Saturday, December 1, 2012

School Days

My father moved our family from Louisiana to Memphis in the summer of 1970. At the time, Memphis was only two years’ removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—and in the midst of a collective fretting over the pressure to integrate its schools.

One of my earliest memories of my new Tennessee home was the yard signs with smiley faces that read, “Happiness is walking to your neighborhood school.” I also remember the few grown-ups in my life talking in serious tones about “bussing.” The two—bussing and the signs with the smiley faces—were of course related, as I later learned. Yet at the time, they only puzzled me. There were no schools in my neighborhood (we lived in a new subdivision in an unincorporated part of the county, just south of Bartlett and east of the city limits), and what was the big deal about bussing? In Louisiana, I had ridden a bus to school everyday.

As we all know, in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and thus it was only a matter of time before black children and white would be attending the same schools. In Memphis, that time was slow in coming: it was not until 1972 that a federal court under Judge Robert M. McRae ordered that the city implement a plan to desegregate the schools in earnest.

Desegregation, it was hoped, would improve the education that black students received. No school that enrolled white children would dare offer a substandard education; thus, by virtue of attending the same schools that white children attended, black children would have access to the same educational resources as whites, and the achievement gap between the two would soon disappear.

Needless to say, things did not play out that way, certainly not in Memphis. After Judge McRae’s order, many whites fled the city for the county, and of the whites who remained, many began sending their children to private schools. (As for me, I first attended Bartlett Elementary, a county school; in the mid-1970s, our part of the county was annexed by the city, so by 1976 I was attending city schools, first Raleigh-Bartlett Meadows, then Kingsbury Junior High and Kingsbury High, from which I graduated in 1983.) The result was that the Memphis City School system entered the twenty-first century with a student body that was 85 percent black—and struggling to educate its charges.

Just how much it is struggling is difficult to determine. According to the website of the Tennessee Department of Education, whose tables of data could provide more guidance in interpreting, in 2012, in the system as a whole, fifth graders and eighth graders scored an A on the writing portion of the TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program), as did eleventh graders. At the same time, it appears that only 25% of third graders scored “proficient” or “advanced” in reading and language arts, and only 39% of high school students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in English II.

Certainly one observer who believes the system is struggling is Marcus D. Pohlmann, whose 2008 book, Opportunity Lost: Race and Poverty in the Memphis City Schools (University of Tennessee Press), seeks to understand why many students in the city’s school system perform so poorly. In particular, Pohlmann, a political scientist at Rhodes College and the author, along with Michael Kirby, of Racial Politics at the Crossroads: Memphis Elects Dr. W. W. Herenton (1996), wants to reexamine the connection between socioeconomic class and educational success, a connection that was first suggested in the mid-1960s and that, at the time, challenged the belief that desegregated schools were the solution to the problems that black students faced. It’s a connection to which Pohlmann was already committed to affirming—or so it seemed to this reader—when he began researching and writing his book. So it came as no surprise that Pohlmann concluded that it’s not the schools per se that are to blame for the poor performance of the city’s schoolchildren; rather, it’s the socioeconomic characteristics of the children that determine the degree to which they become educated and able to lead a productive life. Race and especially family income, rather than student-teacher ratios and per-pupil spending, are what principally determine a student’s educational success or failure.

He draws that conclusion after comparing the Memphis City schools with the Shelby County schools. As he documents, over the period between 1970 and the early 2000s, the city system scored slightly higher on many of the traditional “inputs” that are used to measure school quality, including expenditures per pupil and student-teacher ratios; yet over that period it was students in the county schools, not the city schools, who scored better on traditional “output” measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and reading and math proficiency. “It appears,” Pohlmann thus concludes, “that the output gaps have more to do with the academic disadvantages low-income students bring to school with them than with the quality of the educational resources available once they arrive.”

Pohlmann’s is not a rigorous study, and his investigation of the relationship between socioeconomic status and educational outcomes occupies only a single chapter of his 282-page book. But that is no matter. Despite what the author claims in his preface, the real purpose of Opportunity Lost is to make a case for reform. Indeed, the longest chapter surveys numerous educational reforms that have been proposed or implemented, not only in Memphis but nationwide, and his concluding chapter presents what Pohlmann believes are solutions to the problems besetting the Memphis City schools today. In line with the conclusion of his study, one of the reforms is to guarantee to every working parent a “reasonable income” and health and other benefits through programs modeled on any number of European ones, most specifically the Danish “Flexicurity” program, which relies on a social compact between business, labor, and the government.

Pohlmann’s central message—and it is one with which I am in full agreement—is that we adults are simply not committed to insuring that every child receives an adequate education. We may be committed to at least providing every child with an opportunity to go to school; but that is not enough. Until we recognize the many elements and circumstances that, through a complex interplay, either help or hinder a child’s progress, we are simply paying lip service to our belief in equal opportunity. Much to his credit, Pohlmann does not beat around the bush, and he is worth quoting at length:

If we are serious about finding a way to educate all children so that they truly can rise or fall on their own merits, the proposals [I have put forward here] suggest a price tag that that will be formidable. Effective education-related reforms will require significant sacrifice across society if we are to reduce poverty, provide quality education options beginning at age one, reach out to indigent caregivers, reduce class sizes, extend school days and school years, attract more of the nation’s best and brightest into the teaching profession, and effectively consolidate and decentralize school administration. As a nation, we are already spending roughly $1 trillion a year on education. We can spend that amount more wisely, but we will have to spend much more if anything resembling comprehensive reform is to be implemented.

If such a statement smacks too much of social democracy for those on the right, let me hasten to point out that “responsibility,” including the responsibility of students, is a component of Pohlmann’s reformist vision. “Children have a responsibility to do their homework, stay in school, master standard English, and stop having babies,” he writes, and fathers “need to raise the children they help produce.”

It is worth noting that at least one reform Pohlmann advances appears destined to come about. In 2011, the Memphis City Schools surrendered its charter, forcing a merger with the county system. The merger is scheduled to go into effect in 2013.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Update on Cotton Row Audio Documentary

Memphis, TN--I've been in Memphis for almost three weeks and have recorded and interviewed three figures for my audio documentary on the history of Front Street in Memphis: William B. "Billy" Dunavant Jr., whose company, Dunavant Enterprises, was one of the world's largest cotton firms until 2010, when Mr. Dunavant sold his cotton business to another Memphis firm, Allenberg Cotton, which is owned by the international commodities conglomerate Louis Dreyfus and is today located in Cordova, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis; Bill Griffin, who for many years was a cotton merchant for a Memphis company named Block and Unobsky and who today runs William B. Griffin Cotton, a risk-management consultancy; and Rudi Scheidt, who was a top executive with Hohenberg Cotton, which in 1975 sold out to Cargill and today does business as Cargill Cotton. I am tracking down two other former cotton men to interview. I hope to return to Durham with five interviews in the can, as they say. Then I'll take stock of what I have and see what kind of piece I can produce.

On a related note, I encourage readers to visit the Cotton Museum in the Memphis Cotton Exchange. The main part of the museum is on the old trading floor of the Exchange, with its spectacular fifty-foot blackboard on which, back in the day, up-to-the-minute cotton prices from the major markets were recorded. In what used to be telephone booths the museum has computer monitors on which visitors can watch videos related to cotton. Among the videos are some wonderful oral histories by people who were directly involved in the cotton business in Memphis. There is a children's section as well, and an attractive gift shop.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cotton Companies on Front Street

Memphis, TN--Yours truly, normally in exile in Durham, North Carolina, is writing from the city that is the subject of this blog, Memphis, Tennessee. I'm here on an extended visit. As most of my friends know, for the last two years I have been intently interested in cotton and especially the old cotton culture that used to exist on Memphis's Cotton Row, that four- or five-block stretch of Front Street between Jefferson and Beale. Today will be an exciting day: I'm scheduled to meet with three of the very few cotton merchants who still operate on Front Street: Calvin Turley, of Turley Cotton; Danny Lyons, of Lyons Cotton; and Kenny Jabbour, of Jabbour Cotton. Their offices are in the Cotton Exchange Building, which technically is not on Front Street but at 65 Union Avenue, at the corner of Union and Front.

On Monday, I spent a couple of hours in the Memphis and Shelby County room of the public library poring over the 1962 Polk's Memphis City Directory. I wanted to create a list, by address, of all the cotton companies that were located on Front Street in that year. Here is the list, which is rather long. The terms in parentheses are the description of the business as recorded in the directory. A linter is the fiber that stays on a cottonseed after the cotton is ginned. As far as I've been able to tell in my reading, a buyer is a company that purchases and takes ownership of cotton from a farmer; in contrast, a broker is a company that simply sells cotton on a farmer's behalf. A factor, at least in the nineteenth century, was a company that loaned money to a farmer so he could buy seed and equipment to grow the crop; in return, the farmer not only repaid the loan (with interest) but gave the factor exclusive rights to sell his cotton on his behalf. I don't know precisely what the term dealer meant and how a dealer differed from a buyer or broker. Sometimes the term listed in the directory was simply cotton; I omitted it in those cases.

At the time, the biggest cotton companies in Memphis were probably Anderson Clayton (at 2 S. Front Street), Weil Brothers (93-95 S. Front Street), Allenberg (104 S. Front Street), and Hohenberg (266 S. Front Street). Of those four, Allenberg and Hohenberg were headquartered in Memphis; the two are still in business, their headquarters now on Goodlett Farms Parkway in Cordova. Allenberg still does business under that name, although they are owned by Louis Dreyfus. Hohenberg was sold to Cargill in 1975 and today operates as Cargill Cotton. Another company that would over the next thirty years become one of the largest in the world was W. B. Dunavant and Co. In 1971, Dunavant became Dunavant Enterprises and moved to a new, modern office at 3797 New Getwell Road. In 2010 Dunavant, which now is located at 959 Ridgeway Loop Road in Memphis, sold its cotton business to longtime rival Allenberg.

22-26 N. Front Street (Falls Building)
  • Max D. Lucas and Co. (cotton linters)
  • Trammell and Co. (cotton linters)
  • William C. Manley Jr. (cotton linters)
  • Bill C. White (cotton linters)
  • Stapleton Linters
  • Harold Holt Co. (cotton linters)
  • Railway Supply and Manufacturing Co. (cotton linters)
  • Cotton Warehouse Inspection Service
  • W. M. Rootes and Co. (cotton linters)
  • Brode Corp. (cottonseed products)
  • William S. Roberts Jr. (cotton ginner)
2 S. Front Street
  • Anderson Clayton and Co. (cotton buyers)
44 S. Front Street
  • Mid South Cotton Growers Association
48 S. Front Street
  • Frank Oakes and Co.
  • Fulton and Sons
  • Covington and Smith Co. of Mfs. [Manufacturers?] Cotton
50 S. Front Street (building no longer extant)
  • Alex L. Bernstein (cotton brokers)
  • John A. Lyons Jr. (cotton brokers)
52 S. Front Street (building no longer extant)
  • Cotton Boll Liquor Store
  • Cotton Row Café
56 S. Front Street
  • Staple Cotton Cooperative Association
  • William R. Copeland and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • Ramsey-Austin Cotton Co. (brokers)
  • Clarence Hossley and Co.
  • John R. Williamson and Co. 
  • Malcolm L. Wilson (cotton broker)
  • Bradshaw Cotton Co. (buyers)
60 S. Front Street
  • F. M. Crump and Co. (cotton brokers)
  • Austin Brothers Co. 
  • Williams Cotton Co.
  • Dudley S. Weaver and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • W. B. Bridgforth and Co. (cotton dealers)
64 S. Front Street
  • Riverside Cotton Sales Inc.
  • John C. Weaver Co.
66 S. Front Street (Magnolia Building; I believe this is the building just north of Union Avenue, on the other side of which is the Cotton Exchange Building)
  • Richards Cotton Co. (cotton brokers)
  • E. F. Creekmore and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • W. L. Ford and Co. (cotton brokers)
  • Wesson and Co.
  • Mfs. [Manufacturers?] Cotton Sales (office)
70 S. Front Street (building no longer extant--unless this was an address in the Cotton Exchange Building)
  • Goodbody and Co. (cotton brokers)
81 S. Front Street (at this point we are now just south of Union Avenue)
  • A. W. Grimming Cotton Co.
84 S. Front Street (building no longer extant--unless this was an address in the Cotton Exchange Building)
  • May Sternberger and Co. (cotton brokers)
86 S. Front Street (building no longer extant--unless this was an address in the Cotton Exchange Building)
  • Cotton Exchange Café
88 S. Front Street (building no longer extant--unless this was an address in the Cotton Exchange Building)
  • De Soto Cotton Co.
  • Herbert Esch and Co.
  • John Hopkins and Co.
  • Newbern and Co.
  • George M. Darms
  • John V. Welch
  • O'Neal Cotton Co. (buyers)
89 S. Front Street
  • John A. DuPre and Co. (cotton dealer)
  • Lytle-McKee Cotton Co. (brokers)
  • Taylor Cotton Co.
90 S. Front Street
  • A. R. Wetenkamp and Co.
  • George S. Peyton and Co.
91 S. Front Street
  • Barnwell and Hayes (cotton buyers)
92 S. Front Street
  • Patton Brothers Inc (cotton brokers)
93-95 S. Front Street
  • Weil Brothers Cotton Inc. (buyers)
94 S. Front Street
  • Carl-Lee Cotton Co. (buyers)
  • Lloyd N. Judson
  • R. W. Luke Holland (buyer)
  • Herman J. Inderbitzen
  • Kyle Patton and Co.
96 S. Front Street
  • Columbia Compress Co.
  • Duncan and Sims Co.
  • Charles M. Parker Cotton Co.
97 S. Front Street
  • D. O. Andrews and Co. (cotton exporters)
104 S. Front Street
  • Allenberg Cotton Co. (buyers)
105 S. Front Street
  • Hugh E. Tucker and Co. (cotton brokers)
  • A. S. Byrd Cotton Co. (dealers)
  • D. D. Dumas and Co. (cotton brokers)
  • Southern Cotton Co-op Association
  • Horace E. Jester
  • L. Gordon Yancey Cotton Co.
  • James C. Hill and Co.
  • Ben F. Hill Cotton Co.
  • D. L. McDonald Cotton Co.
  • Crawford and Co.
106 S. Front Street
  • McAdams and Co.
  • Sam Parker
107 S. Front Street
  • J. L. Mercer and Co. (cotton factors)
109 S. Front Street
  • Sledge and Norfleet Co. (cotton factors)
  • R. A. Armistead and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • Day Brothers Cotton Co. (dealers)
  • Hubert N. Stovall (cotton brokers)
  • Robert M. Day (cotton brokers)
110 S. Front Street
  • C. W. Hussey and Co.
  • Nebhut Cotton Co. (exporters)
111 S. Front Street
  • Bluff City Cotton Co. (brokers)
  • J. J. Powers and Co. (cotton dealers)
  • Jones-Beal Inc. (cotton dealers)
  • Larkin-Hinkel Cotton Co. (buyers)
  • Chickasaw Cotton Co. (dealers)
  • James H. Cobb (cotton broker)
  • Junius D. Hobson (cotton brokers)
  • C. L. Andrews Cotton Co. (buyers)
  • Arlie C. Brooks (cotton shipper)
  • Boeving Brothers Cotton (cotton ginners)
112 S. Front Street
  • W. B. Dunavant and Co.
  • F. Eug Cau
114 S. Front Street
  • C. M. Austin Co.
  • Reese E. Austin (broker)
  • T. H. Austin Cotton Co. (buyers)
115 S. Front Street
  • F. G. Barton Cotton Co. (cotton factors)
116 S. Front Street
  • Berry B. Brooks (cotton broker)
  • Charles R. Cash
  • E. Hope Brooks (cotton broker)
117 S. Front Street (building no longer extant)
  • Graves-Beasley Inc.
  • Beasley ACT and Co.
161 S. Front Street (building no longer extant)
  • Crespi Cotton Co. (buyers)
  • W. D. Lawson and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • Thomas H. Todd and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • Molloy H. Miller Co. (cotton dealers)
  • Ted I. Lewis (cotton dealer)
  • Cannon Mills Inc. (cotton-buying office)
  • Murff and Co. Inc. (cotton buyers)
  • L. T. Barringer and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • S. Y. West and Co. (cotton buyers)
266 S. Front
  • Hohenberg Brothers. Co. (brokers)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Cotton Man

It is the spring of 1995, and the editor of Barron's sends one of its writers to Memphis to do a story on William B. Dunavant Jr., the greatest cotton merchant in Memphis history--indeed, the greatest cotton merchant the world has ever seen. Cotton prices are on the rise, as China, India, and Pakistan have all seen their cotton crop destroyed by Mother Nature, and there's money to be made--lots of money--by the merchant who can play his cards right. And no merchant plays a better hand than Mr. Dunavant. How does he do it? In a market with so much volatility, how does he stay on top?

I can only imagine that the writer Barron's dispatched to Memphis was 27 and from the North. How else would a sentence like this appear in the final copy? "The unpredictable nature of the [cotton] trade is never far from people's minds at Memphis' Front Street cotton market, where Dixie chauvinism and nostalgia for antebellum glories have driven countless Sons of the South to dream of $1 cotton and mount suicidal Pickett's charges on the market." Predictably, Dunavant's voice is a "drawl" that is--you've got it--"smooth as molasses." And right on cue, an "air of Southern gentility" settles over his office.

To be fair, aside from the excess and cliches, the author, whose name is Jonathan R. Laing, provides an intriguing profile of Mr. Dunavant. We learn that Mr. Dunavant keeps a clean desk and writes nothing down, relying solely on his memory. His messages are delivered in shifts by one of two secretaries, who hand him notes written on sheets from scratch pads.

Mr. Dunavant, who was the principal owner of the Memphis Showboats of the old USFL, is known by many in Memphis as the guy who tried to get the city an NFL team. When that effort failed, he consoled himself by purchasing a 14,000-acre ranch in Montana. With crates of Mississippi tomatoes in tow, he spends several months a year in the Big Sky State.

At the time the article appeared in the May 8 edition, Dunavant Enterprises was buying and selling around 4 million bales of cotton a year, to the tune of approximately $2 billion, making it among the largest cotton firms in the world. In 2010, Mr. Dunavant, who is now 79 years old, sold his cotton interests to another longtime Memphis firm, Allenberg Cotton. Today, Dunavant Enterprises focuses on "logistics," that is, the transportation of goods and commodities from one point to another.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Women on the Verge

In the Jim Crow Memphis of 1963, an integrated group of women—six white and six black, including Maxine Smith, well known to many Memphians as the longtime executive secretary of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP—began to meet for lunch in each other’s houses. Their goal was to promote a dialogue between the races and to see what reforms they could bring about. After several meetings, the group decided to go public by brazenly having lunch in restaurants that refused to serve blacks. Their first target was the Wolf River Society, a members-only, all-white dining club in downtown Memphis. It was perhaps an ideal choice, as two members of the group were also members of the society. In any event, the lunch went off without a hitch, and thus the Saturday Luncheon Group, as the women called themselves, began doing their part to combat segregation in 1960s Memphis. 

The Saturday Luncheon Group is one of several activist groups that feature in Kimberly K. Little’s 2009 book You Must Be from the North: Southern White Women in the Memphis Civil Rights Movement. Little examines a cohort of middle- and upper-class white women in Memphis who worked in the 1960s and early 1970s to bring about social change in the city. For most of the women, the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and especially the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. were the watershed events, after which they “could no longer ignore” the city’s racial problems. The activism of these women was rooted in their volunteer work and the religious teachings of their faiths. Through their involvement in the sanitation workers’ strike and its aftermath, as well as in their efforts on behalf of school integration in the early 1970s, these “wives and mothers” of Memphis worked to ease racial strife in their strife-torn city and coaxed the city’s white elite to at least think about being a bit more progressive-minded.

With the exception of Joan Turner Beifuss, the author of At the River I Stand, an exquisite account of the sanitation workers’ strike, the women who figure prominently in Little’s book, which was published by the University Press of Mississippi, were largely unknown to me. Marjorie Cherry, one of the founders of the Saturday Luncheon Group, moved to Memphis in 1958 from Charlottesville, Virginia, where she had protested segregation by sitting in the back of the town’s buses. Frances Edgar Coe was a Memphis native who was educated at Miss Hutchison’s School for Girls and then Vassar College. She served six terms on the Memphis Board of Education, voting consistently to integrate the schools at an accelerated pace and working to reduce the inequities between black and white children. Myra Dreifus was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1904; in 1936 she followed her husband to Memphis, which, Mr. Dreifus believed, offered the best prospects for his new jewelry business. In the early 1960s Myra Dreifus founded the Fund for Needy Schoolchildren, which sought to provide free meals to poor students in the city’s schools. Anne Whalen Shafer, who was born in Memphis in 1923, played an active role in the Memphis City Beautiful campaign, persuading the city to upgrade the infrastructure of black neighborhoods. As chair of the Memphis City Beautiful Commission from 1964 to 1966, Shafer promoted racial integration in the city.  In 1971 Dorothy “Happy” Jones founded the Memphis Community Relations Commission, whose immediate goal was to help the city through yet another period of heightened racial tensions following the death of a black man in Memphis police custody. The commission eliminated the pro-segregation practice of “blockbusting” and helped slow down white flight by changing the way the city annexed surrounding areas. Jocelyn Wurzburg, Donna Sue Shannon, Jeanne Varnell, Bert Wolff, and Margaret Valiant are among the other white women activists whose civil rights work is described in Little’s book.

The Vassar-educated Coe is perhaps the most interesting of the lot. As a member of the school board, she was an advocate of smaller schools, smaller classrooms, and smaller districts, as well as of art and music programs and services for children with special needs; she also believed that the city and county school systems should be consolidated. She was convinced that the key to improving education was to increase teacher salaries, which could be easily done, she explained, through a very small increase in taxes. While a student at Vassar, Coe worked at a settlement house in Poughkeepsie. In the 1930s she wrote for the society pages of the Commercial Appeal; she quit after the editors refused to allow her to write more substantive pieces on “women’s news.” In 1936 she helped found the Memphis Maternal Health Association, and in her work with the association she stressed the importance of birth control. In the 1940s she convinced the Memphis YWCA to integrate, served as president of the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, and was vice president of the Memphis branch of the League of Women Voters. She campaigned in 1948 for Estes Kefauver, whose election to the U.S. Senate that year helped end the political domination of Boss Crump. In the 1960s Coe led the Memphis chapter of the Economic Opportunity Act’s antipoverty program. In short, as Little tells us, Coe was “a mentor to numerous Memphis activists”—especially to Myra Dreifus—“and a central figure within the city’s civil rights community.” The city school system’s administration building is named after her.

Memphis has never had a large liberal white class. It is one of the most conservative cities in the country, certainly in the South, and one must keep in mind that the women who appear in Little’s book were to varying degrees part of the white establishment. It’s a wonder that any of them were sympathetic to black concerns. On the whole, they were a conflicted bunch. We see that, for instance, with regard to the sanitation workers’ strike. It is true that many of them acted in one way or another to support the striking workers. Myra Dreifus, for instance, whose Fund for Needy Schoolchildren had supported Henry Loeb in the 1967 mayoral campaign, now urged Mayor Loeb to “resolve” the strike and, in Ms. Dreifus’s words, “represent all of the people all of the time.” Margaret Valiant participated in the February 23, 1968, march—the “miniriot” that ended when policemen used mace to disperse the crowd; after the march, Valiant spoke to a largely African American audience at Mason Temple, affirming her support of the striking workers. On March 7—a day on which Mayor Loeb held one of his open houses—Joan Turner Beifuss led a group of white women to mayor’s office; the goal was to demonstrate to Loeb that not all whites supported him in his opposition to the strike. Yet some of the other women, such as Gwen Awsumb, who, by the way, was the first woman ever elected to the Memphis city council, and Marjorie Cherry, were decidedly less sympathetic toward the strike and were generally opposed to unions.

Little, of course, is aware of all that, and perhaps that is why she seems to feel a certain ambivalence toward her subject. Although she believes that the story she tells is a story worth telling, she is eager not to claim too much for her protagonists. The Saturday Luncheon Group, for example, “did not intend to turn the world upside down” but “merely” sought to improve communication between the races. Myra Dreifus and Anne Shafer were not interested in “pathbreaking” social movements and had no “radical political consciousness”; instead, their activism was grounded in “less politically charged” programs and organizations. At the end of her book, Little offers this assessment of the group of activists whose work she has documented: “These women do not warrant the term ‘radical,’ because they did not seek an overhaul of the entire system that created a racial hierarchy in which white citizens enjoyed more privilege than their African American counterparts. However, their contributions to Memphis’s race relations proved essential to the easing of racial tensions.” When appraising the activism of elite white women in Memphis, one must keep, it seems, the proper perspective.

Monday, May 14, 2012

From Memphis, with Love

Wanda Rushing is in love with Memphis, and thank God for that. A city that has been “typically marginalized by scholars and underestimated by its own residents” is actually, as her 2009 book, Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South, argues, a dynamic, innovative, and creative place, a place that has given the world not only some of its most popular and influential music, but Federal Express, Holiday Inn, and a host of nationally known products. Coppertone sunscreen, St. Joseph’s aspirin, Maybelline cosmetics, Cleo giftwrap, Di-Gel tablets—these are among the many “innovations” that originated in the Bluff City. What’s more, Memphis is an important node in the global transportation system and home to the world’s largest pediatric cancer research center. Whereas most who have written about Memphis have focused on the city’s problems, Dr. Rushing, who is a professor of sociology at the University of Memphis, is determined to show instead what should be evident to anybody who bothers to examine the city in the way she has chosen to do so: Memphis is a complex and interesting place with global and local significance.

The way she has chosen to examine her subject is no less important than her subject itself. As Dr. Rushing explains, most sociological studies today rely on abstraction and measurement, often “losing touch with real people in real places.” In contrast, Dr. Rushing uses an “interdisciplinary narrative case-study approach,” one that she believes is suited to identifying and understanding the multivalent and multifaceted dimensions of a complicated city such as Memphis. Drawing on sociological theory, historical sociology, and even literature, as well as her own “immersion in the richly textured life of Memphis,” Dr. Rushing examines a number of case studies—just to give one example, the history, destruction, and subsequent renovation and development of Beale Street and the surrounding area—and attempts to show how they are affected by, and in turn affect, the global and the local.

As the title of her book indicates, Memphis is a place of paradox, and both place and paradox are themes that run throughout the book. The subtitles of her chapters, for example, refer to paradoxes of place, of identity, of power, of development, of innovation, of tradition. But far more than paradox, it is place that receives the most systematic and sustained treatment. Place is much more than just “geographic location and material form,” she tells us; place is defined by “networks of social relations, collections of cultural symbols and historical memories, and investment with cultural meaning and value.” Place is “uniquely situated in networks of global relations and cultural flows, as well as embedded in accumulated local history and culture. Hence, place mediates the impact of global and local processes.” Place, she warns, should not be confused with space—which is exactly what transportation officials did when they proposed to route I-40 through Overton Park. As a space, Overton Park was the logical path that I-40 should have taken; as a place, it was anything but.

Another prominent theme in Dr. Rushing’s book is the interplay between the global and the local. Of public spaces such as Forrest Park and the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, for instance, she writes, “Local and global changes”—and here she means our evolving attitudes toward race and community—“continue to shape understandings about the use of public spaces and the commemorative objects installed in them.” Of Overton Park and Shelby Farms, she writes that “place still matters and mediates the impact of global, national, and local processes on urban landscapes.” And Memphis music, which, as she rightly points out, was acclaimed globally long before it was celebrated locally, “shows that cultural innovation . . . can lead to an affirmation of the local significance of place and contribute to the transformation of global culture.” Similar statements can be found throughout the book.

I cannot say how successful Memphis and the Paradox of Place is as a work of sociology; I also do not know if Dr. Rushing succeeded in achieving what she set out to achieve (her claim, for instance, to use literature to illuminate her case studies is perhaps exaggerated). I can say that Memphis and the Paradox of Place is an excellent introduction to many of the events, developments, and issues that are important in the city. Race and poverty, labor and education, tourism and music; Forrest Park, the National Civil Rights Museum, and the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library; Overton Park and Shelby Farms; transportation, the cotton trade, and entrepreneurship; St. Jude and UT-Baptist Research Park; Beale Street, urban renewal, and downtown renovation and development; the Cotton Carnival and the Cotton Maker’s Jubilee—those are among the subjects that Dr. Rushing takes up in her stimulating book.

Dr. Rushing would argue that Memphis, as a place, has been formed, and is informed, by history. Not surprisingly, then, a chief merit of the book is the way in which it situates the present in the past. Just to take one example, in the chapter on Memphis music, titled “Globalization and Popular Culture: Memphis and the Paradox of Innovation,” Dr. Rushing traces a line extending from the beginning of Beale Street in the nineteenth century to director Craig Brewer’s 2005 Memphis-centric film Hustle and Flow and its signature song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” which won an Academy Award. The early blues songs that used to be heard on Beale were met with an ambivalent reaction by both white and black Memphians, as was, one hundred years later, the success of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”  

Memphis and the Paradox of Place is one of my favorite books about Memphis. Yet in some respects I find it hard get a handle on. There are numerous themes to digest—place, paradox, the local, the global, race, power, the “production of locality” (a concept devised by Arjun Appadurai, a cultural anthropologist at NYU) and the “disruptions” to that production. What’s more, not all of them are clearly articulated; I’m still not entirely sure, for example, what Dr. Rushing means by the “paradox of place.” The book’s organization is occasionally slack: in the introduction the author lists two purposes of the book, then in chapter 1, she announces that her project has five goals, only to state in the final chapter that the book has had a single “overarching concern” (“to show that place matters”). Speaking of the introduction and the first chapter, the former reads like a preface rather than an introduction, and the latter, like an introduction.

Still, the overall point of the book, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press, is clear. The devil may be in the details, but so is the delight, and those delightful details create a place, one that is idiosyncratic and persists despite the designs of globalization to homogenize or erase it. In short, as Dr. Rushing states succinctly and elegantly, place matters—and so does Memphis.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Saturday Evening Memphis

In Memphis in the mid-1940s, ’Lonzo Locke was the most popular waiter at the Peabody, businessman Ike Myers was bringing Heifetz, Horowitz, and other classical music luminaries to the city, and the Commercial Appeal was pushing its Plant to Prosper and Live at Home program, whose goal was to demote cotton to secondary importance by encouraging farmers in the Mid-South to diversify, diversify, diversify.

We learn those details from a profile of Memphis published in the November 16, 1946, issue of the venerable weekly the Saturday Evening Post. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Post ran a series of articles on “America’s most colorful cities.” I have to wonder what counted as “colorful” in the eyes of the editor. Not unreasonably, Brooklyn was profiled, as was Los Angeles; but so were Minot, North Dakota; Burns, Oregon; and the standard by which all American cities are judged, Peoria, Illinois. Will it play in Peoria?

The twenty-third installment in the series (which ran to over one hundred installments) was devoted to Memphis. The article is every bit as “colorful” as its subject: “The old hot river-town, cotton-town, lumber-town blood begins to beat in her veins and she lifts her skirts up high and does a wild fandango down the Chickasaw Bluffs the way she used to do when Davy Crockett gathered her citizenry to the river bank for scandalous moonlight merrymaking around a keg of bourbon,” the author, one Harold H. Martin, writes about the annual Cotton Carnival. Mr. Martin wrote dozens of articles for the magazine over a twenty-year period, including one in 1949 about the Ku Klux Klan, which, the author hoped, was on its way out.

Mr. Martin presents the Memphis of 1946 as a well-behaved, hygienic city, thanks in no small part to the lordship of Edward H. Crump. A good deal of the article is about Mr. Crump and the purportedly salubrious effect he had on his adopted hometown, transforming it from a frontier saloon writ large to a tidy, quiet, and prim metropolis—tidy, quiet, and prim, that is, unless it happened to be the week of the annual Cotton Carnival, during which, as the quotation above makes plain, Memphis let down her hair and kicked up her heels. Martin begins his article with a description of the weeklong, all-hell-breaks-loose shindig, during which “the dark citizens perform a mad gyration they term the Jubilee Jump” and (gasp!) “somebody rides a horse into the lobby of the Peabody Hotel.”

Turning to the first page of the article, what immediately caught my eye was the lone photograph in the bottom left-hand corner. The photograph shows a black family sitting on Adirondack-style chairs along a covered passageway that runs in front of what appears at first glance to be a well-maintained apartment building but is actually one of the city’s five housing projects. A surprising photograph, really: one wonders how many other photographs of ordinary black folk appeared in the magazine that year. “Negro life in Memphis is not all Beale Street,” the caption reads. But even Beale Street is not all Beale Street anymore: Beale, according to Mr. Martin, “has lost its once-enchanting aura of murder, music, and mirth, and now resembles any other shabby street in the Negro section of a Southern town.”

Mr. Crump is certainly the central figure in the article, but Mr. Martin allows Crump’s adversary, Ed Meeman, the editor of the Press-Scimitar, a few words. Meeman worries that Memphis has forgotten that democracy, not bossism, is the law of the land.

The article devotes three full paragraphs to the city’s age-old cotton trade—“a peculiar business [that] is run solely on honor,” where deals are made over nothing but a cup of coffee at Doug Stamper’s Cotton Exchange Café. A large photograph shows cotton merchant Caffee Robertson examining a sample of cotton in the office of another trader, D. B. Fargason of South Front Street.

Mr. Martin presents a city and a city boss who were always on the lookout for corrupting influences from the eastern fifteen-sixteenths of the state. Crump is a sentry, a “watcher from the tower,” and “when he sees a gathering of poltroonery” in the state capital, he sounds the alarm, “and Memphis and Shelby County as one man rush to disperse the varlets with a fusillade of some sixty-odd thousand votes.” (Did I mention that the article was as colorful as its subject?)

Lately I’ve come under the spell of the mid-century American cultural critic Dwight Macdonald, who disparagingly classified the Saturday Evening Post as an example of what he called “Masscult.” Masscult is the enemy of High Culture, as its only standard is popularity. In that context, it is interesting to note that the articles in the Saturday Evening Post in the mid-1940s were often long, with long paragraphs and small type. Mr. Martin’s article on Memphis, for example, easily exceeds five thousand words. And I quite enjoyed the author’s purple prose. With my apologies to Mr. Macdonald, if this is Masscult, give me more of it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Beale Street Development

Memphis’s Beale Street and Nashville’s Second Avenue/lower Broadway entertainment district are the subjects of a 2010 article by Ola Johannson that appears in the scholarly journal Material Culture. Johannson, a geographer at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, is interested in the processes by which the two entertainment districts were created and the effect of the processes on the “function” of the districts. As he points out, the Second Avenue/lower Broadway district in Nashville emerged more or less organically, driven by market forces; in contrast, the Beale Street district was the result of a top-down project managed and directed by John Elkington, a prominent Memphis developer, through his company Performa Entertainment, which was formed in 1983 specifically to renovate and revitalize what black Memphis businessman George W. Lee called "the Main Street of Negro America." Johansson observes that although the processes by which the two districts came into being differed, the two “are very much alike in a functional sense”—that is, the two districts contain a similar mix of commercial establishments and other concerns (nightclubs, restaurants, tourist traps, and so on).

The impression one gets from Johannson’s article is that John Elkington pretty much runs Beale Street and that no business can open without the developer’s approval. Although Elkington has put a lot of money into Beale Street, his methods and agenda have sometimes been questioned: among other things, Johannson mentions Elkington’s dubious commitment to neighborhood development. Elkington’s side of the story is told in his Beale Street: Resurrecting the Home of the Blues (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2008).

Johannson, who in 2004 completed a PhD in geography from the University of Tennessee, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Lund University in Sweden, where, I presume, he was raised. He tells us that he first visited Memphis and Nashville in the early 1990s. “The impression was of decay and neglect,” with the areas adjacent to the central business districts showing “strong signs of disinvestment.” Things, of course, have changed, and “a visit to downtown Nashville or Memphis today is quite a different experience.”

Johannson’s article is titled “Form, Function, and the Making of Music-Themed Entertainment Districts in Nashville and Memphis.” Material Culture is published by the Pioneer America Society and is now in its forty-fourth year.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Old Ball Game

The first baseball game in Memphis played at night, under the lights, occurred on Monday, May 12, 1930, and it involved two teams from the Negro National League, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Memphis Red Sox. The owner of the Monarchs, J. L. Wilkinson, had invented a portable lighting system, and he brought it, along with his team, to Memphis for that Monday night game. At the time, the Red Sox played their home games at Lewis Park, a 3,000-seat wooden stadium on Crump and Lauderdale, and the owners of the team, anticipating a larger crowd than usual, installed an additional 2,000 seats for the game. The game was sure to draw not only more black fans but a number of white fans as well—so much so that a special entrance for whites was created. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wilkinson’s lighting system was less than perfect: the lights sometimes flickered and dimmed, and several players quipped that candles would have provided just as much illumination. Nevertheless, the fans, spellbound by the novelty of lights of any kind at a ballpark, hardly noticed. “NIGHT BASEBALL SUCCESSFUL IN MEMPHIS DEBUT,” the Press-Scimitar proclaimed in its Tuesday edition.

That episode is recounted in “They Also Played the Game: A Historical Examination of the Memphis Red Sox Baseball Organization, 1922–1959,” a 2001 dissertation written by Montgomery Kurt McBee. For readers of this blog who may be unfamiliar with the history of baseball, it bears explaining that, until 1947, professional baseball in America was a segregated affair, and until the late 1950s a succession of black-only leagues, known collectively as the Negro leagues, operated alongside Major League Baseball, the professional league most Americans think of when they think of baseball. The Memphis Red Sox were the team from Memphis that was a member of the Negro leagues.

Dr. McBee’s main point is that black baseball in Memphis had a rich tradition that dated all the way back to the years immediately following the Civil War; the Red Sox were the heirs to that tradition. For black Memphians, the Red Sox, who were owned by black Memphians, were a source of achievement and pride, examples to the white community of black skill, professionalism, and business acumen. By supporting the Red Sox, black Memphians protested indirectly against the racial segregation that was part and parcel of life in the city.

The Red Sox were created in 1922; before that date, most black baseball teams in Memphis were independent organizations that lasted no more than a few years. The first two that Dr. McBee mentions were the Memphis Eclipse and the Memphis Eurekas, charter members of the Southern League of Colored Base Ballists, which was formed in 1886 and lasted only a year. The precise state of black baseball in Memphis over the ensuing twenty or so years is not made clear in the dissertation, but Dr. McBee avers that “black Memphians continued to form teams that played independent ball during the early years of the twentieth century up to the 1920s.” In 1908 the Memphis Unions and Memphis Union Giants were playing; in 1909, the Bluff City Base Ball Club; and in 1911, the Memphis Tigers. By the time the United States entered World War I, “a few clubs” were playing “independent” ball in the city; among them were Curve’s Wonders, the Pelgram Giants, and the Bunker Hill Stars; still others were the Colored Wonders, the Royals, and the Memphis Pelicans.

In 1920, black leaders from several Southern cities formed the Negro Southern League, and the next year the league welcomed a team from Memphis: A. P. Martin’s Barber Boys Baseball Club. The owner of the team was Arthur “A. P.” Martin, a 41-year-old black barber in Memphis who operated barber shops on Exchange Street, Beale Street, Main Street, and Calhoun. The team played its home games at Field’s Park, which was in South Memphis, and at Fay Avenue Park, also in South Memphis. In Memphis, whites as well as blacks attended games played by black baseball teams—a tradition, according to Dr. McBee, dating back to the 1880s; Mr. Martin made sure that seats were reserved for whites at the Barber Boys games.

For reasons that are not made clear, by 1922 the Barber Boys were no longer Memphis’s entrant in the Negro Southern Leagues. In that year, a new team from Memphis took their place: the Memphis Red Sox. The owner of the Sox was Robert Stevenson (R. S.) Lewis, a Memphis undertaker who owned Barnett and Lewis Funeral Home. It was Lewis who, in 1923, built Lewis Park, which the white-owned Commercial Appeal promptly declared “the best negro park that has ever been erected in Memphis, and possibly the entire south.”

It was also in 1923 that the Red Sox left the Negro Southern League for the Negro National League. But the Negro National League had problems of its own, and three years later the Red Sox dropped out to join the reorganized Negro Southern League, which had reversed the first two words of its name and was now called the Southern Negro League. On May 16 of 1926, the Red Sox hosted the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, facing the great Satchel Paige. The home team won, 4-3.

Dr. McBee bases his history mainly on contemporary newspaper accounts and interviews with players, fans, spouses, and family members who were associated with the Red Sox. One local fan who was interviewed was Rufus Thomas, the entertainer perhaps best known for his 1970 hit “Do the Funky Chicken.” Fans who could not afford a ticket to Red Sox games could gain entrance by returning foul balls that were hit out of the park. That was how little Rufus, who was only five years old when the Red Sox started playing, got to see the hometown team play. Twenty years later, children were still waiting outside the park for foul balls so they could see the games for free; among them was Willie Herenton, the future mayor.

In the late 1920s ownership of the Red Sox passed from R. S. Lewis to a trio of African American physicians in Memphis: E. E. Nesbitt, J. B. Martin, and W. S. Martin (the Martins were brothers). In 1948, the Red Sox moved to a new stadium on Crump Boulevard, Martin’s Stadium, which could hold 8,500 spectators. The lounge and concession stand sold Gold Crest 51 and Falstaff beers, Coca Cola, and Nehi grape and strawberry sodas to drink; food included hot dogs, hamburgers, pretzels, barbecue from pigs roasted over a pit at the stadium, and, in a twist from the usual ballpark fare, chitterlings. Also unusual were the apartments along the left field side of the stadium that housed visiting players and unmarried team members.

With the integration of the formerly all-white Major League Baseball in 1947, the days of the Memphis Red Sox and the assorted Negro leagues were numbered. As the best black players in increasing numbers joined Major League teams, the relevance and appeal of the Negro leagues diminished. The Memphis Red Sox played their last game in 1959. The team disbanded in 1960.

As the Red Sox were becoming less and less relevant, the principal owner of the team, now the 70-year-old B. B. Martin, was becoming more and more out of touch with the new generation of black leaders. In 1959, the last year the Red Sox played a game, local blacks wanted to use Martin’s Stadium for a large political rally; among the participants would be the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and a young minister from Atlanta named Martin Luther King Jr. B. B. Martin refused to make his stadium available, apparently for the simple reason that it was his and didn’t want to share it.

In 1955, Martin’s Stadium hosted an all-star game in which the best players in the various Negro leagues competed against some of the top black players in Major League Baseball, among them Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays. The game drew a capacity crowd—unusual by then for such an event, and making it the last great moment for Negro league baseball in Memphis. “In Dixieland,” the Memphis World, one of the city’s black newspapers, reported, there was a time when “the sight of a Negro in a big league uniform was occasion for a national holiday”; but in 1955, the “Willie Mays–Don Newcombe troupe [was] playing to empty seats.”

The dissertation was completed at the University of Memphis under the direction of Charles W. Crawford.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Man of Many Ways

It was a remarkable incident, coming at the end of a spring and summer that had been full of remarkable incidents. On July 4, 1956, twenty-one-year-old Elvis Presley was on the last leg of a twenty-seven-hour train ride that was taking him home to Memphis. Over the past six months, the young entertainer had been on a whirlwind as his new record label, RCA, paraded him around New York and introduced him to the New York media. On January 28, he appeared live on television for the first time, on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show; two days later, he made his first recordings for RCA, including “Heartbreak Hotel”; then there were five more appearances on Stage Show. In April and early May he performed live on the Milton Berle Show, and on July 1, the Steve Allen Show. Then it was back to the RCA studios to record “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Elvis would soon be a superstar.

As the train approached the Memphis city limits, Elvis suddenly asked the conductor if the train could stop and let him off at White Station, a small community on the eastern fringes of the city. From White Station, he explained, he’d be just a short walk away from his house at 1034 Audubon Drive. The conductor, who probably had better things to do than to indulge this citified country boy with his ridiculous pompadour, nevertheless asked the engineer to stop the train. Carrying only the acetate cuts of the recordings he had made in New York, Elvis jumped out of the passenger car and walked down a grassy knoll to a sidewalk. “Where’s 1034 Audubon Drive?” he asked a woman who happened to be walking along the sidewalk at just that moment. She pointed the way. Still largely unknown to the public for probably the last time in his life, Elvis waved goodbye to the conductor and, all by his lonesome, started walking—walking home.

The story I’ve just told is captured in a series of five photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, photographs that, along with sixty-seven others by the same photographer, were on display in a Smithsonian exhibition in 2010 titled Elvis at 21. Wertheimer, who had been hired by RCA to photograph its new rising star, followed Elvis around that spring and summer, taking pictures of the young man from Memphis as he performed onstage in television studios, ate in greasy spoons and tablecloth restaurants, and smooched well-dressed girls in dimly lit hallways. Elvis, Wertheimer later recalled, was the perfect subject: “He permitted closeness and he made the girls cry.”

Wertheimer’s photographs, which can be seen on the photographer’s website, have been reproduced in a handsome book that was published in conjunction with the Smithsonian exhibition. Titled Elvis 1956, the book interleaves Wertheimer’s photographs with his brief observations on Elvis and the experience of photographing the future King of Rock and Roll in such intimate and unguarded moments. Wertheimer, who was only twenty-six at the time and had never heard of Elvis before taking on the RCA assignment, had virtually unlimited access to the entertainer; the result was an important portfolio of American images that captured a global icon in the making.

Elvis 1956 begins with three all-too-short essays that set the stage for the photographs. Chris Murray, founder and director of Govinda Gallery in Washington, compares the sensation Elvis made in 1956 with the sensation made by the invention of photography: things were never the same again, and both were received with fear and excitement. E. Warren Perry Jr., who grew up in Memphis and is a writer and researcher for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, draws on Joseph Campbell to compare Elvis to Odysseus—his spring and summer in New York corresponding to the Greek hero’s wanderings after the Trojan War—and to suggest that the pattern of Elvis’s life resembled that of a myth. Amy Henderson, a cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery, explores the “flashpoint of fame,” the precise moment when Elvis went from someone who could sit alone at a lunch counter to someone who needed a cordon of police officers to get from a car to a stage. Together, the essays and photographs present an America on the verge of great changes: the postwar civil rights movement was gathering steam; television would soon replace radio as the broadcast medium of choice; and a new form of popular music, typified by the charismatic and hip-shaking Elvis Presley, was bursting onto the scene.

The night Elvis returned to Memphis from New York, he gave a charity concert at Russwood Park, a wooden baseball stadium that stood in the 900 block of Madison Avenue. Three nights before, on the Steve Allen Show, Elvis’s performance had been carefully managed. But on the night of July 4, back in Memphis, Elvis was determined that things would be different. “Tonight,” he announced to the 14,000 fans who had gathered for the show, “you’re going to see what the real Elvis Presley is all about.” Happy are we who have Alfred Wertheimer’s photographs as a visual testimony to that night and to the real Elvis Aaron Presley.

Elvis 1956, which won ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year award, is published by Welcome Books of New York and may be ordered for $29.95 from the publisher’s website.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Local Man

In Memphis, city officials were caught off guard. If there were going to be a strike by the city’s sanitation workers, it would surely be a small one, too small to matter. After all, many of the workers were older men who were long used to a steady paycheck. And any large-scale strike required strong union leadership—stronger than the Memphis union probably had. So it was of considerable surprise, not only to the newly elected mayor and city council, but also to national union leaders, when fully 930 out of the city’s 1,100 sanitation workers did not show up for work on that 22-degree morning of February 12, 1968. Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, led by a former sanitation worker named T. O. Jones, was on strike. And how.

The history of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike is richly, and lovingly, chronicled in At the River I Stand, first published in 1985 and written by Joan Turner Beifuss. A former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ms. Beifuss moved to Memphis with her husband and children in 1966—and the world never looked the same to her again. “I grew up in a country club atmosphere in Tulsa,” Ms. Beifuss once explained. (She died in 1994, at the age of 63, from lung cancer.) “I didn't know any blacks except servants. I didn't realize problems existed. I fell into them with a vengeance when I came here. In Memphis, the field [was] fertile.”

President Obama meeting in 2011 with some of the sanitation workers who went on strike in Memphis in 1968. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.

Two years after Ms. Beifuss moved to Memphis, the sanitation workers’ strike began. Six weeks into the strike, on March 28, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march through the city’s downtown streets in support of the striking workers, many of whom carried the now-iconic signs reading “I AM A MAN.” Ms. Beifuss was one of the few white Memphians to march with Dr. King that day.

Dr. King would return to Memphis a week later. On April 3, in Mason Temple, he delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech. On the evening of the next day, as he stood in front of Room 306 on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was shot.

Lorraine Motel, 2012. Room 306 is marked by the white wreath. Photograph by DavGreg. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

News of the shooting began to spread through town. Eddie Jenkins, who was a member of the Black Students Association at Memphis State University, was working his shift at Pic Pac, a large grocery store. As he later recalled—and here I quote from Ms. Beifuss quoting Mr. Jenkins--“Things slowed down. People were saying, ‘Something’s happened. We don’t know what it is, but something’s happened.’ People felt it immediately. But what? Had another riot broke loose? There was a rumor. ‘Dr. King is hurt.’ I said, ‘Oh, no,’ but I figured somebody’s probably thrown a rock or something. Somebody said he’d gotten shot. I figured if he’s shot, he’s probably not shot bad. They wouldn’t let that happen to Dr. King. Whitey’s not that crazy.”

Dr. King, not even forty years old, died later that night.

The mayor of Memphis, Henry Loeb, was on his way to Ole Miss to speak to a group of law students when he got word from Sheriff Bill Morris of the shooting. The driver turned the car around and took the mayor straight to his office. He was there with Fred Davis, a city councilman, and the Reverend James Netters, the pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, when news came over the police intercom that Dr. King had died. Mayor Loeb, who, while insisting that the strike was illegal, had nevertheless been in close and frequent contact with union leaders, “was just stunned,” according to Mr. Davis. (Here I’m quoting Ms. Beifuss quoting Mr. Davis.) “We tried to comfort him a lot and I pulled myself together pretty good and he talked about God. Loeb had Rev. Netters pray. . . . And I just started crying uncontrollably. . . . Netters broke down. . . . I was crying and I couldn’t stop and at the same time I was trying to stop. I just didn’t want to do that there. Then Loeb broke down.”

Regarding the sanitation workers’ strike itself, the story Ms. Beifuss narrates is, in the main, familiar to many. The city’s sanitation workers, the vast majority of whom were black, had long been dissatisfied with their working conditions: there was no workmen’s compensation, the pay was low, and there was no pay at all if they could not work on account of rain. The union itself was hardly recognized by the city: many workers feared they would be fired if they joined. But if there was one event that caused the strike, it was the gruesome, accidental deaths of two sanitation workers. On the morning of January 30, Echol Cole (35) and Robert Walker (29) got caught in the hydraulic ram that mashed the garbage against the walls of the garbage truck. One of the men “was standing there on the end of the truck, and suddenly it looked like the big thing just swallowed him,” a woman who was looking out her kitchen window reported to one of the local newspapers. “His body went in first and his legs were hanging out.”

“We had complained about faulty equipment,” T. O. Jones, the president of Local 1733, later said. “We had told them.”

Flyer distributed to striking sanitation workers in Memphis,  1968. Source: National Archives.

If the main events chronicled in At the River I Stand are familiar, the response of one group of Memphians after the assassination of Dr. King is decidedly less so. A few days after the tragic event, with the sanitation strike still going on, black and white residents came together to form the Memphis Search for Meaning Committee. As Ms. Beifuss explains, the members of the committee “understood only dimly what had gone wrong and even less how and why the drama of labor dispute to racial crisis to catastrophe had played out all around them. But two things they were sure of. They had been witness to an important moment in American history. And it was crucial both for themselves and for their city to understand what had happened.”

One of the things the committee did was to record interviews with the people involved in the strike. That summer and fall, the committee, which Ms. Beifuss joined in its second week of existence, interviewed around 150 people, amassing 364 audio tapes representing an estimated 300 hours of recorded material and 8,000 pages of transcripts. The tapes and transcripts, along with other materials, are in the Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis library. Much of Ms. Beifuss’s account, such as the quotations above by Eddie Jenkins, Fred Davis, and T. O. Jones, is based on those interviews.

It was during the early days of the Memphis Search for Meaning Committee that Ms. Beifuss began writing her book. Seventeen years in the making, At the River I Stand is an extraordinary accomplishment—and a testament to Ms. Beifuss’s commitment to her story and the people involved. As she sifted through hundred of documents, transcripts, and other sources, she persevered without a publisher; indeed, as hard as it is to believe, At the River I Stand, which is a landmark scholarly work on a landmark event in our country’s history, was originally self-published. It was designed, printed, and bound in paperback by a Memphis company, Wimmer Brothers.

If publishers could not see the value in Ms. Beifuss’s study, the reading public certainly could. The first 1,000 copies sold out in two months. Another 1,000 copies were ordered, and those sold out fast too. Same with the third set of copies. In 1989, the book was finally properly published, in hardback, by Carlson Publishing as part of an 18-volume series on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. The editor of the series, David J. Garrow, wrote that “it will be a difficult task for any historian to write a better volume” on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. “Beifuss’ book merits the same level of scholarly regard as such rightfully-acclaimed civil rights community studies as William Chafe’s Civilities and Civil Rights on Greensboro and Robert J. Norrell’s Reaping the Whirlwind on Tuskegee.” In 1990, At the River I Stand was republished again in a revised trade edition by St. Lukes Press, of Memphis.

The sanitation strike ended on April 16, 1968, sixty-five days after it had begun. A pay raise, an official recognition by the city of the union, the union dues checkoff—Local 1733 won all it had fought for. The local still exists today.

[I thank John Beifuss Jr. for biographical information about his mother, the late Joan Turner Beifuss.]

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Forrest for the Trees

In the minds of most white people—at least most white people of a certain age, including, at one time, this white person—the civil rights movement began only in the 1960s. Until then—again, in the view of most whites—black Americans had either suffered in silence or perhaps had not suffered at all. I have often heard the older generation observe that “back then”—meaning the 1950s—“we had no problems.” As far as most white people are concerned, blacks did not fight for their rights or push back against white discrimination and intimidation until the 1960s, when they suddenly got angry and started marching in the streets. “They want everything,” my dear, great-aunt Sabina used to say circa 1972 as she habitually wrung her hands and paced across the floor of her shotgun house on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. “They’re taking over.”

That is why historical inquiries such as Donna Elizabeth Reeves’s 2008 dissertation are so valuable. Titled “Battle for an Image: Black Memphians Define Their Place in Southern History,” Dr. Reeves examines the reactions of black Memphians to an event that long predates the 1960s: the creation in 1931 of the Cotton Carnival. She also examines the comparatively recent reactions of black Memphians, and the counter-reactions of whites, to the equestrian statue and public park honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, both of which were dedicated in 1905. According to Dr. Reeves, the carnival, statue, and park were attempts by whites to affirm white supremacy and control the historical narrative—in particular, posterity’s understanding of the Civil War, plantation culture, and the slave economy. In reacting to those things, blacks sought to define their own role in and contributions to the Old, as well as the New, South. The battleground was the public space: whites attempted to claim the public space to the exclusion of blacks; blacks consistently met those attempts with claims of equal citizenship.

I’ll first take up the Cotton Carnival; then I’ll move on to the statue of Forrest.

The Cotton Carnival was started in 1931 by a group of Memphis businessmen, including the president of the Memphis Cotton Exchange, Everett Cook, to promote the sale and use of cotton. By that time, the price of cotton had fallen to just five cents a pound. Modeled on the city’s Mardi Gras celebrations of the 1870s—an intriguing topic in its own right—the inaugural Cotton Carnival featured a parade of eighty-six floats, a fashion show, and a king and queen to preside over the festivities. The gala event was designed to boost the economic standing of the crop that was so important to Memphis’s welfare.

Cotton Carnival, Memphis, Tennessee, 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
That, at least, is the official version of the story. Another version, which is advanced by Dr. Reeves, is that the carnival was not just about selling cotton; it was also about creating an image of the negro that was acceptable and congenial to Memphis whites—an image, in Dr. Reeves’s words, as “hapless, obtuse slaves.” Indeed, the express theme of the first carnival was the Old South. Blacks did participate, but only to “serve white partygoers.” Black women, dressed as mammies, greeted whites as they arrived at the carnival’s events, and black men dressed in white jackets and caps pulled the carnival’s floats.

It was the sight of black men pulling the floats that inspired the black reaction to the carnival. As the story goes, at the 1935 carnival, a black dentist named R. Q. Venson asked his young nephew Quincy, with whom he was watching the parade, if he liked what he was seeing. To the dentist’s surprise, Quincy said no; he did not like the fact that “all of the negroes were horses.” Bothered by his nephew’s remark, Dr. Venson, soon after that year’s carnival had ended, approached the organizers to ask if there could be “some kind of dignified role” for black citizens. Dr. Venson was told, in a word, no; one of the organizers, however, A. Arthur Halle, president of Phil A. Halle Department Store, “showed Venson some kindness” and suggested that the dentist start his own carnival, one specifically for blacks. Thus was born, in 1936, with the help of money raised from wealthy black Memphians such as Dr. J. E. Walker and Robert Church Jr., the Cotton Makers Jubilee, complete with king and queen. Its parade of floats rolled along Beale Street, and its grand marshal was W. C. Handy, the Father of the Blues.

As Dr. Reeves tells us, the Cotton Makers Jubilee, like the Cotton Carnival, wanted to promote cotton. But in keeping with Dr. Venson’s initial request, it had another goal as well. The organizers wanted to honor the labor and expertise that black slaves and, after them, black farmers applied to the cultivation of cotton: it was that work and that knowledge that had built the fortunes of many white Memphians. The jubilee was a serious-minded affair intended to present blacks in a respectful, constructive, and historically accurate light. “African Americans made a bold stand,” Dr. Reeves writes. “They [presented themselves as] cotton royalty. In their eyes black people occupied the space they should have had all along.”

Cotton Carnival, Memphis, Tennessee, 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
To my knowledge, Dr. Reeves’s dissertation is the only source that treats at any length the history of the Cotton Makers Jubilee; she takes the story to 1970, by which time many blacks had begun to criticize the jubilee and question its purpose. (In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., many of the city’s African Americans had come to believe that the jubilee was just “the Cotton Carnival in blackface.”) Most of her account draws on materials in the Venson family papers, which are at the Memphis public library. Among the papers are numerous essays that were written in connection with each jubilee, including a “somewhat stunning” essay written by Dr. Venson in 1941 that points to a class conflict among jubilee participants as it derides the formal education blacks sought at the time—an education that, in Dr. Venson’s words, “teaches [the black man] for the Bank president’s chair and then speedily places a mop and bucket in his hand.” Dr. Reeves quotes extensively from the essay, which exhorted black Memphians, in the manner of Booker T. Washington, to support the back-to-the-soil movement.

Now to the second subject discussed in Dr. Reeves’s dissertation, the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the eponymous park. For readers who are unfamiliar with Memphis, it needs to be explained that Forrest Park occupies an entire city block in the heart of a nationally renown medical center; it is bordered by two major thoroughfares, so anyone traveling east or west in the city is likely to pass it. The statue is, I have read, one-and-a-half-times life size. In short, it’s a big statue in a highly visible location.

For those readers who happen to be unfamiliar with Forrest, it should be explained as well that he was a slave trader, a Confederate cavalry general, and an early member—some say founder—of the Ku Klux Klan. It should also be pointed out that Forrest lived a good deal of his life in Memphis. By 1858 he had established himself in the city as a leading slave trader. After the Civil War, he returned to Memphis and spent his remaining twelve years there. He was president of the Marion & Memphis Railroad and, after that operation failed, ran a prison work farm on Presidents Island. He died in Memphis in 1877 and was buried in the city’s famous Elmwood Cemetery. That was where his remains lay until 1905, when they were reinterred under the equestrian statue in the park that bears his name. The unveiling and dedication ceremony, which occurred on May 16 of that year, attracted over 30,000 people.

Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Forrest Park, Memphis, Tennessee. Photograph by Thomas R. Machnitzki. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The statue of Forrest has been the target of isolated protests over the years, including, one would suspect, protests by black Memphians at the time of its dedication. I was therefore disappointed not to find in Dr. Reeves’s dissertation contemporary reactions of black Memphians to the statue and park. What did black Memphians say and write in 1905? Perhaps the documents simply do not exist. If that is the case, the author does not tell us. (Note: Through Duke University, I have access to an electronic database of historical black newspapers. I searched the database and found only one contemporary reference to the statue, from the Baltimore Afro-American of May 20, 1905; it simply read, “The bronze equestrian statue of Gen. Nathan B. Forrest was unveiled at Memphis, Tennessee.”)

The reactions Dr. Reeves documents begin in 1979, when a man named Isaac Richmond, an activist with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), read aloud at the base of the statute a petition demanding that the city tear the monument down, claiming that it was an “insult” to black Memphians. That year, racial tensions were again high in Memphis. The incumbent mayor, Wyeth Chandler, was running against a black candidate, a lawyer named Otis Higgs, who had also run against Chandler four years before. During the 1979 campaign a cross was burned in Higgs’s yard; another burning cross was tossed into the home of Higgs’s son, along with a note that read, “If not Otis, then his son.” To make matters worse, the Commercial Appeal, the city’s largest daily newspaper, chose that time to run a series of articles chronicling the recent growth of the Ku Klux Klan.

Since then, there have been other calls to remove the statue and rename the park. In 1988, a protest arose when the University of Tennessee Medical School, which sits catty-corner from the park, announced plans to hold a ceremony there honoring the retiring chancellor; the protestors argued that holding the event at Forrest Park would be tantamount to endorsing slavery and white supremacy. In 1999, Inward Journey, an African American activist organization, staged an event whose aim was not to have the statue removed but to reclaim the park by transforming it into a “shrine of healing.” The event was led in part by a man named Al Lewis, who in the 1970s had been a student at Shelby State Community College, whose campus sat right across the street from the park. In 2005, Walter Bailey, a local attorney and politician, led a campaign for the city to rename not only Forrest Park but Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park as well.

Forrest Park and the equestrian statue are still with us. Dr. Reeves ends her dissertation by arguing that as times, values, and attitudes change, so should our public monuments: those that are out of step should be removed from public land. The statue of Forrest, she writes, reprising one of her themes, “is about identity and who controls the public’s memory of historical events.”

Lost in the controversy is the statue itself, which, according to J. P. Young in his Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee (1912), was only the second monument erected in the city (the first was a small bust of Andrew Jackson in Court Square). It all began when the Forrest Monument Association was formed in 1891 to raise money for a statue in Memphis honoring the Confederate general. Nine years later the association invited sculptors to submit models; the winning model was that of Charles Henry Niehaus (1855-1935) of New York City, a popular American sculptor born in Cincinnati who is best known for the Francis Scott Key Memorial in Baltimore. Niehaus, who had studied in Germany and lived in Italy, made the model for the Forrest statue in New York and cast it in Paris at the foundry of E. Gruet Jeune. From there it was shipped back to New York, then by sea to Savannah. In Savannah it was held up over some confusion about a bridge on the seaboard being passable or not. The statue was then shipped by accident to Atlanta. There it remained for a month--suspected bridge troubles again, this time with the Cedartown bridge in Georgia. It began to look as if the statue would have to be sent back to Savannah and transported to Memphis by way of New Orleans. But it was from Atlanta that the statue finally made its way to the Bluff City. (The details about the statue’s itinerary come from the May 1905 issue of Granite, Marble, & Bronze, published in Boston.)

The statue was the subject of books and serials even before it was unveiled. A publication out of Chicago titled The Reporter, which billed itself as “a leading monthly magazine for monument workers and dealers,” updated its readers on Niehaus’s progress in its July 1904 issue. The sculptor “has spared nothing, even to the minutest detail, to make it a work of art.” Niehaus had examined three thousand horses before finding one that was a suitable model. “Even then, before making the casting the sculptor secured the services of a veterinarian to make sure there would not appear anything in the casting contrary to nature as shown in the equine race.” A 1903 book on the history of American sculpture by the Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft looked ahead to the statue's unveiling. “A photograph of the model gives promise of one of the best equestrian statues in the country.”

The dissertation was written at the University of Memphis under the direction of Dr. Janann Sherman.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Off the Island

One of the chief pleasures of reading a book like Memphis in Black and White, a compact, useful, general history of the Bluff City written by two University of Memphis professors, Beverly G. Bond and Janann Sherman, is encountering details I once knew but had forgotten or—more to the point—details I had never known before. Who knew, for instance, that Mud Island was inhabited by a community of squatters until 1964, when the city removed them in anticipation of one day developing the bothersome sandbar? The island—actually no island at all, attached as it is to the city at its northern end—first became visible in 1912, and almost from the start the city wanted to get rid of it. The initial fear was that it would obstruct the harbor, but no doubt the island’s thorn-in-the-side quality was sharpened by the sight of pauperized families living in makeshift dwellings of scrap lumber, tin, and tarpaper at the city’s doorstep. The squatters—among them, Effie Wingate, “the Queen of Mud Island”—were finally forced to leave, and ten years later the architect Roy Harrover began designing what would open in July of 1982 as a river park and museum, complete with a 2,000-foot-long model of the Mississippi River and a full-scale replica of an 1870s steamboat.

Model of Mississippi River on Mud Island, 2006. Photograph by Thomas R. Machnitzki. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Memphis in Black and White was published by Arcadia Press in 2003. Arcadia has made a living publishing short, illustrated, local—one might even say hyper-local—histories. The book by Professors Bond and Sherman is, however, not an illustrated history, although it contains several images; still, in keeping with Arcadia’s usual fare, the book is short (160 pages), especially given the period it covers: from the founding of the Indian town of Chucalissa around 1,000 A.D. in what today is extreme southwest Memphis, to the year of the book’s publication (reference is made to the opening of the Stax Museum in May of 2003). The “black and white” in the title refers to the two races that comprise the bulk of the city’s population and in terms of which everything in Memphis—and I mean everything—is conditioned, discussed, and understood.

Living up to the title of their book, Professors Bond and Sherman narrate an account of the black experience in Memphis that is perhaps missing from other histories of the city. In chapter 3 (“The Early Years”), we read about slave trading and slave hiring; about Memphis’s small population of free blacks; and about Nashoba, an “interracial utopian settlement.” Chapter 4 (“Boom Times on the Bluff”) discusses black schools (by 1888, there were five public schools for black children), black churches (Beale Street Baptist, at the corner of Beale and DeSoto, was the first brick structure owned by African Americans in Memphis), and black newspapers such as the Mississippi Baptist (which began in 1872) and the Free Speech and Headlight, of which Ida B. Wells was part owner and editor. In their account of the disastrous yellow fever epidemic of 1878, the authors refer to one Graphtil Moody, who was one of the city’s first black schoolteachers, and R. H. Tate, the first African American physician to practice in Memphis. Mentioned by name are a dozen or so black men who were politically active in Memphis as the nineteenth century drew to a close; among them was Lymus Wallace, who, from 1882 to 1890, was a city alderman. Victims of lynching are also mentioned by name—Calvin McDowell, Will Stewart, Tom Moss, Lee Walker, Ell Persons; in the case of Walker and Persons we are given descriptions of their murders. We read about two black musicians, Alberta Hunter and “Memphis Minnie” McCoy, and about black women’s reform associations such as the Phillis Wheatley Club and the Daughters of Zion. There is an entire chapter devoted to the postwar civil rights movement, culminating in the desegregation of the school system in the early 1970s, the election of Harold Ford Sr. to Congress in 1974, the election of Willie Herenton as mayor of the city in 1991, and the election of A. C. Wharton as mayor of Shelby County in 2002. That is all on top of the familiar black figures and institutions that already occupy significant or iconic places in the city’s history. Beale Street, WDIA, Robert R. Church Sr., Robert Church Jr., Ida B. Wells, Tom Lee, Lieutenant George W. Lee, W. C. Handy, B. B. King, Rufus Thomas, and Benjamin Hooks are all represented in Bond and Sherman’s account.

Beale Street Baptist Church, 1974. Photograph by Jack E. Boucher. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
To be sure, Memphis “in white” is represented, too. We read about James Winchester, Andrew Jackson, and John Overton, the three men who in 1819 planned the new town of Memphis; the entrepreneur Clarence Saunders, who in 1916 opened Piggly Wiggly, reputed to be the first self-service grocery store in America; and of course E. H. Crump, the political boss of Memphis during the first half of the twentieth century. Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley, Fred Smith and Kemmons Wilson—they appear in the story too. There’s Samuel T. Carnes, who, in the 1870s and 1880s, brought electricity and telephone service to the city; Kenneth McKellar, Tennessee’s longtime U.S. senator and Memphis resident who helped direct New Deal funds and projects to the city; and Roy Harrover, the designer of Mud Island mentioned at the outset. Even Sidney Shlenker, the Denver huckster who came to town in 1989 with a suitcase full of promises, makes an appearance. (A footnote on Mr. Shlenker: A highway accident in 1998 left him a paraplegic; he died in 2003 of heart failure in Los Angeles, at the age of 66.)

Constructing the lists in the preceding two paragraphs reminds me that, for most of its history, Memphis has lacked leaders who thought boldly, progressively, and ambitiously while having the political will and political standing to make things happen. Black leaders in the past may have been courageous—I’m thinking here of Ida B. Wells; if there is a hero in Professor Bond and Sherman’s book, it is certainly the intrepid journalist from Holly Springs—but no black was going to have much of an impact in a society committed to discrimination and ruled by the notion of white supremacy. For their part, white leaders have been too committed to defending the status quo. The authors’ appraisal of Boss Crump—that, for all his autocratic ways, he established a “progressive” city government with “good schools” and “top fire and police services,” that “the overwhelming majority of Memphians, black and white, were happy to let [him] manage their city”—deserves a cross-examination.

I often think of Henry Loeb, the mayor of Memphis during the famous sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. If history—or at least local history—had ever presented an opportunity to someone to be great, it was at that moment. But to be fair to Mayor Loeb, was there any white Southern politician at the state or local level in that era who took even a few tentative steps toward racial equality? (I won’t fool myself by thinking that, had I been Henry Loeb in 1968, I would have acted any differently.) To fast forward to 1991, those who hoped for progressive leadership from Willie Herenton—and especially those who believed his election meant the bottom rail was now on top—were in time disappointed by his megalomaniacal ways and his own brand of cronyism. A true champion of the people, one who can mobilize support for the city’s depleted public services and attract a generation’s worth of good-paying jobs—all the while remaining honorable and ethical—is yet to emerge.

On its own terms, Memphis in Black and White is a successful book, and I’m glad we have it. But, as I’m sure the authors would agree, the history of Memphis is too complex, the interplay of its past and present too tangled, to be given its due in a mere 160 pages. A contemporary, scholarly, full-length treatment of this heartbreaking city on the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff remains to be written.