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Activist Attempts to Redefine Reputation of St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple with Restoration Project

Above: Craftwork of Freemasonic/Christian imagery outside of St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple within neighborhood often referred to as “Voodoo Village.” Photo credit to Kayla Bowie.

The Harris family and their advocates are still begging Memphians and others to ditch the offensive moniker ‘Voodoo Village’ and use its proper name ‘St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple.’

In 1957, Washington “Doc” Harris, a spiritual doctor and 33rd-degree Freemason, began building a compound on the outskirts of South Memphis. The compound featured a mix of symbolic biblical and Masonic craftwork.

He led a Christian congregation inside the compound and opened St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple so that people from all over could seek his gift of spiritual healing.

Instead, during the Jim Crow era, he and his property received a steady influx of racially charged harassment after a local newspaper published the address. Soon after, rumors of Voodoo rituals, witchcraft and sacrifices permeated the city, which led to more misconceptions about the residents and the property.

The Harris Family’s constant pleas for public rectification dates back to 1961, when “Doc” Harris invited a local newspaper to contest the ‘Voodoo Village’ name.

“Voodoo is black-hearted work. It’s the Devil’s work. This is God’s work. It’s all craftwork. We’re holy people, and this is a holy place,” Harris said.

To his dismay, the notorious reputation persisted, forcing him to close the temple, where it remains closed to this day.

While many people are unaware of the damage the family suffered, there are some who have made it their purpose to enlighten society’s beliefs about the temple.

A local arts and cultural activist, Jay Etkin, said, the term ‘Voodoo Village’ has, for decades, hurt that family. “Of course, people never understood how that was hurting them. Me, being in the picture for a long time now, is meant to help change the thinking about the temple.”

Jay Etkin, owner of Jay Etkin Art Gallery, remains a close friend of the founder’s grandson and new leader of the temple, James “Mook” Harris. Together, they are working to restore the temple, in hopes of reopening it to the public for tours.

“Mook and I are dear brothers together. I love them as family, and they treat me as family. And we’re doing some interesting things together. The goal of this project is to eventually open it up to the public, for the purpose of hearing the real story,” said Etkin.

In the meantime, in an effort to steer curious spectators away from the site, Etkin suggested that Mook display a couple of pieces of artwork from the temple in the Jay Etkin Art Gallery.

“I said we needed a few pieces here because we want people not to go down this street or bother them. If they come here or want to know more about the temple, they can come and talk to me,” said Etkin. “People have visited me here and said to me, ‘Jay, please tell the family how sorry I am. I was one of those kids that harassed them.’ But the main thing is, like I said, I’m always happy to share because we’re trying to build a community of people that understand.”

While supporters like Jay Etkin advocate for the Harris family, there are others who do not seem to empathize with the family.

Last week, on April 12, casting roles were announced for an upcoming film called “Voodoo Village,” headed by film director, actor, writer and producer, Tonio Harris.

“What inspired meto write and produce this film was that I heard several stories about the Village, and I wanted to go experience it for myself. It was creepy because I drove through the site with a friend of mine at night. Looking at the artifacts from the landmark alone was weird but artistic. Something you wouldn’t normally see around the city,” said Tonio Harris, who coincidentally shares a last name with the Harris family but stated he and the family are not related.

“This film will be based on my own personal experiences and based on facts from research I have done,” said Tonio Harris. “I’m not doing anything to hurt anybody, but just using that term.”

“But you’re wrong. That name has been placed on them [the Harris family] for decades. How could you say any reference to that isn’t harmful to the family?” said Etkin after getting lawyers involved in the situation.

Etkin called the commissioner of the film bureau for legality questions but was told that Harris has the legal right to use the term “Voodoo Village.”

“So, no, I’m not happy about that, but we’ve just tried to forget about it,” said Etkin.

In a lasting attempt to stress the importance of honoring the family’s wishes, Etkin reminds anyone curious about the site that they are welcome to visit and chat with him at the Jay Etkin Art Gallery, where he exhibits two pieces of the temple’s sacred artwork.

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