Monday, June 19, 2017

Unfinished Business

This book—Zandria F. Robinson’s This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-soul South—has pinned me to the wall. Before reading it, I often wondered if African Americans who were born and raised in the South thought of themselves as Southerners. Why would they want to identify with a region with a history of enslaving and oppressing black people? And now as I write, I wonder why I’ve never asked. Ah, yes. Well. Like I said, this book has pinned me to the wall.   

I now know the answer. And how black Southerners have made the South their own is the subject of Professor Robinson’s impressive and ambitious book. Although the word Memphis does not appear in the title, This Ain’t Chicago, which was published in 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press and is part of its New Directions in Southern Studies series, is grounded in the Memphis experience. Professor Robinson, a born-and-bred Memphian herself and a sociologist at Rhodes College, takes stock of interviews she conducted with black Memphians—as well as of music and especially television programs and film—to “explore how region intersects with other axes of identity and difference in the black South.”

Professor Robinson conducted the field work for the book while she was a PhD student at Northwestern University, in Chicago. The main title comes from the responses of her interview subjects when she presented them with consent forms on Northwestern letterhead. “This ain’t Chicago,” they would say upon seeing the stationery—by which they meant that the black experience in the South was distinct from that in Chicago and other parts of the country.

That response—that assertion of a unique Southern black experience—is at the heart of the book. Region is the key element. As Professor Robinson explains, the South as a place, once a central focus of sociological studies, fell out of favor after World War II, as scholars became more interested in problems that could be treated as national or global in scope. Nevertheless, it is regional identity that black Southerners—or more properly, young black Southerners—have recently added, or reintroduced, to the mix of race, gender, and class that forms and informs their identities. Many black Southerners who came of age during the 1950s and 1960s—that is, before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—disowned the South, representing as it did for them racism, violence, and oppression. It’s the millennials and the hip-hop generation who “boldly and defiantly claim a regional identity as a distinction, a significant nuance to their racial identities.” As a 32-year-old waitress and returning college student interviewed by Professor Robinson put it, “We just do things better down here.” It would be hard to imagine that same waitress saying the same thing fifty years ago—which is exactly the point.

That Memphis does not appear in the title is deliberate: Professor Robinson intends her study to comment on and illuminate black life in the South generally. Yet Memphis is the ideal place to center her study, she says. The Bluff City “sits at the physical, temporal, and epistemological intersection of rural and urban, soul and post-soul, and civil rights and post–civil rights.” Because of that, Memphis stands in for “a conversation with the varied instantiations of the South, past and present.” I will return to this at the end of my review.

Post-soul and post–civil rights here have multifaceted meanings. In part, they are temporal markers, referring to a period that comes after the 1960s and 1970s—“after the heyday of Al Green, Stax Records, and Mavis Staples.” In part, they have to do with the paradoxes—and here Professor Robinson references the cultural critic Nelson George and the popular culture scholar Mark Anthony Neal—that characterize black life in the twenty-first century: “Mass incarceration, wealth stagnation, and the entrenchment of HIV co-occur with unprecedented educational attainment, skyrocketing wealth for a small but expanding blue-chip elite, and the first African American president.” They also have to do, as alluded to above, with the relationship of black Southerners to the past. Whereas previous generations wanted to escape and even erase the past, the generations who have come of age after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. reclaim the past and use it to create twenty-first-century identities, taking the cultural and historical materials of life in the South—its symbols, its food, its history, its famous sons and daughters—and combining them in creative, fluid, and sometimes transgressive ways.

But perhaps the most important concept in Professor Robinson’s analysis is what she calls country cosmopolitan. In essence, country cosmopolitan refers to a mix of the rural and the urban—much like the author’s presentation of Memphis itself. It is a “best-of-both-worlds blackness” that “blends rural values and urban sensibilities to navigate—and sometimes sanitize—the post–civil rights South.” It combines ironic performances of behaviors that blacks were once terrorized into performing—saying “yes, sir” to a white man—with new and decidedly non-ironic behaviors, such as staring directly at whites in a restaurant without speaking. (Is that really a thing?) What’s more, country cosmopolitan functions differently for different groups. Ordinary black Southerners—the Memphians interviewed in the book—use it to “maintain and strengthen the boundaries of authentic racial and regional identities”; black Southern cultural elites like Tyler Perry and the rap duo OutKast use it to “give voice to a distinctively Southern black experience”; and corporations like McDonald’s and Popeye’s use country cosmopolitan to “build an African American consumer base and foster a regional seal of approval.”

Although This Ain’t Chicago originates in Memphis, Professor Robinson is careful to situate her subject in the South as a whole. As she points out, while the popular media trade on the idea of the South as a unique place, the region is “evolving into something much like other American spaces: it is characterized by urban and suburban sprawl, is home to many new immigrants, and faces challenges managing the needs of economically and politically diverse populations.” The South remains very much an intentional construct, be it of the Southern hip-hop artists who insist on being taken seriously by their East Coast counterparts, the forty-four-year-old media professional who bristles at outsiders who “think we slow, backwards, [and] always at church,” or the director of a nonprofit organization who sees herself as a “Southern belle” and understands how being from the South makes men “want” her. As Professor Robinson writes, “The South is a strategic accomplishment, both in popular media and in people’s everyday lives. Black and white folks, the cultural elite acting on their behalf, and corporations are all interested in accomplishing a particular version of the region that suits their specific ends.”

This Ain’t Chicago will bother white Southerners who believe it’s their birthright to control how the South is historicized, represented, and interpreted. As the book amply demonstrates, young black Southerners have been engaged in creating their own South, with its own history, its own symbols, its own culture. And I think that that gets to the crux of the recent furor and hand-wringing over Confederate symbols such as the Confederate flag. Whether the Confederate flag represents “heritage, not hate” is in some ways beside the point; what is really at issue for many whites who defend the flag is their authority to dictate its meaning—whatever that meaning may be—and by extension, the meaning of the South and what it means to be Southern.

In closing, I want to return to the claim that Memphis is the ideal place to sample the identity work of young black Southerners. As someone who grew up in Memphis and visits the city often, I think I understand what Professor Robinson means when she says that Memphis “sits at the physical, temporal, and epistemological intersection of rural and urban, soul and post-soul, and civil rights and post–civil rights.” This means that the city—unlike, say, an Atlanta or a Charlotte—drags its past into its present, that Memphis has a usable present and a usable past, that Memphis, while being a twenty-first-century city that has a majority black population and a majority black leadership, retains significant elements of the rural, the Old South, the Jim Crow South. As a young woman from Jackson, Mississippi, who moved to Memphis to attend college said, Memphis is dogged by “unfinished business.” The lives of the majority of black residents are still shaped by the legacy of white supremacy and white oppression—although white supremacy and white oppression are no longer sanctioned by law and although, legally and in theory, black residents have access to education, employment, and credit. Black lives (and white lives too) are also shaped by the rural inheritance that might be the city’s most enduring, and crippling, legacy. Memphis is a city of landlordism, of sharecroppers and tenant farmers—not literally anymore, but a hat-in-hand, working-class mentality pervades the city to this day. Whether my characterization of Memphis is accurate, and whether Memphis is unique in those respects, are open questions. I invite my fellow Memphians to respond.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Worth a Thousand Words

Near the end of her 2016 book, Race, Representation, and Photography in 19th-Century Memphis: From Slavery to Jim Crow, Earnestine Lovelle Jenkins, a professor of art history at the University of Memphis, writes that “it was astonishing to look into the faces of people who were, for all intents and purposes, ancestral Memphians.” The faces in question belonged to a slave at the Hunt-Phelan home named Catherine Hunt, who was a domestic servant; another slave, a teenager named Harry, a “stable hand” owned by John Trigg, “one of the wealthiest slave owners in the Memphis area”; and several dozen inhabitants of a contraband camp of free blacks near Fort Pickering, on the city’s south side. The faces are captured in four photographs: two of Catherine Hunt and one each of Harry and the camp. In each of the two photographs of Catherine Hunt, which were taken about six months apart between 1852 and 1855, the domestic servant is shown holding a white baby named Julia Tate Hunt. The photograph of Harry was taken between 1862 and 1864 and is owned by the Pink Palace Family of Museums; Harry is wearing “castoff clothing associated with the Union” and is seated in a high-back wooden chair. The photograph of the contraband camp was taken by J. W. Taft, a Memphis photographer, and is “remarkable for the overriding presence of women and children.” “For most of these former slaves,” Professor Jenkins writes, “it would have been the first time they were engaged in picture-taking activity.”

When slavery ended in 1865, the new medium of photography was just becoming an everyday part of American life. Frederick Douglass, who sat for no fewer than 160 photographs and thus was the most photographed man of his time in the United States, believed that photography was vital to the success of newly freed African Americans: they could use photography to exercise agency, control their self-image, and build community.

How blacks did so is the subject of a small but growing number of studies that now includes Professor Jenkins’s book. Published by Ashgate, Race, Representation, and Photography in 19th-Century Memphis is a fascinating look, through visual culture, at black life in Memphis in the several decades before and after the Civil War. As such, it is a welcome counterweight to the city’s recent historiography, which tends heavily toward the twentieth century and especially the postwar period.

As Professor Jenkins explains, her approach is to “emphasize the study of historic photographs of black Memphians deeply contextualized within their local experience, but at the same time, influenced by the larger African American narrative” (278). Thus, in the opening chapter, the advertisements in Memphis newspapers for slave auctions and runaway slaves are discussed in the context of the city’s position as a center of the domestic interstate slave trade. In chapter 2, an examination of the two photographs of Catherine Hunt is preceded by a history of the Hunt-Phelan home. The photograph of the contraband camp is interpreted against the backdrop of Fort Pickering, which, almost two miles long, dominated the riverfront, and the many camps that surrounded it.

In the course of the book we meet several Memphians who are missing from most historical accounts of the city. One is Morris Henderson (1802–1877), who founded what is known today as the First Baptist Beale Street Church. A portrait of Reverend Henderson hangs on the east wall of the foyer of the church and, with the notable exception of images of Robert Church Sr., is “one of the few images of African American leaders to survive the Reconstruction era in Memphis.” Henderson was involved with a black orphanage known as the Canfield Orphan Asylum, which became so well known that in 1866 it was featured in a front-page story in Harpers Weekly, complete with illustrations by the famous combat artist Alfred Waud. After Reverend Morris died, a monument was built for him in Zion Cemetery, where he is buried.

Another Memphian we learn about in Professor Jenkins’s book is James P. Newton, the first black photographer in Memphis. Newton was one of forty-two black Americans featured in an 1897 publication titled Sparkling Gems of Race Knowledge Worth Reading, published in connection with the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. His success as a photographer, Professor Jenkins explains, must be seen in the context of the New Negro movement, which enlisted black photographers to create positive images of African Americans that countered racist stereotypes.

Beginning as she does with photographs—static images that capture a particular person in a particular place at a particular time—Professor Jenkins explores her subject with a sense of wonder. She peers into this photograph of Catherine Hunt, that photograph of Harry the stable hand, and constructs the immediate world they and others like them inhabited, taking cues from the details visible in each picture. In the process, she gives us a history of Memphis that is personal—and so very human.  

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Edward J. Meeman (1889-1966)

Edward J. Meeman, from 1931 to 1962 the editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, may have been the only man or woman who had personal audiences with Eugene Debs, Herbert Hoover, and Adolf Hitler.

The audience with Hitler came in 1933, through the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, which arranged for Germans to visit the United States and vice versa. Meeman was chosen to accompany a group of US city officials who went to Germany to observe firsthand how municipal governments worked there. He reported that he “talked with” Hitler during the visit and “saw with my own eyes how Hitler’s opponents were being forced into silence and were being hypnotized by mass propaganda.”

The audience with Herbert Hoover came in 1930. Meeman was in Washington, pressing the government to construct a dam at Cove Creek, in northeastern Tennessee. Boarding a train for home, Meeman found none other than President Hoover on the same train. The editor bent the president’s ear and secured from the chief executive a promise to support the dam. (Hoover did not keep his promise, but the dam was eventually constructed anyway in the mid-1930s as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority.)

Meeman, who as a young man in his native Indiana was a socialist, had many audiences with Eugene Debs. One occurred in 1920, when Debs, who by then was a personal friend of Meeman’s, was imprisoned in Atlanta for opposing World War I. Meeman, because he was Debs’s friend, was asked by the Newspaper Enterprise Association to interview the socialist leader. “Outwardly, it was a cheerful meeting. [But] I was sad inside, as I saw him walk to greet me in his prison suit,” Meeman reported.

These details are found in a de facto autobiography of Meeman constructed from his personal papers by Edwin Howard, the son of a reporter who worked for Meeman when the latter was editor of the Knoxville Sentinel. Published by the Edward J. Meeman Foundation in 1976 as The Editorial We: A Posthumous Autobiography of Edward J. Meeman, Howard’s construction emphasizes three causes that occupied Meeman during his thirty-plus years in Memphis: creating Shelby Forest State Park; urging Memphians to join the Tennessee Valley Authority; and ending the municipal despotism of Boss Crump.

Meeman, who was an environmentalist long before environmentalism entered the national consciousness, lived near present-day Shelby Forest—he reports that it took him forty-five minutes to drive from his home to his office downtown—and it was through his leadership that the state park was created in the 1930s. The idea for the park was inspired by Meeman’s visit to Germany, during which he toured several of that country’s parks. “If a poor country like Germany can afford a state forest park near every city, why can’t rich America?,” he asked.

Indeed, Meeman, if he is known outside Memphis, is known as a conservationist. He is named for an archive kept by Michigan State University of the best environmental reporting in newspapers. When Meeman died at his Shelby Forest home in 1966, the First Lady, Mrs. Johnson, commended “his invaluable work over many years in conservation.” It is, she said, “a lasting legacy to all Americans.”
Meeman’s environmentalism no doubt animated his ardent support for the TVA, which would not only bring cheaper electricity to Memphis but would control erosion and flooding throughout the valley. Under his editorship, the Press-Scimitar vigorously promoted the program and asked Memphians to vote yes to purchasing bonds to acquire TVA power. On November 6, 1934, they did.

Perhaps Meeman’s greatest accomplishment—certainly his most courageous—was his long campaign to convince Memphians to assert their political freedom by voting out of power the Crump machine. Memphians had struck a devil’s bargain with Crump, Meeman believed: in exchange for good public services, they agreed to put up with a dictator. As a result, they were in danger of losing their instinct for democracy and self-determination. Crump’s hold on the city was finally broken in 1948, when, with the support of Meeman and a handful of other prominent Memphians, the non-Crump candidate Estes Kefauver won election to the US Senate.

By the end of his life, Meeman, a religious man, had joined something called the Moral Re-Armament movement, which taught that to change the world, one had to change oneself. The movement asked followers to be honest, pure, unselfish, and loving. By that time, too, Meeman had long abandoned socialism and had come to see communism as a great peril, even writing in 1949 a “freedom manifesto” as an explicit alternative to Marx and Engel’s communist manifesto. “In our Free Society,” he wrote, “various economic forms exist side by side”—self-employment, partnerships, cooperatives, corporations, public ownership. “Experience and sense of values, not dogmatic theory,” will determine which form is appropriate for the purpose at hand.

A biography of Meeman is long overdue. According to Edwin Howard, who constructed Meeman’s posthumous autobiography, the materials are there, in the Mississippi Valley Collection at the University of Memphis.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Extra, Extra

It’s no secret that the newspaper industry is rapidly changing, in troubling ways. Memphis’s remaining daily, the Commercial Appeal, was purchased by Gannett in 2016 and just last month was reorganized—with a considerable layoff of staff—into a Tennessee “network” involving the Commercial Appeal and the dailies in Nashville and Knoxville. The executive editor of the Commercial Appeal, Louis Graham, who has been with the paper for thirty-eight years, announced in a letter that the “historic” changes “position each news organization, working collectively, to support a continued, aggressive expansion of digital content.” The message was essentially addition by subtraction and consolidation: yes, we are becoming smaller, and yes we are now part of a statewide consortium, but we will nevertheless bring you all the news you care to read and maintain an “intense” local focus.

It’s little consolation, but Thomas Harrison Baker’s marvelous 1971 history of the Commercial Appeal reminds us that the newspaper industry has always been rapidly changing. In the early days of Memphis, before the Civil War, it was not uncommon for newspapers to be founded and then cease operations only a short time later. The Commercial Appeal—which began life as the Weekly Appeal—was founded in 1841 to replace a failed newspaper, the Western World and Memphis Banner of the Constitution—which was founded to replace the Gazette, which was founded to replace the Memphis Advocate and Western District Intelligencer, Memphis’s first newspaper. All of those newspapers were organs of the Democratic Party, and the last three were founded, and foundered, between 1827 and 1840. 

Another period of frequent change occurred during the Great Depression, when ownership of the Commercial Appeal (its name starting in 1894) changed hands no fewer than four times. In 1927, the paper was purchased by a new publishing company called Memphis Commercial Appeal, Inc., which was led by the publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, a man named Luke Lea. In fact, Lea soon acquired ownership of no fewer than four Tennessee newspapers: in addition to the Nashville Tennessean and the Commercial Appeal, he owned the Knoxville Journal and another Memphis paper, the Evening Appeal. The depression brought down Lea’s empire, and in 1931 the Commercial Appeal became the property of the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company. But that company became a victim of hard economic times too, and in 1933 the Commercial Appeal was purchased by James Hammond Jr., who, since 1932, had been the publisher of William Randolph Hearst’s Detroit Times. Then, in 1936, the paper was sold yet again, this time to the Scripps-Howard organization. Scripps-Howard and its successor organization, the Journal Media Group, owned the Commercial Appeal until 2016, when it was sold to Gannett.

Change in the form of mergers is nothing new either. As early as 1847, the Daily Appeal absorbed another Memphis paper and Democratic organ, the Monitor. In 1890, the Appeal (long since a daily) joined forces with the Avalanche to form a single paper, the Appeal-Avalanche. Then, in 1894, an upstart newspaper in the city, the Commercial, purchased the Appeal-Avalanche, and thus the Commercial Appeal was born.

Readers should be reminded as well that, after 1936, Scripps-Howard owned not just the Commercial Appeal but the city’s major afternoon daily, the Press-Scimitar, which itself was the product of a merger, between the News-Scimitar and the Press, ten years before.


The newspaper that last month underwent a “historic” reorganization was founded by a newcomer to Memphis, Henry Van Pelt, who quickly decided that the young city needed a local organ for the Democratic Party.  It began as a weekly. Each edition of the new paper—known as the Weekly Appeal until 1847, when it became a daily and changed its name to the Appeal—contained four pages; each page contained seven columns and measured twenty-four inches wide and thirty-seven inches long. A subscription was $3 a year—roughly the equivalent, I would estimate, of $125 today. (As a point of comparison, a yearly print subscription to the Commercial Appeal today is just under $240.) In its first few decades, the Appeal obtained most of its news from “exchanges,” that is, newspapers from other cities. The exchanges were supplemented with news from two additional sources: the telegraph and “correspondence,” letters from professional journalists and especially local residents.

Quite remarkably, the newspaper survived. Not even the Civil War put it out of business, although it did put it out of Memphis, first to Grenada and then to Jackson, Mississippi, then to Atlanta, then to Montgomery, Alabama, then back into Georgia, finding itself at war’s end with some of its supplies and equipment in Columbus and the rest in Macon—all the while publishing new editions as regularly as it could. Its staff returned to Memphis in the summer of 1865, and the paper kept going, its editors announcing that the outcome of the war had been decided—and accepted: “We recognize and abide by the logical sequence of the late, unhappy Civil War in the destruction, now and forever, of the institution of African slavery,” the paper announced in its edition of November 5, 1865.

The paper survived as well the yellow fever epidemic of 1878—even though many of its employees did not. Indeed, almost half of the staff of forty-one died, and most of the others fell ill. One staff member who managed to not only survive but to carry on the work of the newspaper to an extent nearly impossible to believe was the editor, John McLeod Keating, who, in fifty to seventy items a day, chronicled life in Memphis during the epidemic. Keating, perhaps not incidentally, published in 1888 a three-volume history of the city.

By the early 1880s, the Appeal was trumpeting the promise of the “New South,” a South committed to progress and prosperity, “not weeping over the past” and “not chanting jeremiads over times that are gone,” but “full of renewed vigor abandoning old sloth, and gone-by apathy.”

In 1894, the Appeal was purchased by a new Memphis paper, the Commercial, and the two merged to become the Commercial Appeal. At the time, one of the major national issues was silver. The economy was still reeling from the Panic of 1893, and silver miners and struggling farmers in the West and South clamored for the government to put more money in circulation by allowing the free coinage of silver. The issue sharply divided the ownership of the new paper and eventually caused the editor, Edward Ward Carmack, to resign.

In 1908, the paper brought back a former managing editor, C. P. J. (Charles Patrick Joseph) Mooney, to be the editor. Mooney would run the Commercial Appeal for the next eighteen years, turning it into very much his own. Rather than focusing on the workings of national political parties, Mooney directed the paper to devote more space to local issues—agriculture, especially crop diversification; commercial development; and the mayoralty of E. H. Crump, whom Mooney mistrusted. He also stressed that the paper’s first duty was to report the news objectively and accurately; he agonized over the slightest error, and he urged his reporters to relate events to local points of reference.

Mooney died in 1926, and then followed the ten years of changing ownership during the depression, ending with the purchase of the Commercial Appeal in 1936 by Scripps-Howard, a purchase that was, in retrospect, the beginning of a long period of relative stability.

Aside from a brief epilogue, Baker’s account ends in 1941, with the one hundredth anniversary of the newspaper, an occasion marked by the publication of a special edition of no fewer than 328 pages. (Let that sink in.) One can reasonably wonder if the Commercial Appeal will still exist when the calendar turns to 2041, in what would be the newspaper’s bicentennial.


Baker tells the history of the Commercial Appeal mainly through the newspaper’s editorials. What did the paper have to say about the major issues of the day? I’ll deal with three of them here: prohibition, agriculture, and race.

The Commercial Appeal generally opposed prohibition and, once prohibition was the law of the land, favored its repeal. Its basic position was that morality cannot be legislated. Rather than ban alcohol, society should regulate it: temperance, not prohibition, was the practical course to take. After Tennessee instituted statewide prohibition in 1909, the Commercial Appeal argued that the law should be followed—not because the paper had had a change of heart, which it had not, but because, as the editors wrote in December of that year, “the way to secure the repeal of a bad law is to enforce it.” For a brief period, Mooney did change his position, less out of opposition to alcohol per se and more out of opposition to the lawless behavior it seemed to cause. Yet by the early 1930s, the paper was again squarely in favor of repeal.

Agriculture became a focus of the paper when Mooney became editor, in 1908. The new editor urged farmers in the Mid-South to stop relying on cotton and to diversify instead. Mooney was especially bothered by the fact that the South did not grow and raise its own food. The price of cotton was never enough to cover the costs of importing corn, pork, and other foodstuffs from the North, and “no section of our country can be truly prosperous that buys its food for man and beast,” the editors wrote in October 1909. In 1934, the paper began what Baker calls “the newspaper’s most successful continuing promotion”: the Plant to Prosper contest. The contest gave cash awards to farmers who best used their land for purposes other than cotton. At its peak, in the late 1940s, one hundred thousand people, black and white, were participating every year. The contest lasted until 1965 and was, Baker writes, “undoubtedly the newspaper’s most effective contribution to Mid-South agriculture.”

The paper’s position on race on the whole upheld white supremacy. Quite surprisingly, in 1851 there was in Memphis a Sunday school for blacks. (Baker provides no details about the school.) The Appeal found this outrageous, a “direct blow at [slavery] itself, as well as at the peace and security of Southern society,” read an editorial in August of that year. During the Civil War, the paper found it “revolting” that the Union army enlisted blacks—“men of low instincts, and whose brutal passions are easily aroused,” as the editors wrote in 1863—to fight against the South. After the war, during the enthusiasm for the New South, the Appeal accepted that blacks could vote but was dumbfounded by their support for Republican candidates. By the early twentieth century, the paper seemed intent on maintaining a social order that had whites on top, calling the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” a “platitudinous absurdity.” In 1933, the editors offered, in reference to the Scottsboro rape case, that “the preservation of racial purity is a much more vital need than the preservation of racial equality.”

Of a piece with race was lynching, on which the paper’s position shifted over the years. Lynching, the editors said in 1900, was sometimes justified, sometimes not. Yet by 1913, Mooney was stating his unqualified opposition to the practice—though maintaining that blacks and whites would never be equal. It is quite possible, Baker suggests, that the paper knew of plans to lynch a black man in the spring of 1917 yet did nothing to stop it, other than offering a “brief and general condemnation of mob action.” Four years later, and for reasons Baker does not investigate, the paper became concerned about the increased activities of the Ku Klux Klan and began running articles opposing the organization and lynching. The articles, along with cartoons by J. P. Alley, won for the paper a Pulitzer Prize, in 1923. In the late 1930s, the paper opposed a federal anti-lynching law while maintaining its opposition to lynching itself.


During the entire thirty years they lived in Memphis, my parents subscribed to the Commercial Appeal. They read it at the kitchen table every morning. My mother read the paper backwards, starting from the last page of a section and working her way to the first.

I read the paper too—if reading the sports section counts as reading the paper. Perhaps my favorite time with the paper came on Sundays in the fall of 1981. I would take the sports section to the Danver’s on Sycamore View, and there over an all-I-could-eat breakfast, I’d read about Herschel Walker and the college football games from the day before.

I appeared in the paper once. It was the summer of 1973, and I was attending a day camp at Gaisman Park. I was playing chess with a friend when an athlete from Memphis State University dropped by. A reporter took our picture; it ran in the paper the next day.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Black Power

Every city, I suppose, has its history of activism—even Memphis, whose history of activism was for many years dominated by the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and is only now being explored in its rightful complexity. It wasn’t all that long ago that Ida B. Wells, for instance, was a largely unknown figure, and had it not been for the rise of area studies in the American academy over the past forty years, Wells might still be largely unknown. Even so, I doubt very much that most Memphians today know who she was.

One Memphian who did was a fellow named Coby Smith. A graduate of Manassas High School, Smith in 1963 was one of the first African Americans to be admitted to Southwestern (today, Rhodes) College. He left Memphis in 1966 for Atlanta, where he became involved in—and eventually frustrated with—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He returned to Memphis in 1967 with a “more radical disposition” and immediately founded, along with another Memphian named Charles Cabbage, who had also spent time in Atlanta, two activist organizations, the Black Organizing Project and the Invaders. In a 2010 interview, Coby Smith said of the young black activists in Memphis in the late 1960s that they worked in “the spirit of Ida B. Wells.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Black Organizing Project and the Invaders was that both were Black Power organizations. That Black Power had made its way from the urban megalopolises of the Northeast, the Midwest, and California to Memphis will come as a surprise to many—as it did to Martin Luther King Jr., who blamed an unexpected “Black Power element” for creating disorder in a march he led in Memphis about a week before his death.

We learn about Coby Smith and Charles Cabbage in a 2015 book titled Black Power in the Bluff City: African American Youth and Student Activism in Memphis, 1965–1975, by Shirletta J. Kinchen, a professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville and a graduate of the PhD program in history at the University of Memphis. As Professor Kinchen demonstrates in her impressive study, the work of Smith and Cabbage and of the Black Power movement in Memphis challenges the view of the city in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an “NAACP town.”

As did Black Power more generally, the Black Organizing Project wanted complete self-determination for the city’s black residents. The platform of the project demanded “community control over education, finances, politics, and land ownership.” As Charles Cabbage explained, the Black Organizing Project aimed to “stimulate in young blacks a sense of black identity, black pride, and black consciousness, to create in the blacks an independent spirit, to cease to be dependent upon and influenced by the white race.” That Professor Kinchen’s source for that quotation is an FBI memo is no accident. The FBI began watching the Black Organizing Project soon after it was founded. In addition, the Memphis Police Department set up a special unit to monitor the organization.

Black Power was able to gain a foothold in Memphis because the city’s black establishment and older generation had been unwilling or unable to make room for the young. At the time, many blacks in their late teens and early twenties found the approach of older figures such as Maxine Smith and Benjamin Hooks—both of whom occupy prominent places in the city’s postwar history—too incremental and mild-mannered. Young activists such as Smith and Cabbage refused to treat even Martin Luther King Jr. with the customary reverence. If Dr. King wanted to lead a march in Memphis, Coby Smith said, he needed to adapt and adjust to the particular needs and concerns of the city’s residents—needs and concerns that may be too urgent for the Atlanta preacher’s nonviolent ethic. “This is Memphis,” Smith said in reaction to the botched march led by Dr. King the week before his death. “The city belongs to people here.”

Smith and Cabbage, and Black Power generally, did not succeed—at least, not to the degree that activists such as Smith and Cabbage envisioned. In my view, the problem that stymied Smith and Cabbage at every turn was the same problem that stymies nearly all would-be revolutionaries: they had to act through or in tandem with existing institutions—the law, the NAACP, the War on Poverty, local churches, LeMoyne College, Owen Junior College, Memphis State University—and existing institutions are almost by definition too conservative to tolerate sudden and drastic change.

Nevertheless, as Professor Kinchen maintains, Black Power, despite being a comparatively “fringe” movement in Memphis, had an effect. In giving young black Memphians “a malleable and adaptive philosophy that traversed different sectors of life in the city,” it paved the way “for an increasingly radical Memphis after 1968 when even moderate organizations, such as the local branch of the NAACP, began to evoke the spirit of the Black Power movement.” 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Sun Records: Episode 1

Episode 1 of Sun Records, CMT’s new series about the rise of the Memphis music scene in the 1950s, opens in 1950 with a fifteen-year-old Elvis Presley sitting in a stairwell of a housing project and quietly strumming a guitar. He is listening to a radio that is playing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” The door to his family’s apartment is open. Inside, Elvis’s father (whose name was Vernon) is grousing about his son making Cs and Ds in school and wasting time fooling around with music. Vernon has been drinking, and he is bitter about everything under the sun. “You get that boy off your teat, Gladys,” he mutters to his wife, Elvis’s mother, as he opens another beer. “He’s too old to be coddled.” Gladys is warm and supportive and tries to smooth things over. She calls Elvis “pumpkin,” kisses him on the cheek, and runs her fingers through his hair. “For God is the King of all the earth,” she tells him. “Sing praises with a song.”

Angry, unfeeling, alcoholic fathers offset by saintly, supportive, loving mothers are not the only clichés in the episode. Sam Phillips, the founder of Memphis Recording Service and the man behind Sun Records (the label), cannot get through the episode without having an affair with his secretary—and this after he dreamily tells his wife, as they sit in the car in front of the building that will become his recording studio, “This is what I was put on this earth to do. And I know you came here to help me do it.” Elvis, bored with the staid Sunday morning service in his white church, up and leaves and removes himself to a service in a black church, where the music is of course rollicking and full of spirit. How will the congregation react to the late-arriving white boy? Without skipping a beat. A lady sitting in front of him encourages him to join in on the clapping and the singing. After the service, as he cheerfully mingles with the congregation on the front steps of the church, his girlfriend’s parents drive by—Lord only knows why their route took them through that part of town—and see “that Presley boy” fraternizing with the wrong race. Affronted and scandalized, they forbid their daughter from ever seeing Elvis again.

Chad Michael Murray plays Sam Phillips; he’s superb and looks the part. In my reconceptualization of Sun Records, the show would revolve around his character only, letting other characters such as Elvis and J. R. (later known as Johnny) Cash come and go as needed—sort of like a Union Avenue–based Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I would give Sam Phillips a troublesome uncle—maybe an uncle who takes over his brother’s, Sam’s father’s, studio in Memphis after his brother mysteriously dies. Sam, determined to carry on his father’s work, opens his own studio. The uncle, along with his studio, would be a pawn in Boss Crump’s political machine. Sam Phillips would smell something rotten but get caught up in machinations beyond his ken—all the while producing some of the most important popular music in the world.

By the way, despite what CMT’s website says, the story of the birth of rock and roll is anything but “untold.” Colin Escott, one of the producers of the show, published an excellent book on the subject in 1991 titled Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll. And of course Peter Guralnick, who wrote a biography of Elvis, published in 2015 Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll. Sun Records is also the subject of a 2001 episode of the PBS series American Masters.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Orange Mound

In 1979, Charles Williams, a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Illinois, began calling on residents of Orange Mound, a black neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee. He was conducting an ethnographic study of the neighborhood and the families who lived there. Although black himself, Williams was viewed with suspicion or alarm by many elderly residents, who, at the sight of the unfamiliar young man approaching them, would leave the shade of their front porches and duck inside their un-air-conditioned homes. Williams later learned that they were afraid he had come to rob them or were afraid of becoming known as an “informant” if they talked to the outsider from Illinois who for some strange reason found their community an interesting subject for a doctoral dissertation.

We can be thankful that Charles Williams, who went on to become a professor of anthropology at the University of Memphis, persevered with his project and endured the “snubs, labels, insults, misinformation, and in some instances, down-right ostracism” directed toward him, for the result of his study is a valuable book titled African American Life and Culture in Orange Mound, published in 2013 by Lexington Books.

The land that would eventually become developed as Orange Mound was once part of the five-thousand-acre Deaderick Plantation. At the time, the plantation was five miles east of the city, and the only way to travel from the plantation to Memphis itself was along the Pontotoc Trace, which today is Lamar Avenue. In 1889, the Deaderick family sold part of its land to a real estate developer named Elzey Eugene Meacham. As Professor Williams writes, for reasons that may never become clear, Meacham developed the land into a residential community for blacks in Memphis. The community became known as Orange Mound because of the osage orange hedgerow that grew naturally on the old Deaderick Plantation.

Williams lists in helpful detail the names of many of the families and residents who lived in Orange Mound during its earliest days. The neighborhood was originally populated by pastors and school teachers, businessmen and porters, blacksmiths and carpenters. Lonnie Briscoe Jr. was well-known for selling class rings to graduating seniors; Jessie Springer was a renowned teacher at Booker T. Washington and later principal of Douglass High School. In 1931, a physician named Wheelock A. Bisson arrived in Memphis and settled in Orange Mound. Most residents, however, worked as day laborers and domestics.

As Professor Williams explains, Orange Mound can be understood only in the context of Memphis as a whole. Memphis, of course, has a long history of racial segregation, oppression, and violence, and Orange Mound survived by developing its own institutions and “accommodating” the prevailing social order, avoiding confrontation with the white ruling class. During the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike, for instance, Orange Mound “remained peaceful” with no “outward sign of protest and demonstration.”

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of Williams’s book examines some of the “threats” that residents of Orange Mound have faced over the years. The Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which runs along Southern Avenue, brought potential environmental hazards and threatened, under the right of eminent domain, to strip homeowners of their property. In the late 1960s, Orange Mound had “one of the best public parks in the city” until the city sold it to businessmen who built on the site the Mid-South Refrigerated Warehouse Company—an indignation against which the normally quiet residents of the neighborhood rose in “great protest.” The growth of “street corner society” brought crime, harassment, and disorder. Jewish entrepreneurs were sometimes seen as exploitative; Williams discusses at length a particular merchant named Milton Evensky, who owned a grocery store in the neighborhood. Police relations are treated as well, including a 1971 case involving seventeen-year-old Elton Hayes, who was beaten to death by police officers, white and black.

Orange Mound has always been poor and remains so today. What is different, Professor Williams says, is that “the community’s legendary core values for culture, traditions, family, church, public education, hard work, ownership of property, pride in the concept of ‘community,’ self-respect, trust and appreciation of neighbors, and the alleviation of poverty have to an extent collapsed over the past several decades.” He offers as a “compelling theory” the notion that the first two or three generations of residents simply became complacent and took for granted the continued vitality of the community they had built, “failing to invest in or rebuild the community of their birth through the integration of new people with new ideas.”

Professor Williams closes his book by stating that in order to become a healthy community again, residents of Orange Mound must set aside “class stratification and provincialism” and put the needs of the community above individual interests. Home ownership must be encouraged, and residents should be given control over neighborhood institutions, especially the schools. But what’s happened to Orange Mound is what’s happened to America itself and is a manifestation of the social and economic structure we have inherited and continue to perpetuate to one degree or another. Writing in 2016 in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, the political scientist Corey Robin says that “Coates dares whites to prove that we do not believe ourselves to be separate from black people, that we understand that we cannot escape the ramifications of the fate we have assigned to African-Americans. . . . Your actions, says Coates—the daily ease with which you tolerate the policing, incarceration, and murder of black citizens; the daily ease with which your white life goes on amid so much black death—shows that you have no desire, intention, or need to end my situation.” Or, one can add, the situation in Orange Mound.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The House of Church

How does one explain a Frederick Douglass, a Booker T. Washington, a George Washington Carver? The fact that some blacks were permitted to flourish in a society otherwise committed to racial oppression makes the oppression seem all the crueler, because it reveals how truly selective it was. I suppose a black man in the 1880s might look upon a Frederick Douglass and think, “That could be me!” But I suspect he might be equally likely to say to his white oppressors, “Why are you making my life a living hell but letting that guy off the hook?”

To the Douglasses, Washingtons, and Carvers can be added Robert Reed Church (1839–1912), a Memphis businessman and banker who became the first black millionaire in the South. Robert Church was born a slave in 1839, the son of his white owner and a mixed-race mother. In 1855, Church and his father survived the sinking of the Bulletin no. 2, and seven years later the young man had to swim for his life in the Mississippi River at Memphis, reaching the riverbank as Federal warships overpowered a Confederate flotilla. In 1865, Church opened a saloon in Memphis, despite being denied a permit. The next year, he was shot in the neck during a race riot and left for dead. Four years later, he opened a brothel in downtown Memphis, on Second and Gayoso—and thus his rise began. He acquired more property during the yellow-fever epidemic of 1878—he had the means by then to send his two children out of the city to New York City by train—and by 1885 he had made his fortune. He took his family on a European tour in 1889 and visited the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893. Around that time he received at his Memphis home Frederick Douglass himself. “A Mr. Robert R. Church owns one of the finest hotels in Memphis,” a Boston newspaper reported in 1889. “Nor is this all. In the registry of deeds his name is on the books as the lawful owner of 60 brick and wooden houses. His note is good for at least $250,000.”

Robert Church and his son, Robert Jr., are the nominal subjects of Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, a 2015 book written by Preston Lauterbach. But this is not so much a history of the Churches as it is an on-the-ground history of the city between the 1860s and the 1930s, organized around the often rambunctious dealings—political, business, artistic—of a half dozen prominent Memphians, the Churches being the most central, and another half dozen or so lesser lights.

Much of Lauterbach’s story, which draws copiously from newspapers of the time, involves the disgraceful, the disreputable, and the dishonorable. He opens with the race riot of 1866, which, in the author’s telling, was fomented as much by the animosity between the black soldiers garrisoned at Fort Pickering and the white city police force as by the liquor that both sides liberally consumed. The riot, which made plain the unwillingness of the federal government to protect the newly freed, led blacks in Memphis to close ranks and “gravitate to their own prominent citizens,” particularly Robert Church. Over the next three hundred or so pages, Lauterbach relates the rise of the Churches and that of Beale Street, the two being of a piece. Along the way, other Memphians—Ida B. Wells, W. C. Handy, E. H. Crump, and George W. Lee being the best known—take centerstage, with the Churches disappearing from the narrative for pages at a time. That disappearing act caught this reader by surprise. The “prologue” states that the book will be about the Churches’ rise to fortune and influence. It is—but that’s only one of its subjects.

Lauterbach’s history, which was published by Norton, is as hyperlocal a one I’ve read. A plenitude of ordinary Memphians of yore slip in and out of the author’s brisk narrative. We meet policeman David Roach, who, revolted by the thought of miscegenation, invaded brothels and homes where black men and white women “knotted up” (Lauterbach’s pitch-perfect phrase); it was Roach who, in the race riot of 1866, shot Robert Church in the neck. We meet Mary Grady, who owned a dance hall. We meet police chief Ben Garrett, who, in an investigation of police misconduct, felt free to let slip that his officers were “sometimes” sober. We meet City Recorder John C. Creighton, who publicly exhorted his fellow white citizens to “kill and drive” every black from the city. We meet Jackson Goodell, a black drayman who was beaten by two policemen. We meet a C. M. Cooley, a Lavinia Goodell (Jackson’s wife), a Lucy Taylor, a Harriet Armour, a “constable” named O’Hearn, a Joe Clouston (a mulatto barber), an Adam Lock, a Rachel Hatcher, and an Austin Cotton—and all of those just in chapter 2.

A handful of characters whom I doubt appear in any other history of the city receive several pages. Three at random are James Kinnane, who ran his own entertainment district on the north side of town and who, one newspaper insinuated, directed his black clientele to support Crump’s opponent in the 1909 mayoral election; Frank Liberto, who as a teenager delivered meals to the “girls” who worked in the brothels and who later ran an inn on Beale Street; and David Park “Pappy” Hadden, a businessman and public official who in the 1870s brought Mardi Gras to the city and who, as police court judge, closed a number of brothels. Actually, I’m wrong about Hadden not appearing in any other history: he is mentioned in a 2013 history of Orange Mound by Charles Williams. But still. One can marvel at the author’s resolve to document by name a large cast of workaday Memphians who may not be historically significant but who made Memphis the rowdy and spirited place it was at the time.

Indeed, Lauterbach opens up a Memphis that sometimes sounds like the stuff of pulp fiction and film noir:
Nello Grandi and his brother Olento arrived on Beale before 1910, tall Nello becoming Big Grandi and diminutive Olento, Little Grandi. Big Grandi worked with Vigelio “Pee Wee” Maffei in one of the little legend’s saloons. This joint sat practically on the banks of the Mississippi, and here Big Grandi saw strapping Negro roustabouts with their hundred-dollar pay strolling straight down a cotton steamer gangplank right into Pee Wee’s, which promptly soaked them for every cent.
In a similar vein, of one of James Kinnane’s hired hands Lauterbach writes, “Tick Houston was a renaissance man of sorts, managing under one roof a con game, a colored vaudeville theater, and a pimp hive.”

One of the fascinating things we learn from this enjoyable book is that brothels were legal and regulated in Memphis until 1940—long after the famous Storyville area of New Orleans was shut down in 1917. In time, the brothels became concentrated around Beale Street. A tantalized William Faulkner came poking around them in the early 1920s. But when propositioned, he begged off. “No thank you, ma’am. I’m on my vacation.”

That a society committed to white supremacy made room for a Robert Church Sr. is impossible to explain. As Lauterbach writes, “In the decades following the Civil War, black men were lynched for two reasons down South: for daring to compete economically with white men and for soiling the honor of white women. Bob Church was doing both, and with tacit license and open appreciation.”

There’s virtually nothing left of the Church legacy in Memphis today, other than a small park named in honor of Robert Sr. The Churches deserve better. As Lauterbach makes clear, Robert Reed Church was devoted to Memphis and is no small reason why the city exists today. With the struggling tax district on the brink of extinction after the yellow-fever epidemic, it was Church who purchased the first bond issued to pay off the city’s old debt. As a newspaper reported, “With this example before them, capitalists of the Caucasian race could not be shy, and the whole of the bonds was placed.”