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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.