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. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Alamo, Alamas, Alamat

Memphians proudly say that Memphis has torn down more history than most cities ever had. With all due respect to Memphis’s lack of respect for its historic structures--and it has been considerable--that is no doubt a slight exaggeration, and, having seen the changes in my current city of residence, Durham, North Carolina, over the past thirteen years, I would imagine that any city could make such a boast—if a boast it is.

One excellent guide to the history that has been torn down in Memphis—indeed, one excellent guide to Memphis, period—is Eugene J. Johnson and Robert D. Russell Jr.’s Memphis: An Architectural Guide. Published in 1990 by the University of Tennessee Press, the book is an enormously valuable catalog of existing, as well as “lost,” buildings and houses in the Bluff City. Among the lost the authors especially bewail are the Cossitt Library, the Romanesque, turreted structure made of red sandstone (thankfully, a portion of the old building, attached to the current Cossitt Library building, still exists); Temple Israel, with its horseshoe-arch portal and twin towers; the Memphis Steam Laundry, a “genuine Venetian palace”; and the Alamo Plaza Motel, a Spanish-Colonial-style complex with a double-arched frontispiece that, until 1988, stood at 2862 Summer Avenue.

By the time I came of age, most of the lost buildings Johnson and Russell document were already, well, lost, but not the Alamo: I remember seeing the picturesque motel on our weekend drives along Summer Avenue en route to the zoo or Confederate Park. Of course, at the time, with little experience behind me, unaware that what is here today can be gone tomorrow—the heartbreak!—I took the Alamo—its special appearance, its place in the history of the American motel—for granted. As our green and stifling Torino station wagon rolled by, my three siblings and I shoved into the back where the air conditioning didn’t reach, I didn’t think, “There’s the Alamo! Isn’t it wonderful? Look at its false façade!” I was probably too busy punching my sister in the arm and fending off her considerable counterattacks to think about anything at all. If a thought did cross my mind, it was probably why the Alamo was here, in Memphis, when it was supposed to be in Texas; I would have then no doubt tried to imagine Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie hiding behind the hotel’s beds and vanities, patiently awaiting their tragic fate.

Since the publication of Memphis: An Architectural Guide in 1990, many more old buildings in Memphis have been torn down, although hardly any of them were as irreplaceable as the old Cossitt Library or the Alamo Motel. The two losses that hurt me the most were the old Buntyn restaurant on Southern and the main library on Peabody and McLean. Neither was architecturally important—consider that in a book as otherwise comprehensive as Johnson and Russell’s is, neither is granted an entry; but at least they were in some way unique. And that’s the point; on my numerous visits to Memphis over the past twenty years, I have more and more found myself at intersections in the heart of the city at which I am surrounded by the any-town sameness of chain-store “architecture.” Last year, the Union Avenue Methodist Church, built in 1923 and which does have an entry in Johnson and Russell’s guide (they did not think much of the building in relation to its cramped site), was sold to the drug-store chain CVS, which razed the old building and replaced it with one of their drug stores. And just this past January, the old Fortner Furniture building at National and Summer, with its landmark red clock, was torn down for what will be a Family Dollar store.

But Johnson and Russell’s book is not for what has been lost but for what is still with us. I won’t count them, but I’d estimate at least four hundred houses, school buildings, government buildings, commercial buildings, and the like are documented in the book. At least four hundred! There are twenty-two entries alone for the Vance-Pontotoc district. Browsing through the book’s 394 pages is like strolling through the city, running into old friends (“Hello, Pink Palace! How are you, Memphis Brooks Museum?”) but even more so encountering ones that have been under your very nose all this time but were never noticed before.

Here are excerpts from entries on some of Memphis’s still-existing iconic structures:
  • Lowenstein and Brothers Building, 1882 (72 North Main Street): “This is one of the great remaining commercial structures of the nineteenth century in Memphis, and probably Baldwin’s [the architect, Mathias Harvey Baldwin] finest building. On the long Jefferson Avenue side there is a clever play in rhythm between the cast-iron and brick piers. . . . Even in its ruinous state, the building still exerts its quirky power.”
  • “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” 1977: “A memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by one of the leading black sculptors of the day [Richard Hunt]. . . . an abstract mountain of Cor-Ten steel that rises directly from the pavement. . . . The Hunt sculpture is not as rhetorical as the speech [for which it is named], but it makes its point eloquently.”
  • Kimbrough Towers, 1939 (corner of Kimbrough Place and Union Avenue): “One of the finest Art Deco structures in the city. Particularly strong are the vertical projections that articulate each side of the asymmetrically planned mass. 
  • Memphis College of Art, 1956 (Overton Park): “To get the commission for this building, the architects won a competition juried by Philip Johnson and Paul Rudolph. Once finished, the building got an award from Progressive Architecture, a blessing few other buildings in the city have received. . . . The building has a grace and an openness that fit it well into the large trees that rise around it.”
  • Agricenter, 1986 (7777 Walnut Grove Road): “A powerful steel-and-glass building that is one of the most exciting structures built in Memphis in recent years. . . . Architecturally, this is a much more interesting exercise in pyramid-building than the [actual] Pyramid [downtown].”
Agricenter. Photograph by Thomas R. Machnitzki. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I was surprised by the discussion of the old Dixie Homes housing project that stood in the 900 block of Poplar Avenue (it was demolished in 2006 and replaced by a development named Legends Park), which, say the authors, represents “one of the high moments in the history of Memphis architecture.” In the book is a photograph showing a bird’s-eye view of the project that reveals its “Baroque qualities,” which, the authors explain, are reminiscent of the grounds of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. “Indeed, the quality of the design is rarely matched in public housing in this country or even in Europe.”

Writing in 1990, before the unimaginable and utterly remarkable transformation of downtown took place—certainly the most significant development in Memphis since I left in 1989, even more significant than the election of our first black mayor, in 1991—the authors were not sanguine about the present condition of the city or its prospects. Ravaged by urban renewal, forsaken by white flight, and its development conditioned not by sound principles of urban planning but by the wantonness of the private automobile, Memphis was “fragmented”; the city had “turned its back on the original reason for its existence,” leaving downtown standing “forlornly apart, facing away from the rest of the city.” “The urban tragedy of present-day Memphis is that it is now trying to be a city without a center,” they wrote, and they quote an article from the Commercial Appeal that predicted that the cylindrical Hilton Memphis Hotel at Poplar and I-240 will be “the maypole around which Memphis will revolve.” Memphis is still a city without a center—but so are all American cities. America does many things well, but cities are not one of them.

As icing on the cake, the book is also a primer in architecture, containing a helpful eight-page glossary of architectural terms and a list of suggested readings.

For more on the old Alamo Plaza Motel, including photographs, see this post from December 2008 in Ask Vance.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

1969 Poplar

Memphis was abuzz in the mid-1980s when word got out that Amy Carter, daughter of President Jimmy Carter, was in town enrolled at the Memphis Academy of Arts, today known as the Memphis College of Art, located in Overton Park, just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. One day during that brief period of abuzz I happened to be in line at the old Davis-Kidd bookstore in the Laurelwood Shopping Center. In front of me was a woman around my age with long, and I thought rather scraggly, blonde hair who looked a bit odd—and familiar. I took a good look at her and thought she might be, could be, the president’s daughter. I wanted to make sure, but didn’t know how. To intrude on her anonymity as she stood in line seemed rude and, even more so, pathetic. Why should I care if she were Amy Carter? Was my life so dull that I needed contact with--let's face it--a complete stranger to jazz it up? (Evidently.) As she stepped to the cash register, I took what was surely my last chance to ascertain her identity before she walked out of the store and out of my life, to the pitifully slight degree that she had walked into my life in the first place, forever. I managed to sneak a peek at the credit card she held out to the sales clerk. Sure enough, the name on the card was Amy Carter.

Such was my brush with presidential fame, and my brush, no pun intended, with the Memphis Academy of Arts, which never figured into my life during my residence in Memphis. (It did later, however; I’ll explain at the end.) And why should it have? I was no artist, and I knew hardly anybody who was an artist. To the extent that I thought of the college at all, I thought it was odd that it should be in such a place as Memphis, which, despite its two art galleries, I never regarded as a center of high culture.

Rust Hall, Memphis College of Art
Douglas W. Cupples has made me think otherwise. Dr. Cupples is an instructor in the Department of History at the University of Memphis, and he has written an illuminating article on the history of art education in the city. Published in 2008 in the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, the article, whose main title is “From Atelier to the MFA (Then on to the Altelier),” makes the case that modern Memphis was not quite the “Southern backwater” and “decaying Mississippi River town” that Time magazine consigned it to be in the days immediately following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Quite the contrary. Memphis could boast of a “strong cultural history and a devoted core of support for the arts,” avers Dr. Cupples. I had to read on; could that be true?

The answer is . . . well, you must be able to guess what the answer is. Dr. Cupples lists the numerous art programs and institutions that existed in the city around the time of Dr. King’s assassination: there was the Brooks Gallery; there was the New York Metropolitan Opera, which made yearly visits to the Bluff City (Memphis was one of only six cities in the hinterland so honored); there were the music and theater departments at Memphis State University, departments that had produced no fewer than three divas and were the first to stage an off-Broadway production of the Broadway sensation Hair; there was the Memphis Symphony Orchestra; there was the novelist-turned-historian Shelby Foote, who was writing his brilliant Civil War trilogy in the study of his Memphis home; and there was of course the Memphis Academy of Arts.

The Memphis Academy of Arts began in 1936 with a defection from an already existing art school in Memphis, the James Lee Memorial Academy, which was located in two houses on the block of Adams Avenue preserved today as Victorian Village. The James Lee Memorial Academy was overseen by one Florence Makin McIntyre—more on her in a few moments—and offered classes in all of the traditional fine arts as well as providing performance space for three theaters.

But not all was well at the Lee Academy, as some instructors found the “rigid classicism” of Ms. McIntyre, who had studied at the Art Institute in Chicago, too intolerable. Two in particular—a popular husband-and-wife team named George and Harriet Oberteuffer—left the academy, bringing several students with them, and started the Mid-South School of Fine Arts. When the older Lee Academy shut its doors in the early 1940s, its buildings, which several years before had been deeded to the city, were offered by the mayor to the rebellious Mid-South School, which by then had changed its name to the Memphis Academy of Arts. 

Memphis was home to several women who played active roles in the arts, either as artists or as founders and administrators of art academies. Most significant was Florence Makin McIntyre (1875–1963), whom we’ve already met as the force behind the James Lee Memorial Academy and who, in Dr. Cupples’s estimation, was “the foundation of the city’s great leap forward” in the realm of the arts. After studying art in Chicago and living for a few years in Philadelphia, Ms. McIntyre returned to her native city to help establish, in 1914, the Memphis Art Association of the Nineteenth Century Club. Two years later, she became the first director of the new Brooks Gallery.

There are several other persons and academies that figure into the history of art education in Memphis--most notably the late Ted Rust, who directed the Memphis Academy of Arts for twenty-six years--but I’ll leave the reader to learn about those himself by reading Dr. Cupples’s article, which presents a side of Memphis that was unknown to me before and that I am grateful for knowing now.

1969 Poplar Avenue
To return to the Memphis College of Art. For years, my old guitar teacher, Gay Ricardo Fusco, and his wife Georgia lived in a Spanish-style apartment building at 1969 Poplar Avenue, just across the street from Overton Park and the art college. Mr. Fusco died in 1984, but Georgia continued to live in the apartment, and for many years I harbored a fantasy to one day return to Memphis and live at that very same address. Alas, sometime around 2000, the college purchased the apartment building to use as a dormitory for its students. For me, knowing now that I would never live in the Fuscos’ old apartment, that was sad news to learn.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Memphis Pumping Stations Subject of New Book

Memphis has long been famous for its superior drinking water, and, as I just learned from a post on Ask Vance, there's now a book celebrating the pumping stations that are part of the city's water system. The book, written by James K. Ingram and self-published through Blurb, is an illustrated history titled Memphis Water Works Pumping Stations: The Story of Memphis, Tennessee's Artesian Water Supply and the MLG&W Water Division in the Era of Steam Machinery. The entire book can be previewed at the publisher's website. The seventy-four-page book is chock-full of images, including a gorgeous color illustration on page 11 of Hernando De Soto, mounted on a white horse and surrounded by Indians, viewing the Mississippi River from the Chickasaw Bluffs; the illustration adorned the cover of a 1903 supplement to the "house-warming edition" of the Memphis Evening Scimitar.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Earthquake Research at the University of Memphis

The latest issue of Science in Context, a scholarly journal published by Cambridge University Press, is devoted to histories of earthquake science and response. One of the articles in the issue, “Accounts of the New Madrid Earthquakes: Personal Narratives across Two Centuries of North American Seismology,” by Conevery Bolton Valencius, discusses the founding and scholarly output of the Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI), which was created in 1977 at the University of Memphis. Much of the center’s research has relied on historical narratives. CERI is currently finishing a decade-long project of compiling a complete set of newspaper accounts of the 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes, which, among other things, created Reelfoot Lake in northwestern Tennessee. The project, known as the New Madrid Compendium, is being led by Kent Moran.

Conevery Bolton Valencius is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her article, which was published in 2012, appears in volume 25, number 1, of Science in Context.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Seeing Red

In surveying the list of dissertations written about Memphis in the past few years—a recent ProQuest search revealed that no fewer than twenty-three have appeared since 2007—it’s been good to see Dr. Charles Crawford’s name attached to some of them. Dr. Crawford was in the history department when I was a student at the University of Memphis in the mid-1980s. He was an advocate for oral history when oral history was still struggling to gain acceptance as a legitimate scholarly enterprise, and if I could do it all over again, I’d make sure to take a course or two from him.

One of the dissertations Dr. Crawford recently supervised was by John L. Bass, who, under Dr. Crawford’s guidance, produced in 2009 an extensively researched study of Communist activity in Memphis in the middle part of the twentieth century. Titled “Bolsheviks on the Bluff: A History of Memphis Communists and Their Labor and Civil Rights Contributions, 1930–1957,” the work begins with a brief history of the Communist Party in the South and then discusses Communist activity in Memphis beginning in 1930, the earliest year for which the author could obtain papers of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) that mentioned Memphis. He ends his story in 1957, the year in which Tennessee formally banned Communist activity in the state. Communists in Memphis during that period usually had to act in secret: anti-Communist sentiment in the city was high—no surprise there—and anyone caught working on behalf of the Communist Party was subject to firing, arrest, or worse.

As Dr. Bass reports, in the 1940s Communists in Memphis played a large role in thwarting the machine rule of Edward Hull Crump, the longtime “Boss” of Memphis. Their biggest success was in helping to create Local 19 of the CIO’s United Cannery, Agricultural Production, and Allied Workers of America. Many members of Local 19 were African American, and the training they received from the union with respect to organizing helped them in their fight for civil rights. In the immediate postwar years, Memphis Communists helped build a chapter of the National Negro Congress in the city, and they participated in many strikes, including one in 1946 at the four plants operated in the city by the Buckeye Cotton Oil Company.

In Dr. Bass’s study we meet the leading figures in the Memphis chapter, as it were, of the national Communist Party, beginning with Horace Davis, who in 1929 arrived in Memphis as a visiting professor at Southwestern (today’s Rhodes College). Troubled by the expressions of racism he heard from his students—he had asked if they believed lynching justified, to which nearly all replied in the affirmative—he soon joined, along with his wife Marion, the CPUSA. The two were arrested for trying to organize a meeting in Confederate Park to protest the arrest of six Atlanta Communists. When Horace’s contract with Southwestern expired, it was not renewed, and he and his wife left the city. Perhaps the most interesting leader, according to Dr. Bass, was Reuel Stanfield, who was in Memphis from 1942 to 1944 and who, along with two men named Frank Bruno and Morton Davis, organized an IWA-CIO local at the E. Bruce Lumber Company. Morton Davis himself took charge of training black workers to take on leadership roles in CIO unions. Davis also reconciled Marxist theory with Christian doctrine, in the process forming links with local black churches. John Mack Dyson led Local 19 for eight years and helped desegregate the Memphis chapter of the CIO. Other Communist activists were Lee Lashley, Henderson Davis, and Ed McCrea, as well as Al Greenberg, William “Red” (his hair color) Davis (Morton’s brother and the first Memphis native who was a Party organizer), and Lawrence McGurty.

In constructing his account of Communists in Memphis, Dr. Bass was determined “to leave no stone unturned,” and I believe him. His admirable bibliography is fifty-pages long, and in addition to consulting a wealth of secondary sources and newspapers and periodicals of the time (the Daily Worker, the Southern Worker, and the UCAPAWA News, to name just three), he examined papers in several archival collections, including the CIO’s Operation Dixie Papers, which are housed at Duke University; the papers of the Communist Party USA, which can be found at Emory University; and the National Negro Congress, which are at the University of North Carolina. The author even obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI’s Memphis Division files. I was surprised to see the papers of Boss Crump listed in the bibliography. The last I read, Crump’s papers, which are in the main public library in Memphis, had not been released to the public. Could an authoritative, scholarly biography of the controversial political leader, two parts bully, one part benefactor, be far behind?

Communist activity in Memphis was not homegrown; rather, the party sent people to Memphis to organize workers and others who proved themselves sympathetic to the cause. The movement effectively ended in the 1950s when, under the intensification of the Red Scare, its allies stopped supporting it and the Memphis Communists were expelled from the local chapter of the CIO.

Perhaps the legacy of the Memphis Communists, Dr. Bass suggests, lies in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1940s and 1950s Memphis Communists were virtually the only whites willing to work on social-justice issues with blacks; in the process, black workers learned organizational tactics that proved useful in the political battles ahead.

For another recent dissertation supervised by Dr. Crawford, see my post on Paul W. White's study of the old Kennedy General Hospital.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Great Scott!"

Well, UCLA may have "pounded" us in 1973, but I'll have you know, Ms. Christian-Science-Monitor writer, we loved that team and we were nevertheless, as you point out, part of the first NCAA basketball tournament that was televised. I still remember my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Lubin, at Bartlett Elementary gathering us all around the black-and-white television in the classroom to watch live footage of the team, led by Larry Finch, returning from St. Louis.

There's much more to say about the Tigers' complicated run to the final and white Memphis's pleasure in it. (Indeed, there's a book waiting to be written about race and basketball in Memphis.) The run occurred barely five years after the epic sanitation workers' strike (superbly chronicled in Joan Turner Beifuss's At the River I Stand) and Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in the city. When Larry Finch, who was black, died in 2011, every commentator in town tripped over each other to pronounce--predictably--that he and the 1973 team had "healed" the city, uniting black and white.

Here are ten minutes of audio from Jack Eaton's exciting call of the game.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Heroic Memphis

When Gerald M. Capers Jr. set out to write in the 1930s what would become a history of Memphis from its beginnings to 1900, he believed he was charting new territory for historians—or at least urging them to move into territory that was properly theirs. Indeed, as Capers points out in his foreword, historiography itself was changing: social and economic history had finally attained a status formerly reserved only for political history, and it was now time to write the history of the United States “from the bottom up,” rather than “from the top down.” Needed now were sectional histories, histories of the great plains, the Pacific coast, the Appalachians—and above all, histories of cities. “Cities,” Capers writes, “are often more representative of fundamental economic interests than artificial political divisions like states.” As he worked on his history of Memphis, a history that began as a PhD dissertation at Yale University and was eventually published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1939 under the title The Biography of a River Town: Memphis; Its Heroic Age, he became convinced of the importance of cities as a subject for historians. “An adequate biography of any of our key cities—New York, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Kansas City, and a dozen more—would be more significant to the national epic than the biography of even so prominent a figure as Theodore Roosevelt.” It was high time, Capers announced, that the modern-day Herotodus turn his or her attention to the great American metropolises, scholarly treatments of which were “primarily and fundamentally the job of the historian.”

In Capers’s estimation, the most important sectional division in the country was that between the eastern seaboard and what used to be regarded as the West—that region of the country between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. And even that section had to be divided into an upper and lower West. And no city—not even New Orleans—more epitomized the lower West than Memphis.

Capers’s “biography” presents a Memphis that was rough-hewn out of the forests on the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, went through growing pains as it evolved into a “flatboat town,” then enjoyed a boom time in the 1840s and 1850s as its economy flourished with the cotton trade. The city had just gotten back to “normality” after the disruption of the Civil War when it was nearly wiped off the face of the map by the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s, especially the 1878 breakout, only to rise again “heroically” and take its place as one of the leading cities of the South by the turn of the last century.

Clearly, Professor Capers, who died in 1992, felt a lot of affection for Memphis, and his book was written in an age whose scholarship was dominated by white men of a certain sort, men from educated, prosperous, and well-connected families who believed they were in a position to speak intelligently and authoritatively on behalf of all classes and races and who, in their writings, tended to rationalize the existing order if they nevertheless felt discomfited by it. In short, one could have expected Professor Capers to write a history of Memphis that was in many ways self-serving, one that affirmed a particular, and partial, vision of what the city, in all its complexity, really was. Yet his history is not that. He for instance documents the race riot of 1866, and although he does not approach the subject of African Americans with the sensibilities of the present-day white liberal—sensibilities that, however well intentioned, are often hypocriticalin the last chapter of his book Capers regrets that we know so little about Memphis’s black citizens. The fifty thousand or so blacks who lived in the city during the last two decades of the nineteenth century “kept no diaries” (no doubt untrue), and only their criminal actions were reported in the newspapers. But in the course of his lament, Capers drops this: “No files have been preserved of the first Negro paper, the Memphis Free Speech, started by a woman in 1890, for its tone grew so militant that a mob burned its press.” Unapologetic details like that one abound in Professor Capers’s book and make it such a rich and valuable account, and his reference to the unnamed Ida B. Wells can only be admired.

The Biography of a River Town is immensely useful for several reasons, not least of which are the annotated bibliography at the end and the numerous statistical tables scattered throughout its pages. Especially interesting to this writer is the table of postbellum cotton statistics for Memphis showing the number of bales received, the dollar value of the bales, and the number of bales produced in the country as a whole. But do not miss table 7, which lists well over fifty productsamong the more colorful are oakum, gunny sacks, and cloverseedthat were shipped to Memphis in 1861 to in turn be transported to other markets. The largest, as one might expect, was cotton, of which over $18 million dollars’ worth had been received in the city that year. Even then, Memphis was already an important distribution center.

Gerald M. Capers, who was a professor of history at Tulane University, was born in 1909 and received his undergraduate education at Rhodes College in Memphis (back then it was known as Southwestern). He wrote a second edition of his book in 1966, in part because in the quarter century since the first edition had been published, “a lot of Yankees who occasionally read local history have moved to Memphis.”