Geography gave birth to the city of Memphis, a city perched on a bluff above the mighty Mississippi River. And geography turned Memphis into a bustling center of Southern slavery before the Civil War and a hotbed of tensions afterward.
But it’s the people who transformed Memphis in something something more: the birthplace of the blues, a vice capital, and a city where blacks found more respect and influence from whites than just about anywhere else. It’s in Memphis that African-Americans reached multiple milestones: The first black millionaire, the development of “Main Street of Black America,” and the rise of acid-tongued icon Ida B. Wells.
Music historian Preston Lauterbach expertly chronicles the city’s tumultuous history in his captivating new book Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis.
In an interview, Lauterbach talks about the rise of Memphis, the former slave who gained extraordinary influence in an extraordinary time, and the legacy of this city’s remarkable story.
Q: You write about a man named Robert Church who’s crucial to the history of Memphis. Who was he?
Memphis was a city founded on the slave trade. When that ended, it brought about tremendous upheaval and turbulence. One of the figures who emerged after the Civil War was Robert Church, a man of an extraordinary background.
He was born a slave, yet he had a real relationship with his white father, who educated him, taught him business, and supported him in his own ventures.
If you look at him, and I’ve seen photographs of him throughout his life, he had straight dark hair and light skin. He was described as looking as anything but an African-American. He could have gone anywhere. But he chose to live his life as an African-American.
Q: What was it like for him in Memphis after the Civil War?
During a riot in the spring of 1866 after the Civil War, he was targeted. The riot pitted the city police force, primarily made up of former Confederate soldiers, against the Union soldiers who controlled the city, who had largely been slaves. It was former confederates vs. former slaves.
Church was shot in the head and left for dead. But not only did he survive, he became the prime developer behind Beale Street, which is known as the Main Street of Black America.
Q: As you write, an epidemic hit Memphis in 1878, and many of its white citizens either died or fled. Those who stayed paved the way for the black community’s renaissance. What happened?
The epidemic did not hurt the black population as much as the white, and the black citizens took on a really protective role in the city. You had two African-American militias that delivered medicine and food and protected property from looters and thieves.
After the epidemic, the city was on the verge of non-existence. Church laid down money to purchase recovery bonds as a gesture of support, and the gamble paid off. The city rebuilt and repopulated.
By the end of Reconstruction, virtually all of the political rights won for blacks in the Civil War were lost in the South. But the reverse happened in Memphis. Blacks had so laid their lives on the line, displayed such courage and showed such financial support, that the whites more or less partnered with the black population. It was extraordinary.
Q: At around the same time, Memphis began to develop a notorious vice business. What happened?
The vice business was very much like that of New Orleans, where a virtually identical situation happened. The major difference was that in Memphis a black man ran the whole thing: Robert Church.
In terms of the role of the white citizenry, the most prominent leaders were Church’s business partners, his customers, his political enablers. Memphis more or less legalized brothels, gambling and saloons, and vice was used to enrich the city. The system was run very efficiently up until the 1930s or 1940s.
Q: One of the amazing parts of your book is your description of how a black Baptist church enlisted vigilantes to patrol the city. What were they after?
It was sort of a mockery of what the Ku Klux Klan and white lynchers were all about. If they saw a white man cozying up with a black girl, they’d go after them, they’d arrest them, drag them to court and put a charge of miscegenation on them. The message to the whites was: If you’re going to kill and tear us up about miscegenation, then you’ll have to answer yourself.
Q: One of the loudest voices came from a woman named Ida B. Wells, who co-owned a Memphis newspaper and served as editor. What did she write?
She really found her voice in Memphis. She wanted African-American people to stop gambling in the streets, stop spending money on liquor, and spend money on homes and business instead. That way they’d respect themselves.
But things got crazy when she started criticizing white men for romancing black women. She also got in trouble when there was a lynching in Kentucky and black citizens responded by burning white residents. She said those African-Americans showed the “true spark of manhood.”
Q: Wells also declared – without signing her name – that “nobody in this section of the community believes that old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women.” She was hinting at collusion, a shocking allegation. What happened then?
She had to leave Memphis after an editor of a newspaper said that whoever wrote that should be strung up at the corner of Main and Madison, the main corner of downtown, and burned alive.
Q: How did this atmosphere in Memphis produce the blues?
There were a lot of jobs and an exchange of ideas, and Memphis got a reputation of being a wide-open town.
A lot of creative drifters knew that they could go to Beale Street, and they wouldn’t be hassled legally for playing their music. Before there were recordings and radios, every brothel had a piano in the corner, and every saloon had a trio, a quartet or even a 12-piece orchestra.
After the turn of the 20th century, a composer by the name of W.C. Handy came to Memphis and did what we’d call sampling today: He drifted between these saloons and brothels and picked up all of these musical ideas.
He started the blues craze by hearing what he heard in Memphis, putting it into sheet music, and selling it under his own name.
Q: What about Memphis made it a fertile ground for him?
It could have happened somewhere else, but it didn’t. It all gets back to Church, a very tough, very savvy, and very wealthy leader of Memphis who made Beale Street very famous. Handy moved to Memphis because he grew up in Alabama hearing about this rich African-American man, Robert Church.
Q: Does your story have resonance today?
The racial tension is tremendously relevant. This book came out just a couple of weeks before the riots in Baltimore, and it starts with this vicious race riot in 1866, which comes from frustration that bubbles over into violence.
The whole thing felt so vital and contemporary. History is alive and well, still evolving and influential in our lives today.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.