Beale Street Dynasty is, in the words of Lauterbach’s prologue, the story of “how a slave became an emperor and of the dynasty Robert Church created.”
I n February 1953, a national public safety convention took place in Memphis, and among the new technologies was the latest in fire-fighting equipment. But to demonstrate the equipment, there had to be a fire to put out. So the city set fire to an empty but ornate three-story mansion, built in the late-nineteenth century, that stood on Lauderdale, a few blocks from famed Beale Street. Back in the day, this was a fashionable neighborhood of the city’s leading white and, later, black families, but by the early 1950s the neighborhood had seen better days. The city saw no reason to save the house; the mansion went up in flames. That property was once the home of Robert Reed Church Sr., the South’s first black millionaire, and he built the mansion — on two acres of land and with 14 elegant rooms, servant quarters, and stables — as a sign of the home owner’s success. Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington had been guests there. African-American Memphians had for decades looked on it with pride. But the house on Lauderdale was near the east end of Beale. Farther west on Beale and all way down to Main, it was another story, and Preston Lauterbach tells that story in his new book, Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis (W.W. Norton).
Lauterbach, a former staff writer for Memphis magazine and the author of The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ’N’ Roll , begins his history not on Beale, however. He starts in the middle of the Mississippi River, where in 1862 Robert Church Sr., a 23-year-old cabin boy, survived the Yankee sinking of the steamer that his father, Charles Church, the boat’s captain, was piloting. Church’s father was white, and his mother, who died when Church was a child, was Captain Church’s slave and concubine. Robert Church was a slave too in 1862, but he made it from steamer to shore and to Beale. Beale Street Dynasty is, in the words of Lauterbach’s prologue, the story of “how a slave became an emperor and of the dynasty Robert Church created.” But that’s not the whole story.
Thanks to Lauterbach’s research, those who enjoy what remains of Beale today may find it hard to picture the street at its best and at its worst and as it operated, day and night, from the late-nineteenth century on into the mid-twentieth century. But more than the story of one street, this is the story of Memphis itself — and what kind of town, good and bad, it was and ripe for building a dynasty.
“What shaped Memphis [also] shaped Church,” Lauterbach writes. “He distilled all the odd, disparate ingredients that made the city, and together they grew.”
Among the “ingredients” concentrated on and around Beale were saloons and gambling dens; legally operating brothels and pharmacies selling over-the-counter cocaine; dry-goods stores and billiard halls; a black-owned printing press (which published the early work of journalist Ida B. Wells), and a black-owned savings bank, the city’s first, founded by Robert Church Sr. Anchoring one end of the street was the landmark Beale St. Baptist Church and at the other end was the Mississippi with its rough-and-tumble rivermen.
A key ingredient from the street’s early days were the music and musicians — the earliest of note being a white Prussian named Herman Arnold, who may have been the first to orchestrate and commit to paper a popular minstrel song by the name of “Dixie.” Notable black musicians would follow soon enough: Jim Turner; Son Wright; Winding Boy (better known as Jelly Roll Morton); singer Alberta Hunter; and later on, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Most famous of all was W.C. Handy, who wrote the tune to “Memphis Blues” in 1909 and, inspired by the keyboard work of Son Wright, “Beale Street Blues” in 1917. There were notable bands too, among them the Chickasaw Cornet Band and the Memphis Jug Band, as well as writers inspired by Beale, among them William Faulkner and Richard Wright.
As Beale Street Dynasty amply shows, plenty of characters and major players shaped the street’s commercial history — characters such as Long Distance (a bartender); Mag Maggins (“a dusky dame of dissolute disposition”); Vigelio Maffei (who stood four and a half feet tall: hence the nickname “Pee Wee,” which he gave to the name of his popular saloon); detective Bimbo Clark (who once dressed in drag to break up a robbery); Red Lawrence (a white man who passed for black and who worked as a rumrunner, then police informant); brothel owner Alice Folliard (“Queen of the White Slavers”); and dozens more characters above and below the law and over the decades.
Many of them operated under a curious arrangement, thanks to an unwritten understanding on the part of Memphis city government: politically sanctioned criminal activity — sanctioned so long as that activity was locally based, so long as a share of the laundered profits went into city coffers, and so long as certain politicians got the right number of bought votes. Crime, far from being out of control in Memphis during these years, was, according to Lauterbach, in control.
“A time-honored system of vice licensing” is how the author describes city government, and nobody benefited more than E.H. Crump, onetime Memphis mayor. But in or out of office, at no time was Crump anything other than “Boss.” He may have rewarded black supporters with neighborhood improvements, but whether you were black or white, business owner or officeholder, Crump could make you. He could break you. And he could betray you. Consider Robert Church Jr., who rose to prominence as a national power-player (and spoils dispenser) in the Republican Party, until he too fell from Crump’s good graces.
Robert Church Sr. (major property owner on and around Beale, including a number of “bawdy houses”) laid the local political groundwork. Robert Church Jr. — with help from his right-hand man and liaison to the Crump machine, George W. Lee — built on that groundwork. He founded the Lincoln League in 1915, a black political organization that “threw white Memphis into an absolute panic” based on the league’s registration of Southern Negro voters in support of Republican candidates. That large bloc of voters meant that even Theodore Roosevelt had to take notice of Beale Street politics. He could also rise to the occasion when the music of Beale filled the air.
On November 19, 1902, the president visited Memphis to honor the homecoming of General Luke Wright, the Memphis-born ambassador to the Philippines. The celebration took place on Beale, with music teacher John R. Love conducting the Young Men’s Brass Band. But following “Dixie,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and several speeches and after a choir sang a gospel number, Professor Love wasn’t about to end the night on a serious note. He had Roosevelt on his feet and clapping to another tune, because this was Memphis and the song couldn’t have described Beale better: “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”
As Lauterbach writes, the time was also right for Beale to assume far-reaching influence:
“Between the turn of the century and the First World War, Beale Street would emerge as the mythical Main Street of Black America, hosting a renaissance in Negro business, a nationally powerful black political dynasty, and a new expressive culture that would revolutionize American popular music.”
Rhodes College will celebrate the launch of Beale Street Dynasty when it hosts Preston Lauterbach for a lecture and book signing on March 19th and a panel discussion on March 20th. Guitarist Calvin Newborn, along with the Rhodes Jazz Band, will play at the Historical Daisy Theater on Beale on March 20th. And on March 21st, Lauterbach and special guests will lead a walking tour of Beale to remind Memphians of the street’s rich history of sex, song, struggle, and, yes, soul.