History of Memphis

Memphis' first inhabitants were Native American Indians who lived along the Mississippi River for 10,000 years along the wooded river bluffs. A thousand years before foreign explorers entered the region, Chickasaw Indians controlled the bluffs. These Indians came to be known as Mound builders, for the massive mounds they built that now overlook the Mississippi River by DeSoto Park.

The first European to view the river from Memphis was the Spaniard explorer Hernando DeSoto, who crossed the Mississippi near Memphis in 1541. A hundred years later French explorers Fathers Marquette and Joliet sailed down the river through Memphis. Sieur de LaSalle would later follow and build Fort Prudhomme around 1682. In 1739 the French built a garrison, Fort Assumption.

After the French and Indian War in 1763, England gained control of the bluffs although the area was Chickasaw by treaty. The Indians, French, English, Spanish and new "Americans" coexisted along the river trading and skirmishing until Tennessee became a U.S. territory in 1790, and then a state in 1796. Although this land legally belonged to the Chickasaw Indians, the new settlers would eventually take it over. In 1818 the Chickasaws relinquished their northern territory, including the land that would become the City of Memphis.

General/President Andrew Jackson, General James Winchester and Judge John Overton were considered the "founders" of Memphis. The city was surveyed and designed in 1819. At the time Memphis was only four blocks wide and had a population of around fifty people. Marcus Winchester, the General's son, was made the first mayor.

The first Memphis immigrants were German and Irish, who established businesses, provided labor, and built some of Memphis' first churches, like St Mary's with the oldest shrine in the country. Some of the first neighborhoods were also formed, including the Pinch district, which was named for the "pinchgut" look of the poor, often malnourished Irish railroad workers who lived there. The Pinch has experienced a revival associated with Memphis' sports and entertainment arena, The Pyramid, and Downtown's trolley line that runs from the South Main district to the Pinch.

From its beginnings, Memphis has been an important location for markets, exchanges, travel and distribution. Before the Civil War, Memphis' rich delta soil contributed to its economic base ? known as "King Cotton." Unfortunately, slavery was the key piece to this commerce and agri-business. The laborers who farmed the land, built the buildings and roads, and operated households were West Africans captured and traded as slaves. Even the names of Memphis' four original town squares - Exchange, Market, Court, and Auction are a grim reminder of the slavery that helped build the city. The cotton trade tied Memphis to Northern industry so much so that many did not want to secede to the Union at the beginning of the Civil War. However, the plantation owners were entirely dependent on slave labor, so loyalties were split.

Because of Memphis' location and transportation systems, the Union and Confederacy both valued the location of the City. Memphis was a military supply depot for the Confederacy before the South was defeated at Shiloh and abandoned nearby Fort Pillow. But soon after the river battle of June 6, 1862, Memphis became Union headquarters for Army General Ulysses S. Grant. As many as 10,000 Memphians watched the Union victory in battle from the river bluffs.

In 1864 Confederate leader Nathan Bedford Forrest led 2,000 cavalry troops to Memphis. Forrest's brothers rode into town early one morning and nearly captured three Union generals, one fleeing in his nightshirt up General Washburn Alley - which was named for his escape. The raid was immortalized by Nobel laureate William Faulkner.

Memphis, now a Union territory, drew many former slaves. In fact, Memphis' African-American population quadrupled between 1860 and 1870. New freedoms of emancipation took root - the freedoms of assembly and worship were guaranteed and practiced, as was the right to read. Although post-war reconstruction was a trying time for all, Black Memphians did make strides in social, political and economic activities. Ed Shaw, the most powerful black leader of the time, served on both the City Council and the County Commission and was elected wharf-master, a well-paid, prestigious position. Strong churches like Reverend Morris Henderson's still-influential Beale Street Baptist Church were vital in establishing Memphis' strong African-American communities. Even with this progress, mistrust and bitterness in the city exploded into a three-day riot in 1866 involving townspeople and troops garrisoned at Fort Pickering. Before the violence was quelled by ex-troops, forty-four Blacks and two Whites had died, and hundreds were wounded. A dozen Freedman's schools and more than a hundred Black businesses were burned.

Following the war, a yellow fever epidemic nearly destroyed the city. For over a decade, the disease carried by mosquitoes sent the population down with deaths and a mass exodus of citizens. This caused the State of Tennessee to repeal the city's charter in 1879. Of the 19,000 who did not flee the worst epidemic in 1878, almost 80% caught the fever and one-quarter died. Along with unknown slaves and Tennessee leaders, fever victims lie buried at Elmwood Cemetery and Martyrs Park. The yellow fever was eradicated in the 1880's by a new sewage system (the first of its kind anywhere) and the discovery of an artesian water supply restored health to Memphians. Memphis remains famous for its pure water to this day.

Another factor vital to the restoration of the town was the investment made by Memphians in its future. One of the most famous business leaders to aid recovering Memphis was black millionaire Robert R. Church. An ex-slave business tycoon and powerful national Republican leader, he bought the first $1,000 bond issued by the city after the epidemics. With Jim Crow well entrenched, it was Robert Church who began the NAACP here in 1917 and built the first public recreation facilities for Blacks. The park, named in his honor, is still on Beale.

It is typical of Memphis' history that it merges the renown and the unknown. The well-known rights activist Ida B. Wells worked long and hard for Memphis, organizing and writing, especially in response to riots and the lynching of Black businessmen here early in this century. And in 1925 the man called Memphis' "greatest hero," Tom Lee (for whom our riverside park is named), single-handedly saved thirty-two people from drowning when a steamer sank. Tom Lee could not swim.

Segregation and poverty still unchecked, Memphis nevertheless prospered, especially due to the river and "King Cotton." Names like Napoleon Hill, James Lee, and Noland Fontaine call to mind fortunes made in this city. By the mid-20th Century, with a huge, rich delta hinterland, Memphis became one of the busiest cities in the South and the capital of the Mid-South, with the world's largest spot cotton market (over 40% of the nation's crop was traded here) and the world's largest hardwood market. In the 1950's it was even the world's largest mule market!

Yet another element that lent Memphis clout was the "reign" of "Boss Crump" from 1910 to 1954. The double-edged sword of his political power reached far and wide. He was known to deliver 60,000 votes for whomever he deemed whenever he decreed.

In 1968 Memphis became the focus for an important civil rights struggle. A labor dispute raised by the City of Memphis Sanitation Workers escalated into a full-fledged commitment to human dignity, economic equity, and an attack on poverty. The issue brought Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Martin Luther King to Memphis, turning the nation's attention to the stark problems of the working poor. For his commitment to non-violent change, Dr. King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel here in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Riots ensued in cities all over the nation. One immediate effect in Memphis was the end of the Sanitation Workers Strike with the recognition of the AFSCME union. Members of AFSCME now receive two paid holidays annually to celebrate the anniversaries of Dr. King's birth and death.

Memphis' most recent contribution to the ceaseless struggle of bettering human relations and improving life is the National Civil Rights Museum, built at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. It is a shrine to the human spirit, to justice, sacrifice, courage, and peace, and an invaluable cultural and educational tool. The same year the Civil Rights Museum opened, Memphis elected its first African-American Mayor, Dr. Willie W. Herenton.


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