New book spotights Beale Street
Memphis' early Black history revealed
By Ron Wynn
Noted author Preston Lauterbach was somewhat familiar with the history of Memphis and Beale Street even before he began the research for his new, comprehensive volume "Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, And the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis" (Norton). But what he's discovered in his work will positively change the opinions of most people who only know Beale Street through its current incarnation as predominantly a tourist and entertainment district.
"The folks who come to Memphis today to see Beale Street really have absolutely no idea regarding its importance as a Black historical community," Lauterbach said during a recent interview. "It was once the center of several thriving businesses that helped keep the entire city of Memphis afloat."
"It was also at the forefront decades before the Civil Rights Movement of lots of activism on behalf of Blacks and social justice. Some of the earliest voter registration efforts for Blacks were done on Beale Street. What's there today has almost no connection to what Beale Street used to be or how important it is in Black history."
A big part of "Beale Street Dynasty" profiles a legendary figure, Robert Church. A biracial man who would eventually become the South's first Black millionaire after getting his freedom from his white father, Robert Church survived both the 1866 Memphis riot and being shot point blank twice to forge an empire based on vice. Yet, he would ultimately be linked to some of the most progressive events and personalities in the religion.
"Church is a fascinating fellow," Lauterbach continued. "He had one foot in the underworld and one foot in what would now be considered progressive politics. He built his fortune through investment in saloons, brothels. gambling and other things like that, but he was also very much involved in helping Black investments."
"He and his son brought a lot of property around the city. They built a bank and later created a park. So while you had the specter of whites denying Blacks access to an auditorium for instance, Church and his son turned around and built one that was better than the one that whites were barring them for entering."
But as he was profiting from these illegal enterprises, Church was assiting in building the roots of what later became the Civil Rights Movement. A major relationship in his life was forged with pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells.
"They became extremely close," Lauterbach said. "He helped fund her newspaper and also gave her money when things got bad. Church had major connections throughout the country and was friends with people like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Later, he helped found the Lincoln League, which preceded the NAACP and was the most powerful Black political group around during the early 20th century."
Robert Church's importance also extends into the musical arena. "He and his son commissioned
W.C. Handy to write his first blues compositions," Lauterbach continued. "Handy wasn't a blues musician, but he loved the music, and he was one of the few really trained musical composers around at the time who were Black."
"He wanted to document this music that he was hearing, so he went to Church, who provided him the capital to help really get the blues going in Memphis and throughout the area."
There's a backdrop of violence and corruption that runs through "Beale Street Dynasty's" pages. Such names as David "Pappy" Hadden, Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest and the infamous E. H. "Boss" Crump all vied for power in a 19th century Memphis where newly freed slaves, "radical" Republicans and reactionary Democrats were battling each other for control.
It documents the role that Blacks had in helping Memphis survive the Yellow Fever epidemics of the late 1800s, and the evolution of Beale Street as an epicenter for Black commerce and politics even as Jim Crow policies are emerging and racist resentment is growing.
"I only went up to the '40s in my book," Lauterbach concluded, "because I wanted to show both how Beale Street developed and how the white reaction eventually led to its demise as a power center.
"It did make a musical comeback in the late '40s, and what's been developed since the '80s and on into the present is very interesting, but it's nothing compared to what was once there. Beale Street's vitality and history is as dynamic as any street in America, and the role that it once played in Black history and Memphis' commerce and development is a fantastic story. It's one that truly could make a good movie someday if anyone were interested."