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. 

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