Stretching from the Mississippi River toward the east, Beale Street is Memphis’s most famous avenue. On the infamous section of Beale Street between Main and Lauderdale Streets, the “Blues was born,” and as Beale Street’s reputation for a culturally rich, African American urban life spread, visitors arrived from all over the region.
For decades, the area beyond Beale Street was the southern boundary of downtown Memphis. Racial segregation prohibited African Americans from the main business district except as workers and customers who entered side (“Colored”) entrances to be waited on last. As a result, African Americans frequented Beale Street, where Jewish immigrants, other European Americans, and black businessmen offered them exclusive services and low-priced goods. Just a few blocks away on Lauderdale Street, wealthier African American families built fine homes and extended their community further into South Memphis.
From 1862 to 1867 Civil War displacements and Union army occupation produced a phenomenal growth in the African American population of the city; by 1865 the number of blacks had tripled, and they accounted for 16,509 of Memphis’s 27,703 inhabitants. Almost all these rural migrants lived in contraband camps, including Camps Dixie and Shiloh (“New Africa”), south of Beale Street near Fort Pickering and President’s Island. Some of the migrants would make their fortunes in Memphis, providing goods and services to the large, postwar freedmen population.
Beale Street soon became the cultural center and the local headquarters for civil rights, politics, and religion for African Americans. Joseph Clouston, an African American barber, invested in Beale Street real estate. From 1866 to 1874, twenty black-owned businesses and a Freedman’s Bank existed in the area. African Americans controlled the barbering and local taxi (hack) and freight (dray) businesses until the streetcar system and immigrant competition put them out of business in the 1880s.
Tennessee’s oldest surviving African American church edifice was built on Beale Street in 1864, when Beale Street Baptist Church erected a frame structure. In October 1866 the congregation and the Reverend Morris Henderson (1802-1877) purchased a lot and began construction of a brick and stone building. At the time of Henderson’s death the building had not been completed, but the congregation numbered over 2,500 members. Former president of the United States Ulysses S. Grant visited the church on April 14, 1880, escorted by Edward Shaw, Memphis’s leading African American politician. Pastor Taylor Nightingale ran for the city Board of Education in January 1886. Ida B. Wells, later a nationally known civil rights activist, assumed coeditorship in the Free Speech and Headlight newspaper as a result of her friendship with Nightingale and her attendance at the Beale Street Baptist Church. After the turn of the twentieth century, Beale Street Baptist Church’s George A. Long led the opposition against Mayor Edward H. Crump, the Democratic leader of the corrupt political machine that ruled Memphis for decades. Crump and the local police were infuriated when Pastor Long allowed the radical Negro union leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph to hold a rally in the church. But Long replied that “Christ, not Crump, is my Boss.”
Robert R. Church Sr. (1839-1912), a freedman who migrated into the city during the Civil War, helped to transform Beale Street from an upper-middle-class neighborhood for European Americans to a commercial street for Negroes. By the 1880s European-American families had started their flight from Beale Street, and in 1899 Church responded to the city’s segregation practices by purchasing six acres of land to build Church Park and Auditorium for Negroes. The two-story auditorium seated two thousand persons and included a parlor, meeting rooms, and a refreshment stand. Church hired W. C. Handy as the park’s orchestra leader. A college-educated man who put the rural blues to written music, Handy became known as the “Father of the Blues.” Among the famous visitors to the park was President Theodore Roosevelt, who addressed some ten thousand people in 1902. Church’s auditorium became the meeting place for the Lincoln Republican League under the leadership of Robert R. Church Jr. (1895-1952), who kept his offices at 392 Beale. During the 1940s, after a racially motivated city hall changed Church Park and Auditorium’s name to Beale Avenue Park in retaliation against the younger Church, Matthew Thornton (1873-1963), “Mayor of Beale Street,” led a successful African American movement to restore the Church name. In 1969, the Memphis Sesquicentennial Commission erected a plaque on the Church Park grounds. The city redeveloped the park in 1987.
In his book Beale Street: Where the Blues Began, George W. Lee recalled “all nite Halloween Balls, and Big Jitterbug Contests” on the famed thoroughfare. Mac Harris, “King of the Gamblers,” strutted down Beale in a cutaway coat, striped trousers, a wide felt hat, sporting a twisted mustache, a beard, and a cane. Jimmy Turpin ran the Old Monarch gambling joint. During the early 1880s, Lymus Wallace operated a saloon at 117 Beale Street. George Jackson opened the first black drugstore on Beale by 1893. Around 1903 Lucie E. Campbell (1885-1963), Tennessee’s famous writer of gospel songs and music pageants, organized a group of Beale Street musicians into the Music Club. Bert Roddy (1886-1963) and Robert Lewis Jr. opened the Iroquois Cafe across from Church Park. Roddy was the first president of the Memphis branch of the NAACP. In 1917 Beale Street’s African American businessmen included William Burrows (contractor), George R. Jackson (pharmacist), L. J. Searcy (real estate broker), Paul Sneed (bookkeeper), A. F. Ward (cashier), and C. A. Terrell (physician). Church’s Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company was also on Beale. During the Great Depression, owners of the secondhand clothing stores on Beale stood on the sidewalks and enticed customers inside to buy coats for $1.95 and dresses for twenty-five cents. Before his exile to Chicago during the 1940s, Elmer Atkinson, a political ally to Church Jr., operated his Beale Street Cafe. By the 1960s pawn shops, clothing stores, movie theaters, nightclubs, restaurants, and backstreet apartments filled Beale Street. Blues singer B. B. King and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, among others, performed in Church’s Auditorium. There also the annual Negro Cotton Carnival (“Cotton Makers’ Jubilee”) and parade were held.
After the riots of 1968 Beale Street and the downtown area began to decline. Businessmen and developers shifted their center of operations to East Memphis. In 1969 the city undertook urban renewal projects, including Beale Street I and Beale Street II, which erased the area’s housing, demolished 474 buildings, and placed a block-wide barrier of empty lots and parking spaces between African Americans and Beale Street. This project left a thin commercial (blue light) district between Second and Fourth Avenues, where African American businesses were forced out through condemnation of buildings and high property resale prices. The Memphis Press-Scimitar (June 10, 1979) declared the “Urban renewal destroyed Beale Street.” In 1979 a preservation and neighborhood revitalization movement emerged too late to save the Beale Street local African Americans had known.
Beale Street became a National Historic Landmark historic district, with businesses reopened to attract tourists. Beale Street remained home to several African American institutions, however, including Church Park, the Beale Street Baptist Church, the R. Q. Venson Center for the Elderly, the Mohammed Ali Movie Theater, and the main branch of Tri-State Bank, among a few others. The Beale Street Baptist Church, isolated by vacant lots at the far end of the street and outside the Beale Street historic district, was listed individually in the National Register of Historic Places. Although the auditorium no longer exists, Church Park was placed on the National Register in 1994 and became part of the Beale Street historic district.
George W. Lee, Beale Street: Where the Blues Began (1934); Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall, Beale Black and Blue: Life and Music on Black America’s Main Street (1981); Robert A. Sigas, Cotton Row to Beale Street: A Business History of Memphis (1979)