Jul 2, 2022 – Memphis in the Meantime

Aside from the displays of the American flag which didn’t seem out of the ordinary, this was one of the few reminders of the Fourth of July holiday in Mississippi.

After loitering in Florida for two weeks, we made our way to Mississippi with a short stopover in Alabama. As we pulled out of our green sanctuary that is the Gunter Hill Corp of Engineers campground outside of Montgomery, we braced ourselves for a long bumpy ride. The angry Interstate highway pavement through Alabama and Mississippi shakes our home on wheels with Richter Scale strength. Safely past the worst of it (through Birmingham), we headed northwest on I-22 toward Memphis where the road became more subdued but still mustered a frequent jab or punch just to let us know it could turn mean at any time.

At an Corp of Engineer campground in Mississippi, we enjoyed a well shaded and large campsite with full hookup and a modest view of the water through the trees. With a senior lifetime national park pass, the cost is $12 a night.

As always, when we cross the state line into Mississippi, we are reminded of its burden. It would be our home over the fourth of July holiday weekend, but there seemed to be sparse indication of celebration anywhere. Nestled within the lackadaisical rural area of northern Mississippi is another Corp of Engineer campground, Hernando Point on Lake Arkabutla that we became quite fond of. Two years ago, it was destroyed by an unexpected tornado in the month of February that “came outta nowhere” according to one RV’er we met there. After the cleanup, the campground received a major facelift as all sites were upgraded with full hookup.

Memphis’s Beale Street’s music reputation began in the 1860s when Black musicians came there to play their music. These traveling musicians were so poor they created instruments out of such things as jugs.

But enough of Mississippi, we came here for Memphis, a city full of stories. Before the brutality of the heat forced us to seek refuge indoors in downtown Memphis, we took a walking tour (without blue suede shoes). It became evident as our tour guide Shannon told one story after another that Memphis is a survivor. It survived the Civil War, an earthquake or two or three and a couple bouts with yellow fever. The ancient Pyramids of Giza that have been around for some time now come to mind – after all, Memphis is named after an ancient Egyptian capitol. Founded in 1819, Memphis is not nearly as old as the pyramids, but it has survived horrible things while growing into one of the largest cities in the antebellum south once having a world market for cotton and lumber.

A. Schwab is the oldest store on Beale Street, established in 1876. After the walking tour, we found refuge from the heat with an old fashioned ginger ale served at the store’s soda fountain
B.B. King got his start at WDIA, the first Black radio station. The young Bobby ‘Blues’ Bland walked into the station as the managers were meeting with their usual rounds of ‘medicinal tonic’ called Peptikon. Laughing at the young man with the guitar, they told him they would let him play on the radio if he came up with a jingle for Peptikon. He did and B.B. King was born.
In 1962 during the Civil Rights Movement, a statue of Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederacy) was erected in Memphis Park. With no other way to remove the offensive statue, the city sold the property for $1 to the non-profit organization Memphis Greenspace which promptly had it removed in 2017. Where it once stood now stands a tree, seen here.
As President of the Columbia Mutual Life Insurance Co, Lloyd Binford moved his company to Memphis and had this building erected in 1925, the tallest in Memphis. Binford soon became head of the newly formed Memphis Censor Board & proceeded to ban films by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mae West and anyone else who demonstrated immoral, lewd and lascivious behavior. Oh, he also banned any film that contained a train robbery because of his own traumatic experience with the railroad.

Memphis is not a cosmopolitan city by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, it was difficult to avoid comparisons to Nashville, where we also took a walking tour a couple years ago. Both cities have reputations built on music. While Nashville, although a bit pretentious, has a “je ne sais quoi” that generates a celebratory atmosphere, Memphis in contrast sings the blues like it has truly suffered through it. And I think much of what Memphis is today can be attributed to an event that occurred on August 13, 1878.

The cost to erect this fountain in Court Square was covered by donors including Madam Vincent, a well respected ‘Madame”. Contrary to the implication of her title, Madam Vincent and her husband were owners of a reputable saloon unofficially called ‘Madame Vincent’s Crystal Palace”. Vincent was her husband’s first name. The couple had 12 children and were successful business owners and Italian immigrants that contributed well to Memphis from the 1860s on.

Back in 1878, the connection between mosquitoes and the spread of deadly viruses was largely unknown. By that time, yellow fever outbreaks were not unusual in the south. Quarantined steamboats along the Mississippi River were common when a man escaped one that was docked on the river near Memphis. Seems the man still had an appetite when he entered Kate Bionda’s restaurant for a meal. Several days later, on August 13th to be exact, Kate Bionda died of yellow fever, the first casualty of over 5000 Memphis residents to die of the fast spreading virus from Aug 13 until Oct 28 when the first frost appeared.

Memphis is the largest city on the Mississippi and in 1878, steamboats would have passed through here on a regular basis. In the middle is Mud Island, formed after a USS Monitor ship ran aground and sand and gravel accumulated around it. Mud Island River Park is a popular attraction in Memphis.

Within days of Bionda’s death, over 25,000 people fled Memphis. Those remaining were either too poor or infirmed to get out. Poor sanitation conditions caused the virus to spread quickly in the city that had a reputation of being sickly and filthy. The devastating epidemic received national attention (mainly because no one wanted the refugees in their cities) and various charitable groups came to Memphis to offer help. Residents that remained rallied and helped each other out. The famous Peabody Hotel stayed open to house doctors and nurses. Quarantined refugee camps were set up and Blacks were allowed to serve as policemen and firefighters. Everyone was in it together.

Anthony Sebastian Barboro survived yellow fever 1876. During the 1878 epidemic, Barboro being immune to the disease converted his grocery store into a field hospital.

The subsequent loss of over 30,000 people bankrupted the city and caused the state of Tennessee to revoke its city charter. But there is a silver lining somewhere in this tragedy. The next year as another threat of yellow fever bared down on Memphis, efforts to clean up the city accelerated with the help of a national sanitary reform. This led to an innovative and perhaps revolutionary waterworks system. Designed by the same man who designed the Central Park drainage system, Memphis’s upgraded sanitation system was cutting edge and became the model for several other cities to follow suit. Consequently, Memphis regained its city status and between 1900-1950 increased its population from 100,000 to 400,000.

Yes, we did see the famous Peabody Hotel ducks, but not until after the red carpet had been rolled up and carted away. So they were just ducks to us. The daily duck walk began in the 1930s when a duck hunter who used live ducks as decoys was staying in the hotel, got quite drunk and for kicks touted out his ducks in the lobby pond. He forgot about them until the next day. By then, the ducks became an attraction for the hotel guests. The hotel decided to keep it going. The ducks are trained by a duckmaster and rotated every 3 months, after which they go live their lives peacefully somewhere else.

Which brings me to the Memphis sanitation strike that took place in 1968, another event that put Memphis on the map. Most of the workers were Black, working for a segregated city run by a mayor with ties to the KKK and a penchant for maintaining Jim Crow. Non-unionized, the sanitation employees had little opportunity to improve working conditions, which became tragically clear with the lack of response from the city when two workers were crushed to death by a garbage compactor.

Their deaths led to a massive strike. It was a bad scene all around and eventually Martin Luther King Jr came to Memphis in support of the strike. Dr King was offered a room at the “whites only” Peabody Hotel. He refused it and instead stayed at the Black-owned Lorraine Motel. During the days of segregation, Blacks traveling the USA relied on “The Green Book” (the Negro Motorist Green Book) to find lodging and restaurants. Owned and operated by Walter and Loree Bailey, the Lorraine Motel was listed in the book. It would be King’s final stop.

On 450 Mulberry St, Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated at 6:01 PM, April 4, 1968.
A wreath is displayed in front of Room 306. Loree Bailey, wife of the motel owner Walter Bailey died of a stroke three hours after MLK’s death.

It is from the corner of Mulberry and Butler where the Lorraine Motel stands that we received an unexpected lesson in our Civil Rights tour of the USA. Following King’s death, it was Walter Bailey’s wish to turn the Lorraine Motel into a memorial to Dr King. A few months prior to Bailey’s death in 1988, the motel closed and plans to build a civil rights museum on site began. Unfortunately, the tenants in the Lorraine Motel were evicted, the last of them being Jacqueline Smith who did not leave without a fight and 34 years later, she is still fighting. Her protest began with these words:

“You people are making a mistake. If I can’t live at The Lorraine, I’ll camp out on the sidewalk out front.”

After several years of camping out across the street, Smith was provided by the city a small house to live in. However, this has not stopped her protests. Every day without fail, she resides over a small booth of sorts on the corner of Mulberry and Butler (check it out on Google Maps), keeping vigil and ready to spread her message to anyone that will listen. While camped at Hernando Point, I learned about Jacqueline Smith from fellow RV’ers. Vivian and I wanted to meet her.

34 years and 163 days ago from this day, Jacqueline Smith was evicted from the Lorraine Motel and began her protest here on the corner of Mulberry and Butler. I could not get the nerve to ask her for a photo, but a few minutes before I took this photo, I was standing on the other side of the banner speaking to Ms Smith who sits at a table under the umbrella.

Adorned in a colorful scarf and dark sunglasses, the diminutive Jacqueline Smith held up a tattered copy of Dr King’s “A Testament of Hope” and implored us to “read his words, not those written by white people who glorify King’s death and negativity with a multi-million dollar purchase of the rooming house from where Dr King was shot“. She spoke to us of the ill effects of gentrification, interracial marriages and wealthy Black people spending their money on things other than to help other Black people. But mostly, it was about the lack of support for the homeless and disadvantaged, healthcare and help for the old and infirm. “Those are the issues that mattered most to Dr. King and they still matter today”, says Smith. And when I asked her if she had met King, she promptly rapped my knuckles with these words, “That question is not relevant to the conversation”.

Many people waiting to get into the Civil Rights Museum. Walter Bailey kept everything in the room as it was when Dr King was assassinated on the balcony.

We were taken aback by Ms. Smith’s words. Walking toward Central BBQ a block away from the Lorraine, Vivian and I pondered those words and while we agree with the message about support for the disadvantaged, there were other things we could not see eye to eye. According to Ms Smith, “They wanted King to marry a white woman”. I am not sure who ‘they’ is, but we couldn’t help think, what if Dr. King fell in love with a white woman? Who are we to dictate who he, or anyone for that matter can or cannot marry? At any rate, I must thank Jacqueline Smith for her tenacity of keeping the fires stoked and for inspiring the young Black man who sat talking with her and taking notes in his copy of King’s book. I thank her for adding a fresh perspective to our Civil Rights education and making our visit to Memphis more memorable than usual.

While people were lined up at the Civil Rights Museum, we got in this line. You can’t visit Memphis without trying the Memphis BBQ!

Lastly, before we left Memphis, we had to see the 322-ft tall “Memphis Pyramid”, or what our tour guide referred to as “The Redneck Disney”. The Pyramid was built to serve as an arena as Memphis tried to lure pro teams to its city. After losing money with the opening of the Fedex Forum, it was bought out by Bass Pro Shops in 2015. Enjoy the visual delights of a Bass Pro Shop on decorative steroids.

3 thoughts on “Jul 2, 2022 – Memphis in the Meantime

  1. Hi Connie. Your well-written post brought me back to our visit of Memphis three years ago! We also found the city to be an interesting mix of experiences. Beal Street was interesting but (as you mentioned) I was expecting more of a Nashville vibe. While there were interesting things to see, I found it more touristy/commercial than historical. Your story of Jacqueline Smith was fascinating. Unfortunately, she was not there when we visited. She sounds like a fascinating individual. We also visited Central BBQ and had TERRIBLE food and service! We definitely chose the wrong day to visit. Did you go to Graceland? we enjoyed that much more than I expected.

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    1. Things have not gotten any better at Central BBQ. As you experienced my ribs were mediocre and sides were as well.

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