Hidden History: Beale Street's history preserved through music, stories

It's one of the most famous entertainment streets in America, bringing Memphis' blues and world famous barbecue to the masses.

But Beale Street began more than 100 years ago as one of the few places African Americans could shop in the Jim Crow South.

Now,  it’s easy to see, and hear, Beale Street is where the world is welcomed to the south.

"I think that Memphis and the south are full of talkers," said Judy Piser, Co-founder with the Center for Southern Folklore. "We use our music and our talking to share experiences and lifestyles.”

No one knows those stories like Piser.

What started with a few films has turned into a major archive at the Center for Southern Folklore in Downtown Memphis.

"It's important that we give people a stage, give people a voice to really celebrate themselves, they're communities and families." said Piser. "That's really what we do."

The center's archive brings stories to life. Stories that come from a time decades before FedExForum, Gibson Guitar and the Westin replaced the empty lots.

Those empty lots had once been the homes and businesses that made up a big part of the Beale Street neighborhood.  But those buildings were removed as part of the federal government's urban renewal projects from the 1960s and 1970s.

"We called it Urban Removal because more than 400 buildings were removed out of there and you can still see vacant lands," Jimmy Ogle a Shelby County, Tennessee Historian

Ogle said the vacant lands were once home to a thriving black community in the Jim Crow south.

"At the turn of the century, Lt. George W. Lee coined this phrase-- 'it was a mile of vice and ambition owned by the Jews, policed by the Whites and enjoyed by the Negroes," said Ogle. "In a segregated city, Blacks couldn't go up on Main Street or other areas."

The Yellow Fever nearly wiped out Memphis' population in the 1870's.

By the 1880's, Robert Church, the first Black millionaire, bought land around Beale, and with his son, who was a political leader here--helped Beale Street take shape--- building Church Park Auditorium, at the time the largest assembly for Blacks in America and across the street was Solvent Savings and Bank.

As the business district and number of Black businesses grew over the years, so did the energy, especially after dark.

"Somebody told us years ago, that walking on Beale on a Saturday night was like having ice cream when you weren't used to anything but bread pudding," said Piser. "Beale was that fabulous night on the street. The night you put your good shoes on. The shoes that hurt, you know, and went out to be seen."

Music brought a who's who list of names to Beale--- B.B. King. Elvis. W.C. Handy, Sam Phillips, Al Green, Ike and Tina Turner and Johnny Cash during the 20th century.

As a major African American street it took center stage during the Civil Rights era.

"Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Beale," said Ogle. “The last three big moments in his life were on Beale."

Following Dr. King's assassination, Beale Street suffered a major decline for most of the 1970s--- most of the shops closed and buildings were abandoned and boarded up, and the street was fenced off.

Historians, though, spent the 1970's and 80s working to restore the street with a focus on the blues. They made it a musical capital again, a place where Blacks and Whites could play together, and a street of commerce.

Their efforts turned it into one of the largest revenue-grossing attractions in the state of Tennessee.

Today, parks and venues pay tribute to the well-known names and hidden heroes who made Beale what it is today.

The sights and sounds around this world-famous street help its story live on.

"Music is important to us, music is a part of our lifestyle," said Piser. "The most important thing is that we listen."


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