In a historic African-American community in Memphis, contractor Dwayne Jones works to improve the lives of others
Posted in , Mar 31, 2022
Dwayne Jones, a 54-year-old contractor, had eaten at Plant Based Heat soon after the vegan comfort food restaurant opened in June 2021. He didn’t make much of an impression. Right there, that’s unusual. In the historic Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee, it seems everyone has a story about Dwayne.
By the time August rolled around, Plant Based Heat’s owner, Ralph “RJ Groove” Johnson, was just hoping to survive. The longtime disc jockey had started with four employees. That Monday morning, the two remaining had called out. Ralph had dreamed of convincing barbecue-loving Memphis that, with the right spices and flame grilling, a veggie burger or hot wings could be lip-smacking good. It wasn’t an easy sell.
Ralph is an Army veteran. Reporting for duty is second nature, even on a day that promised to be grueling. A local church, the New Olivet Worship Center, had selected Plant Based Heat for its “Bust-a-Move Monday” initiative, which encourages members to patronize a local African-American-owned business.
The Olives, as they’re known, faithfully turn out. Ralph had been told to expect upwards of 300 customers. Manna from heaven for a struggling business. But would it have been too much for God to provide someone to run the cash register?
From the moment Ralph opened the doors, people streamed in. The Olives. University of Memphis students. Folks from the neighborhood. Ordering vegan jackfruit barbecue sandwiches, vegan hot wings, smoked Beyond Meat burgers. Ralph ran between the grill and the register. “I was low on change, but there was no time to go to the bank,” he says. “It was crazy!”
Ralph didn’t have a moment to clean. Tables became littered with wrappers and napkins, sticky with ketchup and barbecue sauce. Behind the counter, the floor was covered with food scraps, dishes stacked in the sink. That’s when Dwayne dropped by to support the restaurant on Bust-a-Move Monday. But even he was surprised at the turnout.
Dwayne isn’t happy unless he’s doing something. Rather than standing in line, he went to the counter and asked for a spray bottle and a rag to wipe down the tables.
“I thought, Who is this guy?” Ralph recalls.
Dwayne provided change for the guy ahead of him in line. He ordered two smoked vegan burgers (one to save for dinner), but after he’d eaten, he stuck around.
During a lull, he approached Ralph. “I can’t cook,” Dwayne said. “But I know how to clean. Let me help you.”
Soon Dwayne was sweeping. Mopping. Washing dishes. “He did three hours of work in 30 minutes,” Ralph recalls, still in awe. “God knew what I needed. He sent an angel.”
The next day, Ralph posted on Facebook a shout-out to his heaven-sent helper along with photos of him cleaning. The comments poured in: “He really is an angel…keep planting seeds, Mr. Jones.” “He’s A-1!” “Dwayne is truly amazing.”
Who is this guy? Ralph wondered again. He was learning what so many folks in Orange Mound already know. Dwayne’s a believer—in God and in community. His can-do spirit makes Bob the Builder look like a slacker.
“Dwayne inspires me,” says Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr., pastor of New Olivet Worship Center at Woodland Hills. “He’s always wanting to be a help. It goes back to how he was raised. It goes back to the spirit of Orange Mound.”
The century-old neighborhood was the nation’s first subdivision developed for African-Americans, with many of its shotgun-style houses built by Black contractors. There were groceries, clothing stores, restaurants, barber shops, nightclubs, schools and churches. Orange Mound was a magnet for young families, once home to one of the highest concentrations of African-American homeowners in the United States.
People like Dwayne’s parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. His mother, a dentist, was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Tennessee dental school. His father was one of Memphis’s first African-American firefighters. Active in church, they taught their three boys that God expected them to make the most of the talents he’d given.
For Dwayne, that was building. He got a degree in architectural engineering from Tennessee State University. He moved to California, then Pennsylvania, chasing bigger projects, higher pay. But the work became less fulfilling. In 1990, when his father had a heart attack, Dwayne came home to care for him.
He was moved by the Olives. “They were always bringing casseroles, asking how they could help, praying for us,” he says. His father’s health recovered, but the neighborhood had fallen on hard times. There were boarded-up storefronts. Vacant lots where proud homes had once stood, places Dwayne had delivered newspapers to when growing up.
Could he help here? Dwayne decided to stay and opened a contracting business. Though he could afford to live anywhere in Memphis, he chose Orange Mound. Home.
He joined the New Olivet Worship Center. Threw himself into its programs. Bust-a-Move Monday. Food and clothing drives. He built 260 raised garden beds and sold them at cost so folks could raise their own food. He supported the community garden. He bought 30 used bicycles and sponsored community bike rides.
He went to Ghana with Habitat for Humanity and saw how little the people who lived there had. He came home to Orange Mound thinking about how to make housing more affordable and bring people back to the neighborhood. He built one-bedroom houses and tiny houses of only a few hundred square feet. Still, it was hard finding buyers. Folks didn’t get the idea of tiny houses.
“They’d say, ‘Why don’t you build a real house?’” Dwayne says. “A lot of people can’t afford a mortgage on a traditional house. This allows more people to become homeowners.”
Then the pandemic hit. The real estate boom that happened in other places didn’t come to Orange Mound. Dwayne took a break from building.
Another thing he noticed on mission trips: Kids always asked what a contractor does. He wrote two children’s books: Dwayne the Contractor Uses a Hammer and Dwayne the Contractor Paints a House. He did readings in Orange Mound. The kids loved it.
It was a time of reflection for him as well. All the good works he’d done… had they been to glorify God? The answer was humbling. “I realized I’d developed a kind of Messiah complex,” he says. “Thinking I had to be at the center of everything. I needed to step back and let God lead.”
How? “I try to listen for where God is directing me,” Dwayne says. “To respond more to his call.” He’s discovered it’s not always about the big projects. Sometimes it’s as simple as mopping a restaurant floor.
Memphis media got wind of Ralph’s Facebook post and all the praise for Dwayne. There were TV spots and newspaper stories. And a call from a young woman named KeTriana who’d seen the Facebook post.
“I’m vegan, and I’ve been thinking about applying for a job there,” she told Ralph. “I’m sending you my résumé today.” Today she’s the assistant manager of Plant Based Heat. Business is doing so well that Ralph is making plans to open a second restaurant in Memphis.
Things are looking up for Dwayne too. As of January, he had 22 tiny houses under contract and another 10 under construction. He and Ralph stay in touch, supporting each other in their quest to revitalize Orange Mound.
Who is this guy? Now Ralph knows Dwayne is a neighborhood angel, the kind whose smallest gestures can work miracles.