Beale Street: Home
of the Blues
Today’s neon district was once home to a thriving Memphis neighborhood
By Tiara Campbell
Beale Street is the Home of the Blues. It says so on the neon signs lining the street and the shot glasses sold in souvenir shops and the homepage of bealestreet.com. With such consistent branding, you might think that the blues had selfishly claimed Beale Street for itself, leaving no room for anything or anybody else. But from its birth in the 1800s to its death in the 1970s, the Home of the Blues was home to people as well. It was more than any district; it was a neighborhood.
Beale’s Founding, 1840s-1880s
Though its exact origins are difficult to ascertain, Beale Street was established sometime during the first half of the nineteenth century. In the years leading to the Civil War, the western end of Beale near the Mississippi River transformed into a commercial district for free black people. During the Civil War, Union forces quickly took control of Memphis, and former enslaved people flooded into the city.
Following the war, Beale became a hub for black land ownership, entrepreneurship, and community activity as early Jim Crow policies concentrated black Memphians onto Beale and the surrounding streets. Upper- and middle-class black families moved into Victorian homes on the eastern end of the street, while central Beale blended commercial, entertainment, and residential space.
Beale’s Neighborhood, 1890s-1930s
As one of the few areas black individuals and families could live in Memphis, Beale Street became the main commercial and entertainment district for black people throughout the area. Many black Memphians lived just south of Beale in a dense complex of single-story shotgun houses. Others lived on the street itself in rented apartments, furnished rooms, and shotgun houses sandwiched between saloons, shoe repair shops, and grocery stores. Hoodoo practitioners, blues musicians, physicians, lawyers, gamblers, barbers, and beauticians all interacted with each other in Beale’s neighborhood. Black Memphians of all identities and cultures made a home on Beale Street. They lived, worked, and played on Beale. Church Park, founded in 1899 at the junction of Beale and Fourth, became the heart of black community activity, hosting graduation celebrations, dances, religious gatherings, and conventions.
For many Beale Streeters, having a good time did not entail frequenting the sort of saloons and clubs that gave Beale its reputation as “the underworld.”
“Beale is more than just a little street prowled by midnight marauders and seductive concubines,” wrote George W. Lee in 1934. “The working people are on parade, going nowhere in particular, just out strolling, just glad of a chance to dress up and expose themselves on the avenue after working hard all week.”
Newman’s Beale, 1940s-1950s
As Don Newman stood with his tripod and camera at the intersection of Beale and Fourth in 1948, he captured a Memphis neighborhood. Before him was what would become the Beale Street Historic District in 1966: Busy Bee Cab Service, Avalon Pool Room, the Pantaze Drug Company, cafés, liquor stores, barber shops, lunch counters, and countless people. To his left, just out of frame of his camera, was Joe Raffanti’s Liquor Store. To his right, Lady Louise’s Hosiery Shop. At his back was the length of Beale Street from Fourth down to East: tailor shops, drug stores, and dentists’ offices. All around Don were places to live and make a living.
Don took his photographs to immortalize a Memphis he felt would soon be changing. In the mid-1950s, Beale Street, like the rest of Downtown, faced competition from East Memphis. Desegregation, white flight, and the opportunity for middle-class black families to finally move past the barriers of Jim Crow that had bound them since the end of Reconstruction all contributed to the long decline of the Downtown area, and investors put their money into projects in the east instead.
In the summer of 1959, Mayor Edmund Orgill announced that Beale Street would become the center of a new tourist attraction. Downtown needed to be revitalized, and tourism would bring in much-needed revenue to the area. That same year Don returned to Beale to capture the street once again. “He really saw such a change in Memphis,” said Bertha Mae Newman of her husband. “It really bothered him because he hated to see everything change… He was really dedicated to preserving a lot of the places in Memphis that we hoped would never change, but, eventually, so many of them did.”
(Editor’s note: StoryBoard could not secure permission to display Don Newman’s Beale Street photograph here; it does however appear in the print version of this article, with permission, on page 16 of StoryBoard’s Neighborhoods Issue)
Urban Renewal, 1960s-1970s
In 1964, the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA), an urban renewal agency, released an 800-page plan for Beale Street’s redevelopment. Beale was to be transformed into a suburban-inspired area, complete with a cobblestone walkway and covered shopping mall. Attracting potential white tourists was paramount. While promising that Beale “would not be a bulldozer project,” MHA also made clear that much of the street’s built environment would not survive redevelopment.
“Beale Street has been permitted to deteriorate to a point where little remains, from a practical standpoint, of its lively past,” read an MHA brochure in 1966. MHA promised to retain the structures with “historical value,” but what did historical value mean to a federally funded organization with a lone black member on its executive board? MHA determined that only 70 structures were structurally sound enough to warrant saving.
There would be no room for a sustainable black neighborhood on the new Beale Street. According to MHA Deputy Director Randall A. P. Johnson, MHA decided that “people just wouldn’t come to that type of area”—as if black Memphians had not been coming to Beale for generations. MHA planned to demolish Beale’s tool stores, liquor stores, and beauty shops to build night clubs, restaurants, and curio shops in their place.
It was an unfortunate reminder, and a validation, of the term sometimes used in reference to urban renewal: negro removal.
“They did everything they could to get us out of here.”Abraham Schwab, 1979.
In 1969, MHA brought in the bulldozers. Beale’s 625 buildings was reduced to 65 by 1979. An estimated 1500 residents were displaced as a result of MHA’s renewal efforts on Beale Street. What had been a 40-block long street stretching from the riverfront to East Street was reduced to just a 3-block strip between Second and Fourth streets. This 3-block strip had been included as part of the Beale Street Historic District in 1966, but even it could not escape the specter of urban renewal.
“They pushed the stores out,” stated Abraham Schwab in 1979. “They did everything they could to get us out of here. They offered us money and sent in condemnation crews.” While A. Schwab’s – with resources not available to other businesses along the street – survived the destruction of urban renewal, other Beale businesses and homes were not so fortunate, falling prey to the city’s predatory real estate practices. As Beale Streeters went bankrupt or moved away, the city gained possession of the vacant buildings they left behind.
Beale’s Redevelopment, 1973-1980s
After razing hundreds of buildings and displacing hundreds more residents, MHA was finally ready to rebuild Beale Street from the ground up. But by 1973, MHA’s federal funding had run out, and Beale deteriorated even further.
“Beale Street Historic District can best be described as a group of small, burned out or decayed buildings immediately adjacent to extensive urban renewal areas of downtown,” read a National Park Service survey in 1977. “The buildings are decayed and old with many rear walls and roofs falling down and with interiors which are in a deplorable state of repair. Only three businesses appear to be operating in the three block Beale Street District.”
Even prominent music journalist Stanley Booth lamented the state of Beale and the Downtown area in the late 1970s. “The path of Martin Luther King from the Clayborn Temple A.M.E. Church to Beale Street has been scraped clean, bound by curbs, and planted in grass,” he wrote on the back of the landmark record album Beale Street Saturday Night in 1979 (commissioned by the Memphis Development Foundation and shown below).
“Across Main Street both sides of Beale have been bulldozed, a new bank and a new public utilities building have been constructed, and all traces of the past have been destroyed up to Lansky’s Men’s Wear, the place Sam Phillips sent Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley to learn how to dress cool.” Booth, like Don Newman, predicted a change in Memphis. “Through the wisdom of its civic leaders,” he prophesized, “Memphis is once again nearing the point of being worthless enough to attract money.” And so it did.
After years of scandal and disastrous private redevelopment ventures on Beale Street, the city selected Elkington & Keltner, a private non-profit corporation, to serve as the management and development company for Beale Street in 1982. Like MHA, John Elkington planned to turn Beale into a tourist attraction. Instead of the suburbs, however, Beale’s music history provided the inspiration for the renovations. Elkington’s strategy for redeveloping Beale relied on “develop[ing] a concept that will give patrons the music and food that they are expecting to get on Beale Street,” as he described in his 2008 book, Resurrecting the Home of the Blues. Tourists would expect and be made to expect the blues, and all of the elements that made Beale so similar to other neighborhoods across the country—the grocers, tailors, doctors, mothers, fathers—would remain buried deep in the past. Beale Street would be the Home of the Blues.
Beale Street is home to the blues. That is all.
Tiara Campbell is a native Memphian and recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. As a student intern with Memphis Heritage, Inc., Tiara contributed significantly to the archival research behind the Newman to Now project featured monthly in StoryBoard Memphis.
About Newman to Now
Memphis Heritage’s Newman to Now project is based on a “then and now” juxtaposition of Don Newman’s historic photographs and Gary Walpole’s contemporary photographs of Memphis buildings and streetscapes. It explores forces behind the continuity and change in Memphis’ built environ- ment revealed by this juxtaposition, including the roles of citizens and communities in shaping these changes. Preservation plays a key role in the present and future of Memphis. The completed project will include a digital exhibit and lesson plans for use in Memphis schools. The Newman to Now project is partially funded by Humanities Tennessee, and independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Memphis Heritage has managed the Newman Collection since 2002 in agreement with Don Newman’s family. Images from the Newman’s Memphis collection are available for purchase through the MHI offices and can be viewed at: newmansmemphis.com