Thursday, September 25, 2008

Beale Street - The Early Years

Prior to the 1860's, Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee was a residential area for middle-to-upper income whites, and where blacks worked as their house servants. But after the end of the Civil War, blacks came in increasing numbers to live on or near Beale Street, as many former slaves fled to relative freedom of the city rather than stay on the plantations.

After 1878, Memphis suffered greatly from cholera and yellow fever epidemics. But the African-American population continued to increase due to a lower death rate than the whites. The blacks also continued to live in town because they had nowhere else they could go.

Around 1890, the African-American population was 50% of the areas population. By this time, black Memphis now had its own commercial center - Beale Street. Though is was never fully complete, Beale Street became known as the "Main Street of black Memphis" by the 1890's.

One of the first to develop Beale Street as a black business center was Robert R. Church, who ran a saloon on Beale Street in the 1860's. He also bought up property, established businesses and sold property to blacks and whites who also wished to serve the growing African-American community in south Memphis. He also established a bank to primarily serve the local businesses and residents. Another great contribution by the Church family was "Church Park", six acres around the First Baptist Church, which included a 2,000 seat auditorium. It served as as a scene of school graduations, political events, dances and held large church meetings and conventions. It was replaced in 1929 with a smaller community center that continued to serve the above mentioned functions.

Around 1900, the ownership of local businesses spread to include Irish and Italian-Americans, and from the 1920's to the 1970's, a significant number of Beale Street businesses were owned and operated by Jewish-Americans. In 1898, a city public works project - Beale Street Market, brought about greater interaction among the local African-Americans and the new immigrants to this country. By 1910, a good-sized Italian population centered their businesses near the market. The "Market" was torn down in 1928 and the site converted to become W. C. Handy Park.

Saturday night was primarily the time for the hard-working African-Americans to "let off" a little steam. The bars and clubs stayed open as long as was allowed. Jam sessions by blues musicians were heard throughout the night and the entertainment ranged from fancy parties to wild and rowdy gambling and drinking establishments. Pee Wee's Saloon was where W. C. Handy did the orchestration for his first blues song, "Memphis Blues". He used a rented office on Beale Street to compose and write the lyrics to the that song and where he also composed his famous song "St. Louis Blues". Music echoed up and down the street almost any hour of the day or night. Without question, Saturday night was when the musicians played the loudest and longest.

From the 1890's to the 1940's the music was mostly the blues. More particularly, it was the Mississippi Delta blues. But even in the black community, there were many who opposed the blues and all its connections. Understandably, the ministers of the community opposed the late nights, the alcohol and the loose sexual behavior that went on around the blues joints of Beale Street. Plus, the money that was spent on Beale Street would never make it to the church coffers. Even middle and upper class blacks were as opposed to the goings-on of Beale Street because that was a reminder of all that they sought to avoid or get beyond.

One event on Beale Street that started in the great depression, the "Cotton Makers Jubilee" parade has continued into the latter part of the 20th Century. Black churches, schools and civic organizations competed on the march down Beale Street for prizes and other honors. In 1982, the "white" Cotton Carnival and the "black" Cotton Makers Jubilee parade joined together to become Carnival Memphis.

In this place, where many culture changes have been made, where cotton was king, "Beale Street" and the "Blues" have endured.

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