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‘Original Community organizer’ Stoy Bailey mourned as humble champion

“Stoy was a kind and caring soul who devoted his life to helping others.”

Stoy Bailey stands in front of a Victorian cottage, one of the first houses built in the first black subdivision in the city of Memphis. The house was built around 1900, and while Orange Mound was an older area, it was classified as part of the county when the North Annesdale subdivision was built. Bailey died July 4 at age 86. (Lance Murphey/Daily Memphian file)

A few days ago, word began circulating that Stoy Bailey, a lifelong Memphian and a tireless advocate for his neighborhood, died early last month.

The news took Stoy’s legion of friends and admirers by surprise.

“Today I found out that a dear friend of mine had passed away,” Shelby County Commissioner Reginald Milton posted Monday on Facebook. “He was a community organizer for the Rozelle-Annesdale area and my mentor.”

Stoy G. Bailey, once a Marine, died July 4 at the Memphis VA Medical Center. He was 86.

“Oh, Reginald, I had not heard about Stoy,” June West, longtime executive director of Memphis Heritage, replied to Milton’s post. “Makes me so very sad. What a major loss to Memphis. He was an amazingly dedicated Community activist for so many years.”

Stoy lived by himself in the Rozelle-Annesdale neighborhood, in the same house he grew up in with his three brothers, Milton, Hilton and Marvin. When their mother, Ruth, died in 1969, Stoy bought the house.

“I had known him since the ’70s,” posted Regina Morrison Newman, Shelby County Trustee. “Very sorry to hear.”

One day in the mid-1970s, an elderly woman who lived in the neighborhood called Stoy and asked if he would stop by and show her how to load and shoot a gun. She was afraid. Stoy was annoyed.

“I met Stoy when we arrested him,” said Buddy Chapman, executive director of CrimeStoppers Memphis, and the city’s police director from 1976 to 1983. “He’d gotten into a shouting match with some prostitutes who were working the street in front of his house. I intervened and let him go. No harm done.”

Stoy and Chapman both became members of the inaugural class of Leadership Memphis in 1979, along with A C Wharton, former mayor of both Memphis and Shelby County.

“Stoy was the original community organizer,” said Kate Gooch, founding president of Leadership Memphis. “I don’t think I ever saw him wear a coat and tie, but Stoy was never one to draw attention to himself.”

Stoy organized the  opens in a new windowRozelle-Annesdale Area Association in 1976. He and his neighbors began taking their concerns to City Hall.

“Stoy was my friend for 40 plus years,” posted Steve Lockwood, longtime executive director of the Frayser Community Development Corp. “He was crusty and tenacious; the boss of the neighborhood he grew up in. He told me he could tell if he was doing his job if he occasionally got his tires slashed.”

Stoy Bailey (shown in 2017) “was a community organizer for the Rozelle-Annesdale area and my mentor,” Shelby County Commissioner Reginald Milton posted this week on Facebook. (Submitted)

In the 1970s, the neighborhood along Lamar, from Willett to Southern, was filling up with beer joints, porn theaters and prostitutes. “It just didn’t fit. It wasn’t quite right,” he told Harmony Farner, a University of Memphis graduate student, in 2008.

“Stoy was a mensch!” posted Dr. Ken Reardon, a former professor of urban planning at the U of M. “He cared deeply about his neighborhood and the city. He was always generous with his time and knowledge. He was an inspiration to generations of UM planning students.”

In the early 1970s, plans for a massive rail cargo center would have razed several blocks of homes on the south side of the neighborhood near Rozelle Elementary. That included the  opens in a new windowEli Rayner House, built in 1856 and one of the few antebellum structures in the city.

Stoy and fellow neighborhood resident Nickii Elrod bought the house for $13,500 in 1975 and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That put a stop to the cargo center.

“Got to know him when I was counsel for HCD,” posted Marcus Ward, a city attorney, referring to the city’s Housing & Community Development division. “Sometimes, perhaps more than often, he was on the battlefield by himself, but I know he was dedicated to the cause. One of my sons attends Rozelle, and I am seeing that community evolve. I know that he is a good part of the reason this community is changing for the better. Rest in Power.”

In the early 1990s, Stoy, Glenda Brown and other neighborhood leaders pushed for and won a $2.6 million extension of Southern Avenue from McLean to McLemore. The new route kept big trucks from taking shortcuts past the elementary school and through the neighborhood.

“Stoy was a game-changer who left his mark in Memphis,” posted Carol Coletta, president and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership. “Admired him very much.”

In the early 2000s, Stoy, Mary Williams and other neighborhood leaders kept the city from selling tiny Rozelle-Annesdale Park, built in 1980 at the corner of Rozelle and Nelson.

“I know the city is in hard financial times, but it means a lot to us,” Stoy told then-Mayor Willie Herenton at a public meeting in 2005. “We mow it, pick up the trash … and if the city can’t handle it, we’ll redo the gazebo. We’ll find a way.” They did.

“Stoy was a good man,” Herenton posted on Milton’s Facebook page.

In 2001, Stoy founded a new nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing the entire Lamar Avenue Corridor. He called it the  opens in a new windowPigeon Roost Development Corp. Before 1906, Lamar was known as Pigeon Roost Road.

Stoy worked with the Cooper-Young Development Corp. to secure grants and loans to develop a dozen new houses on blighted Seattle Street.

“I, too, was not aware that Stoy was gone,” replied Jeff Sanford, former president of the Memphis Center City Commission and a former City Council member. “Stoy was a kind and caring soul who devoted his life to helping others and to the betterment of his community. He never sought recognition, but he will live on through the many acts of goodness he performed. Thank you, Stoy. Rest easy.”

In 2004, Stoy and other neighborhood leaders urged the Land Use Control Board to reject a bid to add a homeless shelter in the neighborhood. “We are a fragile neighborhood,” Stoy told the board. “This is an area the city cannot afford to lose. Give us the opportunity to turn this neighborhood back around.” The board agreed.

“He was a terrific advocate for his neighborhood,” the developer John Elkington posted. “Talked to him constantly when I was chairman of the Land Use Control Board.”

Just four years ago, Stoy led neighborhood opposition to construction of a Family Dollar store on Lamar near Seattle. A Family Dollar “in no way complements the neighborhood, in no way adds aesthetic value to the neighborhood. It’s twice the size of any building in there,” Stoy told the Memphis Landmarks Commission.

“I have nothing but admiration for his steadfast support for Rozelle-Annesdale,” posted Mary Baker, formerly with the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. “I agree that he laid the foundation for the improvements taking place in the neighborhood today.”

Stoy liked to stay busy, but he also liked spending quiet time by himself. He wrote poetry. He spent a lot of time reading, at home or at the library. He tended dozens of plants in his yard.

“He was an odd combination of introvert, almost living like a hermit, and extrovert, a people person who loved working with and for his neighborhood,” said Rev. Mark Matheny, a retired Methodist minister and executive director of the Highland Area Renewal Corp.

Stoy had been in and out of the VA a few times this year. “A combination of some bad falls and a rising mountain of physical troubles,” said Matheny, who met Stoy in the 1970s. “He donated his body to science. He was not a religious person, but he truly lived out the ideal of love your neighbor as yourself. His neighbors were his family.”

Stoy’s daughter, Margaret, lives in the Northwest. He was the last surviving brother: Hilton, a businessman, died in 2009; Milton, an engineering professor, died in 2013; and Marvin, a public health expert, died in 2018.

In the past few years, Angela Watson, a neighbor who met Stoy when she was 15, spent a lot of time watching out for him.

“I was like his mom,” Watson said with a laugh. “I’d yell at him for being out there cutting his grass. It would be a hundred degrees and he could barely walk. It was a testament to his willpower and his independence. But that was his house and this was his neighborhood. That’s what he was proud of. Whatever he did not see being a positive attribute to the neighborhood, he’d try to shut it down.”

Stoy Bailey (from left), Dan Wilkinson and Buddy Chapman are shown at a 2019 reunion of the inaugural class of Leadership Memphis in 1979. “I met Stoy when we arrested him,” said Buddy Chapman, executive director of CrimeStoppers Memphis, and the city’s police director from 1976 to 1983. “He’d gotten into a shouting match with some prostitutes who were working the street in front of his house. I intervened and let him go. No harm done.” (Submitted)

That included his own funeral.

“Stoy did not want a funeral,” Linda Williams, his fellow neighborhood leader, posted on Milton’s Facebook page. “He founded the Pigeon Roost CDC so any contributions should be made to this organization. I would love to have Rozelle-Annesdale park named after him in honor of a lifelong commitment to this community. Thanks for the beautiful words about our neighborhood leader.”

This week, as Stoy’s friends and admirers learned of his death, they talked about how best to honor his memory.

“There’s just no way we can let this man fade into the rearview without fanfare,” posted Tk Buchanan, community liaison for the UDistrict. Stoy was one of her mentors. “Does anyone know of any plans to celebrate Stoy’s life and many achievements in our field? He’d probably just want us to keep busy with building communities but I feel the need to pause and salute one of the best of us.”

Dr. Martin Lipinski, a co-founder of the Annesdale-Snowden Neighborhood Association, has known Stoy since the 1970s.

“Stoy loved his neighborhood and Rozelle school. Something to honor him in the community would be perfect,” he posted. “Stoy never lost his optimism and he never gave up. He still had hopes of turning the old Lamar Theater into some sort of community center, and that old hardware store across the street into a coffee shop.”

Milton, executive director of the South Memphis Alliance, agreed that something should be done to commemorate Stoy’s efforts to hold together and empower his neighborhood.

Milton said that might include renaming a street or a park for Stoy.

Then he suggested a more fitting and lasting memorial for a man who quietly but persistently worked to hold his neighborhood and community together.

“It takes a certain type of person to be a community organizer,” Milton wrote in his post. “You fight battles often knowing you may never live long enough to see the victory at the end of the war. You take a stand for what is right and though you may become tired or frustrated, you never waver. Stoy never saw all the changes he wanted for his community, but know my friend those of us who remain will continue your fight.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
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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