The West Tennessee Historical Society is the successor of four other historical societies. Prior to September 28, 1950, the West Tennessee Historical Society (WTHS) was an unincorporated society whose origins can be traced to the antebellum period. Organized in 1857, the Old Folks of Shelby County was the first of those organizations from which the West Tennessee Historical Society grew. The Old Folks, founded by Memphis residents to preserve the history of early Memphis, published a monthly journal titled the Old Folks Record, edited by James D. Davis, who also published A History of Memphis in 1873. The historian of the Old Folks of Shelby County was Eugene Magevney, an early Memphis educator and city alderman during the 1840s and 1850s. The society continued until the Civil War and reorganized in 1870. In addition to preserving “authentic history” in print, the society acquired Winchester Cemetery, where many of the city’s early residents were buried, in 1880 and provided for its preservation.
Following the Civil War, the second antecedent society of the WTHS made its appearance. Founded in 1866 and incorporated in 1867, the Confederate Relief and Historical Association of Memphis chronologically overlapped the Old Folks of Shelby County. This association was not only interested in perpetuating southern history, but it also aided disabled Confederate veterans and their widows and orphans. As its role in relief work diminished, the association reorganized in 1869 as the Confederate Historical Association. Membership in this association was limited to ex-Confederates “whose records as soldiers were clean, and their male descendants.” Perhaps its most famous member was former Confederate General George W. Gordon, who became president of the association in 1897. An auxiliary to the all-male association, the Ladies Confederate Historical Association, was organized on May 16, 1889. Similar to its “predecessor,” the Old Folks of Shelby County, the Confederate Historical Association also perpetuated history in a more concrete sense. Following the repeal of a law which prohibited monuments to former Confederates, the association erected a granite monument honoring Confederate dead. Once again, in 1884, reorganization occurred when the association became Camp No. 28 of the United Confederate Veterans.
In 1900 Judge John Preston Young, who had been active in the Confederate Historical Association, was instrumental in organizing the Memphis Historical Society, which continued to focus on local history while moving away from Civil War themes. In 1935 the Memphis Historical Society broadened its emphasis to a regional perspective when the society became the unincorporated West Tennessee Historical Society. Fifteen years later, in January 1950, the society voted to incorporate and received a charter from the State of Tennessee on September 7; the incorporators took over the society three weeks later. The original incorporators were Marshall Wingfield, Marie G. Wingfield, Lois D. Bejach, Wilena Robert Bejach, Gilmer Richardson, Enoch L. Mitchell, James A. Wax, J. Winfield Qualls, Perry M. Harbert, Roy W. Black, and John T. Gray. The first volume of the Papers of the society appeared in 1947. Marshall Wingfield, one of the original incorporators, served as the president of the society from 1938 to 1961. The society’s annual award for the best article appearing in its Papers is named after Dr. Wingfield.
The Society currently has over four hundred individual members and ninety institutional members and is composed of the twenty-one counties west of the Tennessee River. While its historical interests focus primarily on that region, it also promotes and publishes histories concerning the state, the Mid-South, and the South as a whole.