Tennessee: Beale Street, Memphis

Beale Street is referred to as the “home of the blues” because musicians from the region came to Memphis before making their way to Chicago or New York. For African American residents of Memphis, Beale Street was, for nearly a century, the center of commerce, politics, and culture.

Site Office

Memphis Chamber of Commerce

119 Riverside Drive

Memphis, TN 38103

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Web site: www.memphisguide.com/Beale

Beale Street’s place in American history has been ensured by the resurgence in the popularity of blues music. Many performers, such as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, “Big Joe” Williams, Lillie May “Big Mama Blues” Glover, and Muddy Waters started their careers in Memphis. Moreover, they inspired countless other musicians like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and the Rolling Stones to adapt blues music to their own styles. Although much of the original street was demolished in the early 1970’s, the city of Memphis has aided in refurbishing the area to form a tourist attraction with several nightclubs and restaurants.

A Thriving Commercial Center

By the 1850’s, Beale Street served not only as the southern border of the city, but also as the invisible boundary separating blacks from whites. Although African Americans worked and shopped in Memphis, they were, at first by tradition and later by law, required to use separate side or back entrances. On Beale Street, however, a number of businesses owned by European immigrants catered to a black clientele.

In 1862, during the Civil War, the Union army occupied Memphis. The city became a magnet for increasing numbers of freedmen–formerly enslaved African Americans–who left the plantations in eastern Arkansas, northern Mississippi, and west Tennessee in search of new opportunities. Memphis became so popular a destination that the population swelled to over 27,700, of whom nearly 60 percent were African Americans.

This sudden, massive increase in population created tensions between the black and white communities, especially among recent Irish immigrants, who competed with African Americans for jobs. The result was a violent riot that broke out in May, 1866, and lasted two days. The black community surrounding Beale Street suffered the most as forty-six people died, and many homes and businesses in the African American community were destroyed.

Beale Street and the surrounding community rebounded from the riot, and African Americans continued to move to the city throughout the late 1800’s. They opened businesses and enjoyed prosperity for perhaps the first time in their lives. By 1880, in addition to the goods and services provided by European immigrants, at least twenty businesses owned by African Americans inhabited Beale Street. They included barbershops, saloons, carriage operators for both freight and taxi services, and a bank. Thus, by the turn of the century, Beale Street was becoming a thriving commercial center in Memphis.

The Churches of Beale

Beale was not only the center of commercial life for African Americans, but also the center of political life. This was because of two important Memphis institutions. The first, the Beale Street Baptist Church, was started in 1864 and quickly became the largest and most powerful African American church in the city. By 1880, the 2,500-member congregation under the direction of Pastor Taylor Nightingale had grown politically powerful within the African American community.

The Beale Street Baptist Church came to host several prominent visitors, including former U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, who stopped by in April, 1880. Pastor Nightingale also used the church as his campaign headquarters during a failed bid in 1886 for a seat on the board of education. In 1994 the church earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

The second important institution in Memphis at the turn of the century was not a building but a family. The Churches became not only the wealthiest but also the most politically powerful African American family in Memphis. Robert Church, Sr., who was born in Mississippi, came to Memphis during the Civil War when the Union army detained his father’s steamboat. Church, whose father was white, left the family business and quickly established himself as a saloon proprietor on Beale Street.

In 1878, Memphis was plagued by a yellow fever epidemic, the second to occur in as many years. Residents who could afford to, fled the city. In the meantime, Church took advantage of low real estate prices by purchasing property, especially in the Beale area. He leased space to other African Americans, who started their own businesses. Church’s investments soon made him the first African American millionaire in Memphis, and perhaps even in the South. In the process, he hastened Beale Street’s transformation into what one business owner called “the Main Street of Negro America.”

His greatest contribution to Beale Street and the African American community of Memphis was the construction of Church’s Park and Auditorium. Built on six acres of land Church purchased in 1899, the investment consisted of a landscaped park–the first for blacks in Memphis–and adjacent to it an auditorium seating two thousand people. Church’s facilities played host to a number of important Americans including Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1902 addressed a crowd of ten thousand people gathered in the park to hear him speak. The park also is listed on the National Register.

An additional important investment by Robert Church, Sr., was the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust. In 1906 he started the bank, which was located across the street from his park and auditorium. In 1908 Church and the bank came to the rescue of the Beale Street Baptist Church, saving it from foreclosure.

Church died in 1912, but not before establishing his bank as one of the largest African American-owned banks in the country. Control of the bank and his other businesses passed into the hands of his son, Robert Church, Jr. The younger Church was politically active in local and national Republican politics. He also was a founder of the Memphis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

There is no doubt as to the importance of the investments made by the Churches, not just for Beale Street but also for Memphis. The street supported a variety of businesses such as drugstores, theaters, restaurants, insurance agencies, and clothing stores–a trend that continued into the 1960’s.

A Night Out on Beale Street

Despite the influence of the Beale Street Baptist Church and the Church family investments, the most famous street in Memphis was notorious for its nightlife. Although a variety of businesses lined Beale, the street also had its share of saloons, and many of them ran illegal gambling operations.

By the early 1900’s, Beale became a destination for minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, and musicians who came to play at the growing number of theaters. In 1907, Robert Church, Sr., hired veteran musician and bandleader W. C. Handy to play at his auditorium. By the time Handy arrived in Memphis, he had developed a distinctive form of music, which he had derived from his own experience as a traveling professional musician. Thus Handy, who is known as the “Father of the Blues,” did not invent the blues but was instrumental in making the form commercially successful.

The success of the blues musicians led to the opening of other theaters on Beale, including the Daisy, the Savoy, and the Grand. Anselmo Barasso, whose Palace Theater rivaled Church’s auditorium in size and attendance, also operated the Theater Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA). TOBA had access to more than forty theaters, including the Apollo in New York and the Regal in Chicago. By the start of World War I, when African Americans began migrating to northern cities to find jobs in industry, southern blues musicians stopped over in Memphis. They lived and worked on Beale Street during the day, then played for audiences on Beale at night, hoping to launch their careers.

By the 1940’s, blues musicians were reaching wider audiences. Local Memphis radio station WNBR broadcast the Amateur Night show held each week at the Palace Theater. In 1949, WDIA Radio, a station owned and operated by whites, switched to a format featuring only African American musicians. It was also WDIA that advanced the career of the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” B. B. King. Meanwhile, young men such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis either listened to these radio shows or went to the clubs on Beale to see live performances. By the 1950’s, blues music had given birth not only to rock and roll but also to rhythm and blues and soul music.

The End of an Era

Also during the 1950’s, African Americans from the South began protesting for equality and an end to segregated public facilities. In Memphis, especially on Beale, there was relatively little protest during the Civil Rights movement. In 1968, however, Memphis sanitation workers went on strike to bring attention to their low pay and poor working conditions. The labor protest soon gained the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who joined the effort and marched down Beale Street in support of the sanitation workers.

Following the assassination of Dr. King, the remaining racial barriers in Memphis collapsed. Ironically the movement to restore civil rights to African Americans was the end of Beale, because black consumers were no longer confined to the shops along that street. By the early 1970’s, the city began demolishing the vacant buildings on Beale and in the surrounding neighborhoods, calling them a danger to the public. In the 1980’s, however, the city, along with private investors, helped to revive Beale Street into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Memphis.

Places to Visit

Beale Street is now a National Historic Landmark, and several of its institutions are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the majority of businesses on historic Beale are nightclubs and restaurants that typically cater to adults.

The most popular spots are B. B. King’s, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, the Blues City Cafe, and the Rum Boogie Cafe. Each club features live blues acts and also serves meals. Silky O’Sullivan’s is known not only for its live piano bar but also for having the facade of the last building from the original Beale Street. The musical notes embedded in the sidewalks commemorate the blues performers who have passed through Memphis.

Other historic places on Beale include the Orpheum Theater, where traveling Broadway musicals and operas are showcased. Church Park still exists, but the famous auditorium was demolished. W. C. Handy Park, on the other hand, hosts free outdoor concerts during the warm months. The only place on Beale that is not accessible by foot is the Hunt-Phelan Home. It is the last remaining mansion from the pre-Civil War days, a reminder that Beale Street was once the thoroughfare used by white cotton merchants to get to the river.

For Further Information

  • Church, Annette E., and Roberta Church. The Robert R. Churches of Memphis: A Father and Son Who Achieved in Spite of Race. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Edwards Brothers, 1974. Biographies of two important Memphis residents who commercially developed Beale Street.
  • Dickerson, James. Goin’ Back to Memphis: A Century of Blues, Rock’n Roll, and Glorious Soul. New York: Schirmer Books, 1996. Explains the connection between the three most prevalent forms of modern music.
  • Lee, George W. Beale Street: Where the Blues Began. College Park, Md.: McGrath, 1969. An anecdotal but nonetheless entertaining look at the earliest days of Beale Street.
  • McKee, Margaret, and Fred Chisenhall. Beale Black and Blue: Life and Music on Black America’s Main Street. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993. Contains both a history of Beale and eleven brief biographical chapters on pioneering blues musicians.
  • Sigafoos, Robert A. Cotton Row to Beale Street: A Business History of Memphis. Memphis: Memphis State University, 1979. Contains several important points about the history of economic development on Beale Street.