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‘Landmarks’ book documents black struggles and heritage

  • Written by George E. Hardin
The new book “Black Memphis Landmarks” features a wide-ranging array of places, facilities and organizations that have had a significant impact on the city’s African-American life and culture. The new book “Black Memphis Landmarks” by Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis features a wide-ranging array of places, facilities and organizations that have had a significant impact on the city’s African-American life and culture. DeCosta-Willis pays tribute to them as the “places where we worked and worshiped, where we banked and bargained, and where we danced and demonstrated.”

A product of extensive research and interviews, the book mentions many entities that no longer exist as well as some that are currently a vibrant part of the local scene. In either case, they are part and parcel of the dynamic that makes Memphis a singular Southern city yet possessing of an atmosphere and spirit all its own.

The book has nine categories: The Arts, Sports, and Entertainment; Businesses and Professional Firms; Churches and Other Religious Organizations; Historic Sites and Events; Hospitals and Medical Facilities; Media: Newspapers, Periodicals, and Radio; Neighborhoods: Parks, Streets, Housing Projects, and Community Centers; Organizations: Civic, Social, and Political; Schools, Colleges, and Other Educational Institutions.

We are given an account of Tri-State Bank of Memphis, which opened in 1946 and was chartered in 1947 with Dr. J. E. Walker as president and his son, A. Maceo Walker, as secretary. By 2009 it had four branches. Other businesses include the Benchmark Hotel, Champion’s Pharmacy, and Hardy Bottling Company: “one of the largest companies owned and operated by an African American woman, the beverage manufacturing and distributing enterprise was founded in 2006 by Carolyn Hardy.”

 People’s Grocery Store at Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue is featured as the site of an altercation started with its three black owners by a nearby white grocer. As a result the three, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart, were lynched in 1892. The incident led an outraged Ida B. Wells, editor of the Memphis Free Speech, to begin an anti-lynching crusade.

Media listings include The Moon Illustrated Weekly, the short-lived publication founded and edited in the early 1900s by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, and WLOK, the city’s first black-owned radio station, with Herman Arthur “Art” Gilliam Jr., as chairman and president.

Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Association, founded by Chew C. Sawyer, A. W. Willis Jr., and Benjamin L. Hooks, ranks as the first black-owned federal savings and loan association in Memphis. Jones Big Star, Stax Music Academy and Performance Center, Beale Street Baptist Church, Currie’s Club Tropicana, Blues City Cultural Center, N. J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, Club Paradise, and Collins Chapel Hospital all have listings.

The Iroquois Café on Beale Street, opposite Church’s Park, is among the places that no longer exist. A young Mordecai Johnson, who in 1926 became the first black president of Howard University, was one of the waiters.

In sports we learn about the Memphis Red Sox, the Negro League team that played at Martin Stadium, but how many knew the team was established in 1919. The neighborhoods, some of which have colorful names – Bear Water, Molen Town, Beltline, Boxtown, Orange Mound and Suzette Bottom – also are included.

DeCosta-Willis has published nine books, both scholarly and popular works. This new volume is an excellent complement to her “Notable Black Memphians” published in 2008. This book is dedicated to the author’s late husband, Archie Walter Willis Jr. – the noted lawyer, state legislator, businessman and co-founder of the National Civil Rights Museum – who, she writes, “kindled my life-long fascination with the history of African Americans in Memphis.”  

The book, which is available at the Tennessee Baptist Bookstore, 1055 S. Bellevue Blvd., (946-9669), ends with a Historical Time Line. The earliest entry, for 1831, notes that First Baptist Church at Adams and Second streets had a slave gallery, which later was formed into what is now Greater Middle Baptist Church. The last entry, for 2011, refers to the establishment of the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery.

This book will be like a catalog of their lives for those of a certain age. For others much younger it will provide an exciting excursion into the memory land of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Places in themselves have no meaning for us unless the things that happened there are remembered. “Black Memphis Landmarks” documents these occurrences so they will not fall into oblivion, but instead will enrich our appreciation for and understanding of the agonies our ancestors endured so we could prosper and prevail.

(George E. Hardin worked as a photographer, reporter and editor, and in public relations during a long career before he retired.)

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