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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lift That Bale

In Memphis, cotton is king. Or so I heard growing up in the city in the 1970s and 1980s. But by the time I reached the age of maturity, cotton culture in Memphis was scarcely visible. Or I should say the buying and selling of cotton—the great commercial enterprise upon which Memphis was built in the decades after the Yellow Fever scourge of 1878 had nearly wiped out the town—were scarcely visible. To be sure, cotton—or at least the idea of cotton—was present in other ways. Downtown there was the old King Cotton hotel; in the grocery stores one could find King Cotton brand lunch meats; and, above all, there was the annual Cotton Carnival, Memphis’s much less grand, and much less debauched, version of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. But long gone were the days when farmers from the Mississippi Delta and western Tennessee would bring their crop of white gold into town to sell it on the spot to merchants on Front Street. And the lint-covered merchants who had once conducted their business so publicly, stationed elbow to elbow on the four or five blocks of Front Street that became known as Cotton Row, milling about in the Cotton Exchange Building and the downtown diners, were now hidden away in air-conditioned office buildings in the suburbs.

Cotton merchants in Memphis, 1939. Photo by Marion Post Walcott.
Still, I felt proud of Memphis’ connection to cotton, and still do, so I was gratified to see in D. Clayton Brown’s King Cotton in Modern America: A Cultural, Political, and Economic History since 1945 (University Press of Mississippi, 2011) an entire chapter devoted to cotton culture in Memphis. The chapter, which is titled “Memphis: The Epicenter of the Cotton Belt,” surveys the history of cotton in Memphis as it looks at cotton culture in the city from several illuminating angles, including the media (the offices of Cotton Farming magazine are in Memphis), Beale Street, and the Peabody Hotel, where the founding meeting of the National Cotton Council took place in 1938. (The National Cotton Council has been headquartered in Memphis since the beginning. For decades it was in a colonial-style building at 1918 North Parkway but in 2008 it moved to suburban Cordova.). There is an extended discussion of the Cotton Carnival, which was first held in 1931, and its black equivalent, the Cotton Makers Jubilee, of which, I must confess, I had been unaware before reading Brown’s book. The original Cotton Carnival was, aside from the blacks whose job it was to pull the floats, an all-white affair. In 1936, several of Memphis’ black citizens organized their own version of the carnival, the Cotton Makers Jubilee. (The name was later changed to the Memphis Kemet Jubilee in honor of black Egyptian culture.) Today, the Cotton Carnival exists as Carnival Memphis; that the name no longer retains the word cotton attests to the displacement of cotton from the center of the city’s economy; it also attests, I would imagine, to the powerful and often painful associations the word carries.

In his chapter, Brown gives us a glimpse of the colorful mule markets that used to be numerous in the city, a part of the city’s history that had been unknown to me. Before tractors became the norm on the cotton farms surrounding Memphis—and they did not until well after World War II—mules were used to pull the plows that would break the land and prepare the soil for planting. As recently as 1946 twenty-two mule yards were in the city; in that year alone Owens Brothers, which was the largest of the mule-trading operations, auctioned forty-five thousand of the plow-pulling animals. 

Brown ends his chapter with a look at cotton in today’s Memphis. Memphis has always been a center of cotton marketing, and there are still merchants in the city today. There are a lot fewer, and most of them are located far away from the old Cotton Row (two notable exceptions are the Turley Cotton Company and Lyons Cotton, Inc., which have their offices in the Cotton Exchange Building itself; they were recently joined by Jabbour Cotton, so now there are three), but no doubt a respectable number of cotton bales are still sold through Memphis merchants: Allenberg Cotton and Cargill Cotton, both located in Memphis, are two of the largest cotton merchandisers in the world. Cotton trading has also gone high-tech. In 2000, the Seam, an online cotton-trading site, was launched; formed by an organization of cotton merchants, including three from Memphis, its headquarters is in the Bluff City.

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