.”

Paul’s ministry? “I think this is his calling,” Dianne says. “Being the mayor of Memphis for such a time as this, because it’s a tough time for the city. It’s a tough time, but Paul is prepared. I’m not worried that politics will change Paul. I think he’ll change politics in Memphis.”

Paul Young has two other older siblings, half-brother William Jr., and half-sister Maya, both children of William Sr.’s first marriage. William Jr., who suffers from paranoid-schizophrenia, has experienced many years of living unhoused in the Nashville area, despite the family’s diligent efforts to help him find shelter and healthcare.

“It’s been tough for him and for everyone,” Paul says. “And it’s given all of us a first-hand view of how complicated an issue like homelessness is, and how it impacts not just individuals but whole families and communities.”

Paul likes to work on complex problems. He grew up wanting to be an engineer. “He wanted to be like Dwayne Wayne,” Dianne says.

Wayne was a main character in A Different World, a popular and lauded late-’80s, early-’90s TV sitcom about students at a historically black college. The character, played by actor Kadeem Hardison, was praised as a positive portrayal of a Black male college student. Wayne was a bespectacled, sort of nerdy, and flirty math and engineering major.

As a kid, bespectacled Paul liked to take things apart and put them back together. He liked to figure out how things worked and why they didn’t. “He loved to fix things,” Dianne says. “He was our little fixer. Now he’s got bigger things to fix.”

After graduating in 2002 from UT with a degree in electrical engineering, Paul came home to look for a job. “I just couldn’t find the engineering gig that I needed or wanted; I was so frustrated,” he remembers. “Then my mom preached that sermon.”

“That sermon” changed the trajectory of Paul’s life and the course of Memphis history. The sermon was based on The Purpose Driven Life, a popular and influential 2002 Bible study book by Christian pastor Rick Warren. “It’s not about you,” Warren writes in the book’s first sentence. “You were made by God for a mission.”

“That’s what my mom said in her sermon,” Paul says. “God’s plan for your life will never be about you. It will be about helping others. And it was like, bam, that was it. It made me think. I thought about how my community looked and how I wanted to help change the neighborhood and the community. It was one of those bright-light moments.”

That moment sent Paul on a mission to find his mission. He found it in a University of Memphis graduate school catalog: A master’s degree in city and regional planning, promised the catalog, “prepares students for careers concerned with the physical development of communities, and the interaction of that development with the social, economic, and environmental well-being of communities.”

Paul enrolled in the program and got a job as a planner for the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development. He also began to learn about “wicked problems,” a concept that was introduced in a class on urban anthropology.

A “wicked problem” is so complex, multifaceted, ever-changing, and entangled with other “wicked problems” that it is difficult, if not impossible, to solve. Urban public policy is full of wicked problems: poverty, crime, public education, access to healthcare, affordable housing and homelessness, and so on.

“He [Paul] loved to fix things. He was our little fixer. Now he’s got bigger things to fix.” — Dianne Young

”These problems are so complex and connected, you attempt one solution and that presents so many others challenges, so many unintended consequences,” Paul says. “But I believe they can and must be addressed. I’ve spent the past 20 years working on problems like distressed housing and neighborhoods. Those are wicked problems.”

In 2017, Paul Young presided over the demolition of his father’s childhood home.

“We want to take blighted properties in this community and activate them,” Paul, then the city’s Director of Housing and Community Development, told a crowd that included his parents, all gathered outside Foote Homes. The city’s last major housing project was demolished and replaced by a $279 million mixed-use, mixed-income development called South City.

Herman and Eva Young, Paul’s grandparents, were among the first residents of Foote Homes, which opened in 1940 as the city’s first public-housing development. William Young grew up there. He was so skinny his friends called him Twig.

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Thanksgiving 2021 was the last one with William (seated). It was around this time that Paul (left) talked to his dad about running for mayor.

Twig went on to graduate seventh in his class at Booker T. Washington in 1963. He enrolled at Tennessee State University, where he joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He was drafted in 1969 and sent to Vietnam. He finished his bachelor’s degree at LeMoyne-Owen College and later earned a Master of Divinity degree at Memphis Theological Seminary and a doctorate in ministry at North Carolina Theological Seminary.

Dianne, Paul’s mother, grew up in a house in South Memphis near LeMoyne-Owen. Their prominent and socially active neighbors included the Willis, Sugarmon, and Fanion families.

Dianne’s father, Square Marshall, was a shop steward and a deacon at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church 4th Street, a block west of Mason Temple. Dianne and her mother, Lillie Mae Marshall, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. “We were going to go to Mason Temple to hear him preach the night before he was killed, but there was a terrible storm that night and Mom would not let us go,” Dianne says.

After high school, Dianne got a job at the post office where her older sister, Helen (now Helen Whalum Rogers), worked; both sisters married preachers. Helen married Kenneth Whalum Sr., who became a church pastor and city council member, and she became the first Black female postmaster in Tennessee.

“The way Paul snuck up on the general public [during the election], most people probably didn’t know we are cousins, and that was probably a good thing for him,” Rev. Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr., the outspoken former school board member, says with a laugh. “We’re all proud of him. Paul was certainly the most educated and qualified candidate for mayor.”

During his campaign, Paul learned about another Memphis family connection at a campaign event for Meggan Wurzburg Kiel, a city council candidate. Meggan is related to Jocelyn Dan Wurzburg, a noted local attorney and civil rights activist. “I found out that my grandmother helped to raise all of Jocie’s kids,” Paul says.

Jocie Wurzburg has fond memories of the late Lillie Mae Marshall. “She was a remarkable woman,” Wurzburg says. “She ran my house while I was in law school. In another place and time, she could have been a lawyer herself, or the CEO of some company — or the mayor.”

Paul Young’s resume reads like that of a policymaker, not a politician.

Master’s degrees, one in city and regional planning and one in business administration, real estate, and finance.

  • Senior planner and administrator, Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development.
  • Financial analyst, Community Capital Memphis.
  • Director of Legislative Affairs, Shelby County Government.
  • Director of Housing and Community Development, City of Memphis.

At HCD, he oversaw the development of South City and Tillman Cove, the redevelopment of Melrose High, North Side High, and Collins Chapel, and the establishment of the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“If I could have applied for the position of mayor and gone through a different process, I definitely would have,” Paul says. “I really don’t want to be a politician. I just want to do this job.”

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Rev. Dianne Young says all three of her children “have servant hearts … and have been called to some kind of ministry.” (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht)

Dr. Jamila Smith-Young, Paul’s wife of 16 years, also wishes he could have applied for the job instead of running for office. “Politics can be cruel, as we know,” she says. “Paul can handle that; we can handle that. But we agreed that we needed to make sure the children are protected and that our family time remains a priority.”

Smith-Young is a pediatric nurse practitioner at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor in UTHSC’s College of Nursing. She has a doctorate in nursing and a master’s degree in public health.

“Jamila is the rock star in this family,” according to Paul.

Smith-Young grew up in the Cherokee neighborhood, about two miles north of Oakhaven, but she and Paul first met as undergraduates at UT-Knoxville. “He was just easy to talk to, so bright and kind, and we had a lot in common.”

Smith-Young’s family attended Greater Middle Baptist Church, led by Rev. Dr. Benjamin Hooks, who was national director of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992. Hooks presided at Paul and Jamila’s wedding. They have two children: Daughter Zoe is 12 and son Paxton is 8.

“Paul is not driven by power or ego,” says Smith-Young. “He’s driven by faith and family. That’s how he was raised and that’s how we’re raising our children.”

Young kicked off his campaign for mayor on October 5, 2022, exactly one year before the election. Five days later, his father died of congestive heart failure. Rev. Dr. William Marcus Young was 77.

Paul was at his father’s bedside when he died. “Paul sat with William until he made his transition,” Dianne says. “That’s the kind of man he is: family first.”

On the night he was elected mayor, Paul thanked his family. He thanked his wife and children. He thanked his sister and brother. He thanked his mother and his wife’s parents. He thanked his father.

And he talked about the conversation he had with his father while trying to decide whether to run for mayor.

“He was asking me if I was going to run, and I said I don’t know because I know the weight of the job,” says. “I know what it means to be in that seat, and I just don’t know if we’re ready for that. My dad said, ‘I hear you, but Herman and Eva, your grandparents, they would never have imagined that their grandson would have the ability to even think about being the mayor of this amazing city. It’s not about you. It’s about what God has put in you for the rest of our city.’ Those words changed me.”

This article was originally published by Memphis magazine.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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