Can Tami Sawyer Win Big in the Black South?

For this youngest mayoral candidate, a success in Memphis would be historic

Danielle Jackson
Published in
15 min readOct 1, 2019


Tami Sawyer poses in a hallway.
Photo courtesy of Tami Sawyer

AtAt 37, Tami Sawyer is the youngest candidate running for mayor of Memphis — the majority Black, northernmost city of the Mississippi Delta. Memphis was founded in 1819 after negotiations with the Chickasaw Nation. Just before the Civil War, the region was populated with more millionaires than anywhere else in the country.

With nearly a million residents in its metropolitan area, it is the Delta’s commercial hub and the most populous town in Shelby County, Tennessee. If Sawyer wins on October 3, she’ll become the city’s first Black woman mayor, and one of fewer than 10 Black women mayors of major cities nationwide.

BBorn in Evanston, Illinois, Sawyer moved to Memphis when she was 12. She attended private school there at St. Mary’s before leaving home to attend Hampton University and Howard Law School. Last year, she was elected to a four-year term on the county commission. The legislative body’s sole Black woman, she serves district 7, an area that includes parts of Frayser, North Memphis, and Midtown.

Memphis, hometown of Stax and Elvis, the blues and rock and roll and the first Black Baptist congregation in the South, is a formative place for American culture. It is my hometown, but I left for college and haven’t lived there since. It is where I learned about the beauty of Blackness, and how creativity is a practice that could be woven into the everyday rudiments of life. Our artists are still smart, daring, and resilient, and still creating with a singeing, original vitality. I long for its wide green lawns and its warmth, even in the bustling, musical city center. People speak to you on the street when they pass by.

Memphis can also be heartbreakingly suffocating, its air thick with dysfunction and a stubborn refusal to evolve. When Sawyer moved back to Memphis in 2013, she joined the Movement for Black Lives and led #TakeEmDown901, the successful campaign to remove the city’s Confederate monuments.

In 1905, during an intense backlash against the Black business and political might that followed Reconstruction, a statue of slaver and Ku Klux Klan co-founder Nathan Bedford Forrest was dedicated in a…