Memphis 200: The history of Beale Street

From saloons and brothels to an international tourist destination, anchor Joyce Peterson is...
From saloons and brothels to an international tourist destination, anchor Joyce Peterson is taking you on a tour of the history of Beale Street. Watch Thursday at 10.
Updated: May. 16, 2019 at 10:07 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis, Tennessee: The home of the blues and the birthplace for rock 'n' roll thanks to Beale Street.

Once filled with wild saloons and brothels, today it’s an international tourist destination.

On any Friday night, the music is jamming and the drinks are flowing on Beale.

First time visitors, Ashley and Joe Jones, of Cincinnati, say it’s everything it’s cracked up to be.

“Yeah, I like it,” said Jones. “I love it, actually.”

Modern day Beale Street is a three-block entertainment district filled with revelers. But back in the 1800s...

“Beale Street was a lot of vice and gambling and drugs and prostitution. It was anything goes on Beale Street," said Jimmy Ogle, former Shelby County historian. "It’s a really rowdy place in the 19th century.

Back then, Beale Street included eight blocks of commercial retail, including the saloons and brothels.

Robert Church, the south’s first black millionaire, made his fortune buying up Beale Street real estate after the 1878 yellow fever epidemic. He built Church Park at 4th and Beale, a mecca for black musicians, politicians and activists.

Beale was also home to the newspaper “Memphis Free Speech,” edited by Ida B. Wells, and Beale Street Baptist Church, the first brick church built for and by African Americans.

Church’s son, Robert Jr., became a political power broker. He was friendly with Boss Crump in the 1920s. The younger Church was so influential it was rumored he had a direct hotline from Beale Street to the White House.

Up through the 1940s, Beale Street was the hub for African American politics and activism.

“It was a place where runaway slaves or free slaves could congregate, with Fort Pickering here,” said Ogle. “We were a sanctuary city. We didn’t know it at the time, that term, but we doubled our population during that time.”

Then came the music.

W.C. Handy, the father of the blues, wrote “I’d rather be here than anywhere I know” in his 1916 song “The Beale Street Blues.”

Handy Park was dedicated on Beale in 1931. The statue honoring him was erected in the 1960s.

Some of the famous performers on the legendary street include B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Furry Lewis, Memphis Minnie and Elvis. Their names now mark the street on brass music notes.

Famous musicians sought inspiration from black singers in Beale nightclubs and outfits from Bernard Lansky at his Beale Street clothing store, making Lansky the “clothier to the king.”

“Mr. Lansky said ‘come on in son and buy you some clothes’," said Ogle. "And Elvis said, ‘Mr. Lansky, I don’t got any money. When I get some money I’m gonna buy you out.’ Mr. Lansky said ‘don’t worry about that son, as long as you buy from me’.”

Beale Street would be shattered by violence in the civil rights era. A 1968 march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in support of striking sanitation workers ended in rioting and looting. National guardsmen with bayonets blocked Beale as protesters filed by.

Over the next few days, Memphians moved east. Downtown became a ghost town. Beale Street was boarded up and abandoned.

“From ’77 to ’83 now, Beale Street was totally fenced off,” said Ogle.

A Schwab, operating on Beale since 1876, was the lone business to stay the course.

The city bought all the properties. The Beale Street Management Corporation formed to redevelop, lease and manage them. And in 1983 Beale was reborn.

“Silky knew a good thing when he saw it,” said Jay Wells, manager at Silky O’Sullivan’s.

Wells says the club’s namesake owner didn’t think twice before relocating to Beale. Today Silky’s, with its iconic store front and famous goats, sits on the only street in Tennessee you can walk down with a drink in your hand.

“And also the only place in the state of Tennessee where the bars can stay open until 5 o’clock in the morning,” said Wells.

Beale Street, with its history rich in African American culture, is now the number one tourist destination in Tennessee.

Various photos courtesy of Lansky Brothers Archives and the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library and Information Center.

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