Memphis 200: Back to the beginning of Memphis in May

(WMC Action News 5)
Updated: Feb. 19, 2019 at 10:43 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - When someone says “Memphis in May,” what comes to mind?

The World Championship Barbecue Contest? The Beale Street Music Festival? Maybe Sunset Symphony.

Memphis in May is all that and so much more.

It’s a force in economic development that helped breathe life back into a dying Downtown Memphis in the 1970s.

Now Memphis in May’s founders want to tell their story and help teach the world how to unite a diverse city by creating monumental events.

Beale Street’s neon was unimaginable in 1977 when the street was fenced off and except for A. Schwab - closed up tight!

The Peabody was padlocked in ’77.

The Orpheum, then known as the MALCO, showed X-rated movies part of the time.

“If you were caught in Downtown Memphis in the 1970s, you were either lost or looking for the Rendezvous. That’s what they said you know," said Jimmy Ogle, a noted historian on Downtown Memphis.

Twenty-five thousand people now live Downtown. But Ogle says few Memphians dared to live Downtown in the 1970s.

“By 1979, there’s more people living in jail Downtown than lived in residential. There was 500 people living Downtown. There was 1,000 people in jail,” Ogle said.

To make matters worse, in the nine years after Dr. King’s assassination, Downtown was increasingly abandoned as suburbs boomed.

A stubborn recession hit the U.S. economy.

“It really hit Memphis a whole lot harder. We were in a Depression. Everyone else might have been in a recession,” said Lyman Aldrich who was a rising young Memphis banker in 1977 and also a member of the board of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

Aldrich noted that when it came time to party in the month of May, Cotton Carnival catered to white Memphis while the Cotton Makers’ Jubilee was all black.

Aldrich invited an African American insurance executive named Harold Shaw here to the Little Tea Shop to share a new vision - a Downtown festival honoring a different country each year, organized by black and white Memphians working together.

Aldrich says the conversation with Shaw went like this:

“He looks across the table and looks at me and says, Lyman, are y’all going to listen? Are you white people going to listen? I said yeah we’re going to listen Harold. I wanted him to bring the African American community along with the white community.”

Shaw was sold. He recruited attorney George Brown, then a school board member who would one day sit on the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“We were quite diverse from the bottom up, top down, any way you want to slice and dice it, Brown recalled. Educator Sandra Burke joined the racially mixed team organizing a major city festival together - then a Memphis first:

”Back in the day, you didn’t have integrated boards. There were not that many in fact if any," Burke said.

When Aldrich convened the diverse group of Memphians, he remembers proposing that the young leaders focus on Memphis themed events that would be fun, enticing Mid-Southerners to return Downtown.

“I said ‘look, we’re here to solve problems. We’re not going to discuss race or problems or anything like that. Let’s figure out how we’re going to bring this city back because it’s a benefit to all our families in the future,’” Aldrich remembered.

In year one, the 1977 Beale Street Music Festival became a Memphis in May event but all credit for that inaugural two day concert belongs to the late Memphis attorney Irvin Salky.

The music loving lawyer laid out his personal funds to pay for the entire event that featured a stage near Beale at Third Street, now B.B. King Boulevard.

Aldrich says he gets chills remembering that magical moment.

“B.B. King takes the stage at Midnight. 6200, 6500 people. Black-White people having the best dad-gum time. Because it’s music. It’s B.B. King. It’s Downtown Memphis. It’s life coming back to the city again,” Aldrich remembered.

Next came Sunset Symphony, where the musical Sandra Burke, a guidance counselor and classical pianist, hit the right notes.

”It was telling Memphis we can do this,” Burke recalled.

The next year, the barbecue was born. The first contest was won by Bessie Lou Cathy who rode a MATA bus to a lot by the Orpheum with her grill in tow!

Memphis in May was chartered in 1973 and founded by the Memphis Chamber of Commerce as a way to celebrate all the things that took place in the city in that special month.

There was the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic, the St. Jude Shower of Stars, the annual Memphis visit by New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, the nearby Germantown Charity Horse Show and the Memphis Music Awards.

The Chamber was in difficult financial circumstances in 1977 and allowed Aldrich to be creative with his diverse group of young Memphians who gathered at places like Bombay Bicycle Club in Overton Square to dream about what Memphis in May could be.

“What came out of all that planning was a very creative festival, something Memphis had not done before,” said John Dudas, first leader at the Center City Commission, an agency established to create incentives for investors to return Downtown. “So Memphis in May is really an economic development project. First country honored was Japan as we know,"

“There was one Japanese company in the State of Tennessee in 1976. Datsun Forklift on Brooks Road,” said Aldrich who went to visit the company’s leaders and recruited the Japanese executives at Datsun Forklift to the Memphis in May board.

Those executives convinced the Japanese ambassador to the US to visit the 1977 Memphis in May honoring Japan. When it was all said and done, the Japanese Ambassador sent Lyman Aldrich a message.

”We are so pleased with what Memphis did to honor Japan. The ambassador said tell Mr. Aldrich we’re going to bring business to Memphis and to Tennessee.”

True to their word, in short order, Sharp Electronics came to Memphis with 1,200 new jobs. In the decades since Sharp arrived, 199 Japanese companies have come to Tennessee, now employing 55,000 people!

“It started with Datsun Forklift on Brooks Road and then the honoring of Japan: Amazing story," Aldrich said.

And so is Downtown’s comeback since Memphis in May’s (as we now know it) 1977 start.

The Peabody reopened in 1981 and has welcomed tens of thousands of guests in the years since.

Beale Street clubs re-opened in 1983. Beale is now the number one tourist attraction in Tennessee!

The Orpheum came back to life in ’84. It welcomed 225,000 visitors in 2017 at 150 ticketed events; more than 7,000 visited the all new Halloran Center next door.

Aldrich says Memphis in May’s original board helped set the table for the success Downtown enjoys now.

“All these things happened because people put prejudice behind them and they started working together and they tried to save their city," Aldrich said.

There’s tangible economic blessings to count as well. Memphis in May says the International Festival had a $137 million economic impact in 2018 with $3.5 million in local tax revenues and accounts for 1,300 full time Memphis jobs.

Now, Aldrich wants to take the lessons of Memphis in May’s origins and make them a template for bringing people together all over the world.

When Aldrich says visitors from around the world marvel at the story of Memphis in May’s origins: how blacks and whites united to create a hit international festival nine years after Dr. King was cut down in Memphis.

A man from Lebanon is among the many who’ve asked Aldrich to make a documentary about Memphis in May‘s beginnings.

“He said let me tell you how important that is. He said I’d like to show that documentary in every town in the Middle East that I can show it to because it’s an example of how people can work together successfully.”

So Aldrich is now raising $750,000 to fund the proposed documentary, part of a curriculum Aldrich envisions to help diverse cities unite and invite economic growth.

“We want the documentary to be the first part of a 501©3 that is an education platform that puts out lessons that we learned from how you work together to downtown development to international economic development.”

Given Memphis in May’s phenomenal success over more than 40 years, you’d be wise not to bet against Aldrich’s latest vision.

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