History of Memphis

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The history of Memphis is based on its geographic location. First, it was the Mississippi River that transported goods north and south. Then came the railroad, dissecting the country from east to west and changing Memphis from a port into a hub. Most recently, it's been the airplanes of Federal Express, carrying packages to every corner of the globe, that have elevated the local economy and inspired a new sense of pride in both long-term residents and newcomers.

Long before Columbus, the Chickasaw Indians found their way to this area. The flat plains made cultivation easy and the proximity of the river insured an abundant supply of water. When the last major earthquake along the New Madrid fault shook the area in 1829, a branch of the river reversed its flow and formed Reelfoot Lake. Luckily, so few people lived in the region at the time that no deaths or injuries were recorded. Unfortunately, the same factors that drew the Chickasaw here made the area attractive to the European explorers. In the late 17th century, France claimed the lands in the Mississippi River Valley, down to the Gulf of Mexico. When King Louis XVI handed this territory over to Spain in the 1790s, Fort Saint Ferdinand of the Bluffs (named for King Ferdinand VII) kept watch over the traffic up and down the river.

By 1818, the Spaniards were gone and the newly-formed state of Tennessee took the land on the east side of the river from the Chickasaw by treaty. Memphis, named for the Egyptian city because of the similar locations on mighty rivers, was founded in 1819.

Memphis became the center for trade of two kinds: cotton and slaves. Plantation owners from Mississippi brought their cotton up the river to sell and returned home with new workers for their fields. A plaque in Auction Square commemorates the auctioning of both "commodities" during this era. This trade sparked an economic boom in Memphis, resulting in the building of luxury hotels such as the Gayoso House (recently remodeled into condominiums) and the establishment of a number of businesses.

In 1845, Memphis became the site of a naval shipyard, bringing a new source of revenue to the area. With the completion of the Memphis-Charleston Railroad, goods could be shipped east to the Atlantic Ocean, making Memphis the transportation hub it would remain to current times.

The American Civil War was fought mostly east of Memphis, in the mountains of Tennessee and Georgia, and south in Mississippi. The one major battle fought locally occurred in 1862. Union forces conquered the Confederate Navy in a short time while Memphians stood on the banks of the river, in what is now Confederate Park, to watch the battle. Memphis became a Union supply point because of the city's transportation facilities and was also the site of a prisoner-of-war camp.

After the Civil War, the schooling of former slaves began. An organization called the Memphis Freedmen's Bureau was instrumental in the start-up of business services for African-Americans. Unfortunately, the yellow fever epidemic of the 1870s killed more than half of Memphis' population of 16,000, halting economic and social progress. Many who did not fall victim to the disease fled the area, believing that the river waters were unhealthy. The devastation was so severe that Memphis had to give up its city charter in 1879.

The irony of the epidemic was that much of the African-American population survived and remained to begin the rebuilding of the city. It was the area's first African-American millionaire, Robert Church, Sr., a former slave, who bought the first bond issued in an attempt to restore the city's charter. In fact, there is evidence that this was a period of time when African-American residents flourished, economically and socially, from Memphis to New Orleans. Their businesses thrived and a strong black middle-class developed.

The early part of the 20th century saw the flowering of jazz and the blues as musical forms. Beale Street became the home of nightclubs where musicians such as W.C. Handy experimented with new musical forms born from the combination of spirituals, folk music and even square dance rhythms. When the powerful E.H. "Boss" Crump commissioned Handy to write a campaign song to help him run for mayor, it signaled a formal acceptance of these new art forms. Crump presided over Memphis for almost 50 years, during which time African-American musicians such as Handy, B.B. King and Rufus Thomas put Memphis on the national map. Their success allowed Sam Phillipps to start the famous Sun Studio and for radio station WDIA to adopt an all-black format.

The ultimate product of all this music was Elvis. Influenced by the African-American music surrounding him, Elvis was able to break through the barriers that had kept blues, soul and the new rock'n roll from reaching white listeners. Once young people across the country caught on to the new rhythms, the doors were open for Memphis groups such as Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave and artists such as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Stax Records, another Memphis recording studio, was started in 1960 to capture these local stars for national distribution.

While the musicians of Memphis flourished, the racial unrest of the 1950s and 1960s scared many white Memphians into moving out to the suburbs. This was a bleak time for downtown Memphis. The Peabody Hotel, long the heart and soul of social life in Memphis, fell into disrepair and eventually closed entirely. Other buildings fell empty. Goldsmith's Department Store left downtown for the malls and other merchants followed.

In 1968, the most dramatic moment in Memphis history brought the city to national attention. The local garbage workers staged a strike for better wages. The most dynamic civil rights leader of the time, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., came to provide moral support and to preach his message of nonviolence. He and his entourage stayed at the Lorraine Motel, just south of Beale Street. As he stood on the balcony outside his room to speak to a gathered crowd, he was assassinated. It took Memphis a long time to recover from the shock and notoriety of this event. Only in 1991 was the long-empty Lorraine Motel turned into the National Civil Rights Museum, with exhibits devoted to the long history of African-Americans in the U.S. and to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. specifically.

The founding of Federal Express (FedEx) in 1972 marked another turning point for Memphis. The brain-child of Fred Smith, Federal Express' concept of overnight delivery anywhere in the country depended on the geographically-central location of Memphis. Packages could be flown into Memphis in the evening, sorted and reloaded onto planes that took off in the early hours of the morning for arrival at their destinations by 10am. For many years, the economic importance of Federal Express was overshadowed by the death of Elvis in 1977 and the opening of Graceland to tourists in 1982. The visitors to the home of one of the most famous musicians brought millions of dollars to Memphis and helped fuel the revival of Beale Street and the building of The Pyramid. But as the national economy boomed and businesses and individuals got more and more accustomed to the idea of overnight shipping, Federal Express became the catalyst for a quiet development. Businesses wanting to promise their customers overnight delivery found it desirable to open warehouses in Memphis, so that goods could be shipped out directly to their destinations. The Memphis airport, tiny by international standards, became the busiest airport in the world between the hours of 3am and 5am as FedEx jets took off in all directions.

Another, more eccentric factor in Memphis' economic renewal was the emergence of John Grisham as one of the most popular authors in the country. Grisham, a native of Mississippi, based many of his thrillers in Memphis. When the first movie was made from one of his books, Memphians were excited to find Tom Cruise in their midst and to take advantage of the calls for extras on the movie The Firm. Producers found that they could cut costs by using the non-union labor in Memphis and that the cost of housing their casts and crews was lower here, too. A series of major Hollywood movies filmed entirely or partly in Memphis not only brought money directly into the city, but raised awareness of the city and its attractions among moviegoers worldwide. This brought a new surge of tourists eager to eat in the restaurants featured in the movies and walk the streets where Tom Cruise walked.

The simultaneous success of FedEx, the Presley Foundation, and movies based on Grisham's books contributed to a boom in development and construction. Belz Enterprises, having restored the Peabody Hotel to its former glory in the early 80s, went on to build Peabody Place, a complex of apartments, restaurants, stores and offices in the heart of downtown. A joint initiative of the city council and local merchants resulted in the revival of Beale Street as a center for nightlife. Harbor Town and the South Bluffs housing developments brought residents down to the riverfront. The Gibson Guitar Factory opened with a theme café and other entertainment options for visitors. And AutoZone, a locally-based car parts business, funded the building of a baseball stadium across the street from the Peabody Hotel for the Memphis Redbirds team.

Today the approximately one million residents of the metropolitan area find Memphis to be a livable city. The increasing variety of restaurants, theater productions, concerts, art exhibits and other entertainment are still reasonably-priced and accessible. Jobs are plentiful while the cost of living is still among the lowest in the nation. While crime remains a problem and quality education has not yet become a priority, visitors to Memphis will find a hospitable populace and a laid-back approach to life that embodies all that is most charming in the American South.