A Brief History of Memphis

Memphis’ first settlers were Native Americans who were drawn to the area’s bluffs overlooking the river. By building their settlements on the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, it protected them from flooding, and the mighty river allowed them easy transportation access.

When the explorer Hernando DeSoto and his army arrived here in 1541, they were the first Europeans to see the lower half of the river. They set up camp near the site of Memphis and claimed the land for Spain. During the next 200 years, the city would change hands numerous times, and ownership would be claimed by the French and the English as well. In 1796, Tennessee became the 16th state admitted to the Union, but the city didn’t officially come into existence until more than 20 years later. In 1818, the Chickasaw Indians sold the land to the United States government, and three Tennesseans decided to incorporate a new town.

Future United States President Andrew Jackson and two other entrepreneurs – John Overton and James Winchester – saw the financial possibilities of having a city on the bluffs. The men decided to call the place Memphis, which translates roughly into “place of good abode.” The city was officially incorporated in 1826, and played host mainly to river workers and folks who were on their way to the West. In the 1840s, the city began to boom, thanks mainly to the “white gold,” or “King Cotton” that was growing in nearby farmlands. By 1850, Memphis was the largest inland cotton market in the world, an industry that relied on the inhumane foundation of slavery. The city’s location and its reliance on slave labor would prove to be a volatile mix in the near future.

Memphians were firmly entrenched on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. In 1861, recruits from the city formed more than 70 Confederate companies. Only a year later, the Battle of Memphis took place – a 90-minute fight between the Confederate gunboats and the Union Naval forces – and the Confederate flag flying over the city was taken down and replaced with a United States flag. The Union Army’s victory and subsequent occupation as a hospital post for more than 5,000 Union soldiers was beneficial to the city after the war ended, as the Union forces had no need to torch the city or terrorize its citizens since the battle was over so quickly. Memphis rebounded quickly from the war, as many merchants realized that the “Yankee” money was actually worth more to them than Confederate money.

Memphis’ prime location along the Mississippi River was one of the reasons for its early success, but it also contributed to the city’s first failure. The city didn’t enjoy the sanitary conditions that it does today and much of the area was prone to flooding, which led to the breeding of mosquitoes. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1873, 5,000 cases of “yellow jack” were reported, and more than 2,000 deaths. At the start of the summer, the city's population was 40,000 citizens, and 25,000 left before the quarantine two months earlier. Five years later, the epidemic returned stronger than ever and nearly wiped out the entire city. More than 17,600 cases were reported, and 5,100 people perished from the disease. Those who were able fled the city, leaving behind a catastrophic economic situation that forced the city into bankruptcy. Memphis surrendered its charter and was reduced to a state-taxing district in 1879. Meanwhile, a wealthy black businessman named Robert Church, Sr., began buying up land around town, primarily on Beale Street. He built Church Park and Auditorium as a place specifically for blacks and helped make Beale Street an integral part of daily life for the city’s African Americans. His son, Robert Church, Jr., began the NAACP here in 1917, and Solvent Savings Bank, which became the largest black-owned bank in the world by 1921. The park named in his honor is still on Beale Street.

As the 19th century ended, Memphis' remaining leaders made plans to restore the city to its glory days, beginning with a new sewer system and tapping the artesian wells deep beneath the city for pure, clean drinking water. Additional infrastructure improvements were made as well, so the city was greeting the 20th century with optimism and hope.

E.H. Crump ruled Memphis as mayor for only six years (1909-1915), but his legacy was felt for many years to come. Crump promised to clean up the city and set about clamping down on saloons, gambling and prostitution. Actually, Crump merely used this as a campaign tactic, and vice continued to thrive throughout the city. William Christopher “W.C.” Handy was hired to write a campaign song for E.H. “Boss” Crump, and in 1912 he changed the wording of the piece and published “Memphis Blues," the first blues song ever published in America. Handy, considered to be the Father of the Blues, also went on to publish the “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues;" the three were tremendously popular blues songs throughout the century.

It was Beale Street where the locals went to find anything and everything legal and illegal. In addition to dice games, houses of ill repute and other wicked diversions, Beale was home to a number of music clubs. Workers who toiled in the hot dusty cotton fields all week would come to Beale Street on the weekend in search of good times and good music. They didn’t have to look far. They brought with them the chanting songs, called “field hollers." W.C. Handy was the first to put pen to paper and record these songs and their “blue” notes, and an enduring American art form was born.

In 1916, the modern supermarket was born in Memphis as local entrepreneur Clarence Saunders opened Piggly Wiggly, the first self-serve grocery store. Within seven years, there were more than 2,600 Piggly Wiggly stores across the country and Saunders had become a millionaire. During the early ‘20s, he began building himself a 22-room, pink marble mansion – dubbed the Pink Palace – which he eventually lost, along with his company and all of his millions. Today the mansion belongs to the city of Memphis and has been turned into a museum, planetarium and CTI 3D Giant Theater.

Like other cities across the nation, Memphis was hit hard by the Depression. The country’s entry into World War II provided the city with a much-needed influx of commerce and industry thanks to a strong cotton market and the city’s numerous defense-related industries. Memphis provided WWII with one of its most enduring symbols – the Memphis Belle, the first B-17 bomber to successfully complete 25 missions over Europe. The plane and its crew logged more than 20,000 combat miles, all without a single casualty. The bomber was named for Margaret Polk, a Memphis sweetheart of the plane’s pilot, Robert Morgan.

Throughout the 1940s, Beale Street was home to black musicians who brought the cotton field hollers into the juke joints and clubs. A few blocks off Beale, WDIA became the first radio station in the country that had an all-black format and black disc jockeys. Rufus “Funky Chicken” Thomas and legendary blues man Riley “B.B.” King were DJs on the historic station, and both began recording at Sun Studio in the 1950s.

During the early 1950s, a young white boy from the nearby Lauderdale Courts housing project was always hanging around the clubs, and succeeded in soaking up the very styles and essence of Beale Street. The young man named Elvis Presley would stand in the doorways of the clubs begging the owners to let him in, then spend all night listening to them play and copying their styles. He even copied the way the flashy musicians dressed and bought his clothes at the same Beale Street men’s store, Lansky Brothers. Later, Elvis took what he learned from the Beale Street musicians and used it when he recorded "That's All Right Mama" at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio located a few miles east of Beale Street. Sun Studio recorded a number of then-unknown musicians in the 1950s, including Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner. In fact Turner’s band, which included Jackie Brenston as vocalist, is credited with recording the first rock ‘n’ roll record at Sun Studio, “Rocket 88.”

By the mid-1960s, Memphis had begun the slow process of integrating many of the city’s public facilities, but tensions exploded during the city’s sanitation workers’ strike in 1968. Striking sanitation workers wore signs that read “I AM A MAN,” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the city to lend his support to the workers’ cause. On the evening of April 3, Dr. King gave his famous “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple and then returned to his hotel. The next day, Dr. King was assassinated while standing outside of his hotel room on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In 1991, the Lorraine Motel opened to visitors as the National Civil Rights Museum, which provides a three-dimensional overview of the movement. Also that year, Memphis elected its first African-American mayor, Dr. Willie W. Herenton.

During the ‘50s and ‘60s, blacks and whites worked together to create some of the most important music in American history. The “Memphis Sound” emerged in 1960 when siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton formed Stax Records. Stax would give voice to such legendary musical artists as Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding, and the world would groove to soul classics like “Soul Man,” “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay.” Another local record label that played a major role in the development of the “Memphis Sound” was Hi Records. Hi’s artist roster included such notable musicians as Al Green, Ann Peebles and Willie Mitchell, and provided the world with records like “Love & Happiness,” “Let’s Stay Together” and many others.

Innovation continued throughout the ‘70s as a young entrepreneur named Frederick W. Smith was working hard to create a transportation service that would take advantage of Memphis’ centralized location to speed up the transportation of goods. The result of his efforts, FedEx, has changed the way the world does business and contributes more than 32,000 jobs to the local economy.

In 1977 Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, died at Graceland, his home in the Whitehaven neighborhood. Thousands of mourners turned out to pay their respects to Elvis, lining the street of what is now known as Elvis Presley Boulevard. During the next five years, thousands of fans would make the pilgrimage to Graceland just to stand outside and be near their idol. In 1982 the executor of Elvis’ estate, his ex-wife Priscilla Presley, opened the home and grounds to visitors who could tour the king’s mansion and pay their respects at his burial site, called the Meditation Garden. Graceland now stands as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, welcoming more than 600,000 visitors each year. That number peaks during the summer months, when daily attendances reach more than 4,000.

In the early 1990s, Beale Street made a comeback as a tourist destination and entertainment district with clubs offering live music seven days a week. The entertainment district continued to flourish throughout the decade and was voted the second most popular entertainment district in the country. Every year, Beale Street and Downtown’s Tom Lee Park are transformed into a sea of music, pork and people during the Memphis In May International Festival. This monthlong celebration draws tens of thousands of visitors every spring and features the world-famous Beale Street Music Festival, World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and several international events honoring a different foreign country every year.

In 2000, Memphis made major league strides in the world of professional sports as the city opened AutoZone Park, a brand-new retro-style ballpark for the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, the Memphis Redbirds.

Also in 2000, Memphis welcomed a new NBA team to town, as the Vancouver basketball franchise relocated to the city and became the Memphis Grizzlies. Originally housed in The Pyramid, the team eventually moved to Beale Street and FedExForum. The $250-million arena opened in September 2004 and hosts not only the Grizzlies, but also the University of Memphis Tigers men’s basketball team.

Since the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll (July 5, 2004 -- the same date that Elvis recorded his first record, “That’s All Right,” at the legendary Sun Studio), it has become increasingly clear that one of Memphis’ greatest attractions to tourists is its incredible music history. Area attractions include Sun Studio, Graceland, the Smithsonian’s Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Gibson Guitar Factory, the Center for Southern Folklore, the Historic Beale Street Entertainment District and Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

After Stax Records went bankrupt in 1976, the studio was sold to a local church and demolished in 1989. In 1998 a group of concerned citizens and philanthropists lead a nonprofit effort to purchase the property with plans to benefit the Soulsville neighborhood. Construction began on the museum in 2001, and it opened its doors in May 2003. The 17,000-square-foot museum now houses more than 2,000 cultural artifacts celebrating the music made famous by Otis Redding; Booker T. and the MGs; Isaac Hayes; the Bar-Kays; Al Green; Aretha Franklin; Earth, Wind & Fire; and other artists, and was the epicenter for the 50th Anniversary of Soul Music in 2007.

Today Memphis is home to a revitalized downtown area, which includes a variety of tourist destinations; new residential and commercial development; and the restoration of many historic buildings. It continues its focus of improving downtown with plans to revitalize the historic riverfront area, Beale Street Landing.