Memphis' Heritage
 
There has always been a Memphis here. The reason is geographical: we have a great big bluff right at the edge of the Mississippi River. It's sometimes called the 4th bluff but nobody talks about the other three. The other side of the river, like most of its length, is prone to annual flooding. At first it was a Chickasaw indian town and meetingplace. On the south bluffs the Chickasaw built a large mound, surely easily seen from the river. This tribe was known for its fierceness. Like ancient Sparta, they figured it would be easier to be warriors than farmers, and they mostly lived off other tribes. We do not have a good idea how many there were, since about a generation before white settlement, our diseases killed a huge percentage of them. Our minor league baseball team was called the Chicks, and nobody joked about it.      -->
Then there was a Spanish, then a French, fort. The French Fort neighborhood, right next to the indian mounds, marks its location.
The bluffs and a curious feature called Crowley's Ridge in Arkansas apparently were created in a biblical duststorm, when a titanic amount of fine dirt came to rest on the east bank of the river, and along a north-south line in eastern Arkansas. There's no rock or gravel in these features, and the bluff is not really very sturdy. Hunks of it have collapsed in the past (containing trains!)
After the French and Indian War, 1763, Britain owned the east bank of the Mississippi.
When the Revolutionary War ended, the United States technically owned the eastern banks of the Mississippi, while France held the western bank and far beyond. America bought the rights to that land in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Early Memphis was always a trading post where tough river men could get whiskey, girls, and provisions. Still true!
Three gentlemen named Overton, Winchester and Jackson (yes, Andrew) laid out early Memphis and it was chartered in 1819. A couple of downtown squares are still where they were. A huge riverfront feature, the cobblestoned landing, made a fine landing for riverboats year-round. This is where cotton arrived and departed, Memphis' main economic activity until the mid-20th century. The city grew rapidly with immigrants from Germany, Ireland and everywhere else. Even the Civil War didn't slow it much. Memphis surrendered after a river battle against ironclads failed. Surely they did not want to repeat the tragedy of Vicksburg here. While Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest pulled off brave cavalry victories around the area, Memphis chafed under Union rule.
In fact, nothing stopped Memphis but the mosquito. Twice in the 1880s yellow fever brought Memphis to its knees, as a large proportion of the population fled and many of the brave who stayed, died. Catholics tended to the sick then, despite the cost, and we do not have the anti-Catholicism here common in the South.      -->
After the plagues, Memphis was slowly re-settled, with immigration from the surrounding farmlands rather than from overseas. These people resolved to rebuild the city with an emphasis on good drainage, good roads, and firm government. Young Edward H. Crump moved here from North Mississippi early in the 20th century, and took over that government for 50 years, stifling opponents, heavy industry and vice.
Memphis today is a transportation hub, where interstates and great bridges carry trains and vehicles across the river, where huge barges unload commodities, where Federal Express started and has its main hub. It is a center for extracting syrups from grains and is important for food flavorings. Far bigger than any city in Mississippi or Arkansas, it serves as a capital of the tri-state area, almost ignoring Tennessee itself. Giant railyards, sand mining pits, and a vast warehouse area surprise visitors who fly here in daylight. 

You cannot discuss Memphis without discussing race. Slavery came with the first colonists. Plantation owners kept huge slave workforces, while white families and small businesses kept just a couple. After emancipation, Memphis was a magnet to freedmen from surrounding areas. Surprisingly, blacks had the vote very early-- so long as they supported Boss Crump. America's first black millionaires were here, in banking and insurance. In the early and mid 20th century they streamed north to Chicago for better wages and treatment. Integration was championed here, oddly enough, by wrestler Sputnik Monroe and by musicians who wanted to play with each other despite the rules.    -->

Many think of Memphis as the place where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, but bear in mind he was killed by a stalker who'd failed to kill him in a previous location. King had come to help striking black sanitation workers who faced a rigid mayor, Henry Loeb. Eventually they won their cause. Black political power was held by the bigger preachers and the Ford family, and has spread to Mayor Willie Herrington, who just won a fourth term, and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton.
With a small majority of the population, blacks are able to win offices; some whites have run to nearby counties, commuting in to work. Friction is present but almost never violent. Blacks may also be harsh to one another over perceived differences. The black-on-black crime rate is scary. 
You want to hear about Elvis, don't you? And Sun Studio, and Stax? Not from me. These and plenty of other talented musicians led to no record-stamping plant and no lasting industry. It wasn't cotton so the establishment said the hell with it. Let's just say the music came with the migration, off the farms to the city.     -->
Marketing ingenuity is a vital force here.  The self-serve supermarket was created here, and perhaps the motel, the drive-in, and a host of other such innovations. Schering-Plough and Holiday Inns used to be headquartered here. Now AutoZone and International Paper are the big boys, along with Fed Ex.
return to main page