‘Now let me tell you a little more about Beale Street,’ Elaine Lee-Turner says. I’ve joined one of Elaine’s Heritage Tours of Memphis, and we’re standing by the city’s most famous street.
‘Because of segregation there were only certain places in Memphis that blacks could go, and Beale Street was one of them. It was the entertainment center, but it was also full of businesses, banks, insurance companies. It was also a political base and a cultural center. BB King got his start here. Bobby Bland too. Now there’s only one African-American owned business on Beale, the rest are all white-owned.’
It’s an interesting perspective on Beale Street. Elaine set up her tour company in 1983 with her sister, Joan Lee-Nelson, and back then it was the first African-American owned, historical city sightseeing tour agency in the entire state of Tennessee. The company’s Heritage Tours show the city of Memphis from a black perspective, starting at Clayborn Temple, from where the ‘I Am a Man!’ civil rights freedom marches would set off. It’s also from where Martin Luther King led his last march, in support of the city’s sanitation workers, on March 28th, 1968. A week later his body would by lying around the corner in the RS Lewis and Sons funeral home.
‘It’s the oldest black-owned funeral home in Memphis,’ says Elaine. ‘It opened in 1914 and is still operating.’
We then pass Robert Church Park, which opened in 1899 as the first park in the city that African-Americans could use. It was initiated by and named after Robert Church.
‘Church owned many properties, he was the first black millionaire in the South. He owned a hotel on the lot where the Peabody Hotel now stands.’
Next we visit the WC Handy House, set back from Beale Street and which Elaine’s company looks after.
‘Handy is known as the Father of the Blues. He didn’t claim to be the inventor of the blues but he documented it. He wrote The Memphis Blues, and Beale Street Blues. His family were all ministers but he bought a guitar when he was twelve. His father made him get rid of ‘that devil instrument.’ He had to obey his father but he saved up again and this time he bought a cornet, which was much easier to hide than a guitar. After he wrote The Memphis Blues he was duped out of the profits for it, so he became one of the first musicians to set up his own music publishing company.’
It’s an entertaining, absorbing and occasionally shocking 2½-hour tour that takes in over 30 sites, with Elaine saving the best and most powerful till last: The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in North Memphis.
The house was built in 1849 and was owned by Jacob Burkle, a wealthy German immigrant who also owned the Memphis Stockyard. What is remarkable about Burkle is that he used the house as a refuge for runaway slaves, concealing them until it was safe for them to make their way down to the nearby Mississippi and catch a boat going north. Burkle managed to do all this in total secrecy while remaining friends with wealthy Memphis businessmen and slave-owners.
Among the museum’s many artefacts that tell the chilling history of the slave trade are posters for Memphis slave markets:
DEALER IN SLAVES
No. 87 Adams Street, Memphis, Ten.
Negroes Wanted. We wish to buy 100 Negroes for the Southern market.
‘A typical slave dealership,’ Elaine explains, ‘would have cells upstairs where the slaves were kept, and downstairs a showroom. Nathan Bedford Forrest, his business was selling slaves. After slavery he was also the one who started the Ku Klux Klan and was the first Grand Wizard. A statue of him on a horse still stands in Memphis, but after the murders in Charleston there were calls to remove it. It’s still being discussed. There are still people around here who celebrate his birthday every year.’
While slavery in the USA may have officially ended 150 years ago, it still casts a very long shadow.
‘My mother’s father was a slave,’ says Elaine, ‘so it’s not that long ago.’
All photos (c) Donna Dailey.