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In the seventies, a certain completely off-kilter segment of Northeast Memphis' adolescent male population somehow felt that a trip to Shelby County's own little piece of Haiti was an absolute rite of adult passage.  The city’s small slice of perceived Caribbean evil was known as St Paul's Spiritual Temple by its members but for most Memphians it was referred to simply as "Voodoo Village".  This story was written to provide information about a little known religious shrine that has existed largely unnoticed for years in impoverished southwest Shelby County.  It was also written to encourage today's adolescent males to respect the privacy of these individuals and their beliefs.  According to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Statistics, Memphis is one of the most violent metropolitan areas in the United States and the temple is not located in the most affluent of neighborhoods.  This fact should weigh heavy upon anyone not familiar with the metropolitan Memphis area and its gun-crazed inhabitants. 

For some totally insane reason that currently escapes me, I was always fascinated by the stories about the strange happenings that occurred at mystery-laden Voodoo Village. For years, I had heard of strange cauldrons boiling atop midnight bonfires, bizarre rituals performed by voodoo-crazed parishioners and sacrificed dead animals swinging morbidly from the limbs of trees.  As an attempted warning, I had been informed by a policeman at church of the horrid tales of shotgun wielding fanatics, machete swinging maniacs and a ghastly gang-rape that took place on the street in the early seventies.  Obviously, this was not a place for the feint of heart or the weak of spirit.

As an indestructible 18 year-old that ignored both law enforcement warnings and common sense, I felt compelled to investigate Voodoo Village.  One Sunday night in September 1976, I decided to stage my own expedition to find this local temple of purported evil incarnate and witness its shrouded activities.  Ironically, this expedition started after my attendance at two hours of Methodist Youth Fellowship and one hour of Sunday Night Church.  Long-time neighborhood friends Keith Plunk and Keith Shook would accompany me on the adventure.  

The three of us began our journey from the St. Stephen United Methodist Church parking lot at about 8:00 pm.  I drove my parents 1971 Buick Electra 225, which weighed roughly 4,700 pounds and was equipped with a 455 cubic inch V-8 engine.  We had a general idea about where the compound was located but none of the stories about Voodoo Village ever included the actual street name.  It seemed like every teenage male in our neighborhood had been to Voodoo Village but none of them could actually tell us where it was located.   

We drove for hours in the quite dodgy, poverty stricken Southwest Memphis area in a vain search for the elusive occult compound.  Somewhere around 2:00 am, I finally asked a man walking down Highway 61, where the alleged street of horror was located.  He wasn’t familiar with the name Voodoo Village but he said he knew of a place that matched our description that was referred to as “Simba Village”.  The helpful citizen gave us directions and off we headed to our destination. 

Upon our arrival at the totally dark, dead-end street harmlessly named Mary Angela Drive, we felt like urban explorer versions of Christopher Columbus or Neil Armstrong.  Soon the three of us gazed in jaw-dropping awe at the bizarre décor and strange appearance of the Voodoo Village compound.  Prominent was the fabled outhouse of spikes along with a large windmill-type structure. There was as an inordinate number of brightly-colored symbols mounted on poles throughout the compound and a few objects that could only be termed as yard-art curiosities.  The most numerous symbols that seemed to dominate the compound were stars, sunbursts and half moons.  A few of the objects were definitely Masonic in origin but there was also a slight design nod toward Mecca as well.

The only person we saw on our brief excursion was a gentleman at the end of the street that was wearing headgear that somewhat resembled an upside down pair of pants.  Whether this was a practitioner sporting a spiritual headdress or simply an anxious man escaping from an enraged husband was never established. There were very few houses located along the desolate, dead-end street.  The majority of the houses looked to be vacant and abandoned. 

The next day, we were treated as heroic adventurers at school.  Unfortunately, we had no tales of horror or mayhem to provide our curious classmates.  The important thing for the three of us was that we had completed our self-ascribed rite of passage.  We were now minor legends in Northeast Memphis teenage lore.  Unlike the vague, fabricated stories of others, we had actually driven the cursed street and most importantly, survived our journey. 




Over the next couple of years, I probably made 10 or more trips to Voodoo Village, each with frightened new adventurers.  The visits weren’t about the typical fabricated tale of Northeast Memphis “white trash” neighborhood intrusion but more of a case of cultural curiosity.  I read what I could about the Spiritual Church, Voodoo and its practitioners once I had access to the University of Memphis library.  I was fascinated that this little of enclave of alternative spirituality existed in my hometown.  I also began an appreciation for the creativity of African-American, Mississippi Delta-based art. 

I never witnessed any bizarre activity at the compound or was attacked by any of its devout believers.  As a student of regional history, I continued to be astounded by the primitive Mississippi Delta-based folk art décor of the property’s spiritual objects.  To me, Voodoo Village was no longer a demon-plagued street of the damned but a semi-archaic social and cultural phenomenon.  It was a direct link to a little-understood past that led all the way back to West Africa via New Orleans and Haiti.  With my later visits, I had somehow gone from curiosity seeker to tour guide. 

There are many different views of how voodoo and its related practices of spiritual mysticism came to Memphis and the upper Mississippi Delta region.  They all share a similar path in that each view holds that it began in Central Africa, was transported via slave ships to Haiti and soon spread across the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans.  There is a old saying that Haiti is "80% Roman Catholic, 20% Christian and 100% Voodoo", I am not sure how true that statement is but there is a significant influence of Haitian voodoo in the African-American Spiritual Churches of New Orleans.   

The Spiritual Church in New Orleans focuses heavily on West African-based spiritual and herbal healing practices and rituals. During slavery, most African ritual practices were forbidden, so those slaves in the heavily Roman Catholic areas such as the Caribbean and Louisiana began to mix the rituals practices of their homeland with those of Catholicism.  The French Quarter's Congo Square was one of the few places in the United States that these rituals were publicly performed. 

When slavery was abolished, many of these practitioners of spiritual mysticism began to migrate away from the Mississippi River plantations of Louisiana. With the government's construction of the levee system along the Mississippi River just south of Memphis, a vast new area of farmland and economic opportunity was soon made available. This area was termed the Mississippi Delta and soon vast cotton plantations and their sharecropper tenants, spread throughout the region. Many African-Americans settled into this region and the influence of old West African rituals and beliefs were soon introduced into the area. The music of Delta bluesman such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters both reflect influences of the Spiritual Church.

The establishment date of the little enclave on Mary Angela Drive termed "Voodoo Village" by Memphians and St. Paul's Spiritual Temple by its members is not a definite but Shelby County Property Assessor records point to an initial purchase date of 1946. The property in the Callina subdivision was purchased by a man of mixed Native American and African - American ancestry named Wash “Doc” Harris (July 20, 1905 – May 6, 1995). Adjacent property was purchased in the fifties and other buildings were constructed during the decade. According to an October 1978 article in the University of Memphis Helmsman, there is some belief that Harris was not accepted into either the white or black Masonic organizations because of his mixed-race ancestry and therefore founded his own society. It should be noted that the St Paul's Spiritual Temple symbols and decor exhibit a certain Masonic influence in their design.

The enclave was first noticed by the press in a 1961 article by Memphis Press-Scimitar writer Charles Brown. Soon the stories of St. Paul's Spiritual Temple seemed to grow into larger than life tales of strange rituals and "voodoo". This lore was fueled by the dizzying collection of ritualistic art objects on the property and the somewhat "occult" aura it gave to the compound.

Harris tried to correct the “Voodoo Village” image as portrayed by Brown’s article as well as stem the growing tide of unwanted visitors. In the 1961 Memphis Press-Scimitar article Harris stated “We have an eternal organization here. A church. Our temple is the most beautiful place in the world. All these things have a meaning. They are symbols of God.”


In the sixties, this spiritual artwork served to bring in the occasional curious suburban teenager. More often than not, these unwelcome visitors were not treated with open-arms by the privacy-minded temple members. In the seventies, stories of temple members blocking the street with a school bus and attacks by machete-yielding parishioners soon helped propel the legend of Voodoo Village into Memphis urban legend.

The story continues to this day as the Temple founder’s son resides at a house located on the compound. I’m not sure if the youth of today are still drawn to the Voodoo Village facility as was the case in the sixties and seventies. I would hazard to guess that the special effect-laden movies of today make the temple and its surroundings seem quite passé. I still don’t have any idea as to what occurs in that now faded temple but I do know that in 1976, the place definitely caught my attention. I have much respect for the temple and its members for keeping alive their devout spirituality throughout the years. I can only imagine what a difficult process it has been.

May St. Paul's Spiritual Temple and its distinctive art live on forever.