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.]