The Memphis Heritage Trail Redevelopment Project is building on a great community and making it even better through a focus on making this a sustainable community.
How do we do this? Through a strategy that engages the neighborhood and the stakeholders with a laser focus on the residents, culture, history, economic development and tourism.
The area that is bordered by Beale Street on the north, Main Street on the west, Crump Boulevard on the south and Manassas Street on the east is known as The Memphis Heritage Trail Redevelopment Area. It is an area deeply rooted in African-American history and culture and includes a number of historic sites spanning three centuries.
Unique to the area is the number of African-American pioneers, entrepreneurs, civic leaders and business owners who struggled, triumphed and established themselves within the approximately 20-block radius. It is those notables who are the crux of the targeted area.
The landscape itself is peppered with various sectors of government, banking, business, religion, education. The City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development is leading the effort to revitalize this area. The Memphis Heritage Trail component focuses on economic development and tourism.
Not since the early days of Beale Street’s amalgamation of various ethnic groups, a street made famous around the world by W.C. Handy (Father of the Blues), has there been an epicenter of African-American history, heritage and culture in one locale.
Today, the Downtown Center City Commission is right at the center of the Memphis Heritage Trail Redevelopment Area, which encompasses a stretch of land where Cleaborn Homes -- a 460-unit public housing project built in 1954 -- once stood. The entire 20-block area is on the drawing board to be redeveloped and transformed into a tourist Mecca that highlights and retells the rich history, heritage and culture of the area’s unique African-American contributions to Memphis history.
The area is replete with stately homes, store front businesses and churches that managed to survive, in some cases, the rigors of blight, decay and neglect. The history, however, is undeniable, seldom told yet integral in drawing tourists from all over the world to the soon-to-be redeveloped Memphis Heritage Trail target area with 21st century infrastructure and amenities.
The target area is situated within the heart of the inner city and has not undergone redevelopment or transformation as part of Memphis’ downtown renaissance. The goal, however, is to transform the area into self-sufficient and sustainable communities that drive economic development. The dilapidated Clayborn Ball Temple on Hernando Street at Linden, for example, could be repurposed as a cultural center.
The name Memphis Heritage Trail was bandied about and discussed several years ago (before the name changed to Memphis Heritage Trail) when public housing was being dismantled and transformed into mixed use and mixed income developments with federal dollars from the HOPE VI program. HOPE is an acronym for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.
With five HOPE VI federal grants leveraged with public and private dollars, Dixie Homes is being transformed into Legends Park, Lamar Terrace into University Place, Hurt Village into Uptown Homes, LeMoyne Gardens into College Park and Lauderdale Courts into Uptown Square.
The transformation of public housing has also spawned other development projects in those areas. For example, Le Bonheur’s Children’s Hospital opened its new sustainable $340 million facility across from Legends Park in December 2010. And St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is expanding in the Uptown community. Though Memphis Heritage Trail is an urban redevelopment project highlighting and retelling the rich history of notable African- Americans it is inclusive of all Memphians with a stake in promoting tourism and economic development.
Memphis is known internationally for Graceland, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Stax Museum and Beale Street. As a part of this project we are capturing the history of individuals and businesses owned and operated by African-Americans over the years.
Here is a small sample of the area’s history.
Robert R. Church Jr.
The legacy that Robert Reed Church Sr. left behind was no doubt a guiding light to those who esteemed the businessman in his day, including his son, Robert R. Church Jr. (1885-1952), who would follow his father’s example and blaze a trail of his own.
Although the elder Church had been prominent in business, Robert Jr. would succeed in politics, surmising that the ballot would be the launch pad that African-Americans would need to rocket to power in the United States.
Robert Jr. was born in Memphis in 1885 and educated at the Hooks Cottage School, a private school founded by Julia Britton Hooks, the grandmother of the former national director of the NAACP, Benjamin L. Hooks, who died April 15, 2010.
Robert Jr. went on to Oberlin College in Ohio and then to the Packard School of Business in New York, where he completed his business training on Wall Street. When his father’s health started failing in 1911, he returned to Memphis to assume the presidency of the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company, but soon realized that politics was more rewarding.
His foray into politics started in 1916 at age 31 after he founded the Lincoln League to increase the number of voting African-Americans. That year, he was credited with registering 10,000 additional Memphis voters.
The local Lincoln League was so successful it drew the attention of a group of African-American leaders who met in New Orleans in 1919 to found the national Lincoln League of America. Robert Jr. was recruited as president, but declined the offer, choosing instead to serve as chairman of the Executive Committee.
Robert Jr. was also a founder of the Memphis Branch NAACP and its first chairman in 1917. He served on the national board as the first director elected from 14 southern states. A staunch Republican, the savvy political stalwart served as a delegate to eight Republican National Conventions, from 1912-1940.
He was sometimes referred to as “the Roving Dictator of the Lincoln Belt.”
Julia Britton Hooks
Some people are born to be great. Julia Britton Hooks (1852-1942) was one of them. A musical child prodigy, she was born free in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1852. At age nine, she was playing the music of masters Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, and others, with exemplary skill. Her mother, also a skilled musician, would perform with young Julia before Lexington’s (Kentucky) aristocrats.
In 1869, Hooks matriculated at Berea College, one of the first women of any race to attend college. From 1870-1872, while still a student, she taught white students instrumental music, a first for an African American. She would then move to Greenville, Mississippi, in 1872, where she taught in the public schools. Blanche K. Bruce, an African-American, was elected to the United States Senate with her help.
Teaching was Hooks’ passion. She moved to Memphis in 1876 to teach in the pubic schools, where she was named principal of the Virginia Avenue School. She founded the Hooks Cottage School because she was dissatisfied with the quality of pubic education.
In 1891, the music master ventured into social services, thereby founding and becoming a charter member of the Orphans and Old Folks Home Club on Hernando Street where she’d purchased 25 acres. Three years later, she’d raised enough money to pay off the debt by giving concerts.
In 1902, Hooks was selected to head the newly established Juvenile Court detention home for African- Americans. Her husband, Charles F. Hooks, was killed by one of the detainees, but she never wavered from her commitment.
She founded the Hooks School of Music in the auditorium that Robert R. Church Sr. built. William C. Handy, who would become the “Father of the Blues,” was one of three prized pupils. Concert artist Sidney Woodard and mezzo-soprano Nell Hunter were the others.
Often called “The Angel of Beale Street,” Hooks was the grandmother of the late Benjamin L. Hooks, who once served as the executive director of the national NAACP.
Mt. Olive Cathedral Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Before anyone can reap a harvest, a seed must be planted first. That is what the Reverend G. H. Armour did in 1848, when he held church on Sundays in a vacant facility owned by his employer, the Jug Factory.
The small group that gathered on Sunday mornings would become the Mt. Olive Cathedral Christian Methodist Episcopal Church after its founding in 1881. According to the church’s history, “there is indication that nine members officially organized and adopted the name.”
In 1886, the church had 15 members. That year, it was admitted into the Conference and Reverend Charles Tyus was assigned its pastor. As the membership grew, the church moved from the Jug Factory in 1891 into a rented building for $2.50 per month.
The church had a hard time paying its bills, but with the assistance of the Conference, a lot was purchased at 602 E. Georgia Avenue and a frame church was built on it. Under the leadership of Reverend G. H. Harlee, the frame building was replaced in 1905 by a brick building and included a pipe organ.
Mt. Olive moved again to its present location at 538 Linden Ave. There have been a series of pastors since Reverend W.A. Johnson orchestrated the move. Reverend Ronald Williams is the current pastor and refers to Mt. Olive as “The Cathedral.”
Tri-State Bank of Memphis
During its first 10 years, Tri-State Bank of Memphis loaned in excess of $10 million of its first mortgage loans to African-Americans, which represented over 2,000 families. This was a unique opportunity for African-American families who otherwise were likely to be rejected for such a loan prior to Tri-State Bank’s founding in 1946.
Founded by the late Dr. J.E. Walker (1880-1958) and his son, the late A. Maceo Walker (1909-1994), and led by the late Jesse H. Turner Sr., the bank developed innovative financial and community service, pioneered signature loans, real estate loans and church loans to African Americans without a special endorsement.
During the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, organizers of the local sit-ins planned strategies in the bank’s boardroom. And when protesters were being carted off to jail, bank officials kept the vault open and dispensed bail money.
With the imminent foreclosure of the Lorraine Motel in 1982, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination site, the bank provided $60,000 in loans to help save the facility, which was transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum in 1991.
With initial assets of only $240,000, Tri-State Bank now boasts assets of more than $130 million. During the beginning, the bank operated out of a small building with five employees and now has four locations and 50-plus employees.
Lt. George Washington Lee
If there were ever a “mover and shaker” in Memphis, it was Lt. George Washington Lee (1894-1976). An orator, writer, insurance executive, advocate and political leader, Lee excelled in Memphis when African-Americans were being denied access and equal rights on several fronts.
Born near Heathman, Mississippi, to sharecroppers George and Hattie Stringfellow Lee, Lee and his brother Abner were enrolled in a one-room rural school by their grandmother who raised them after their parents separated.
When little George was eight years old, the family moved to Indianola, Mississippi, where he worked for a cotton planter and then as a drayman for a mercantile store. He would go on to matriculate at Alcorn College and excel as a student and avid reader.
In 1912, he joined his brother in Memphis and worked as a bellhop at the Gayoso Hotel for five summers and returned each fall to Alcorn. When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the United States Army. He was 23. And because he was college educated, he was admitted to a new training camp for officers and commissioned a lieutenant on October 14, 1917.
On his return to Memphis, Lieutenant Lee, as he was called for the rest of his life, started selling industrial life policies for Mississippi Life Insurance Company and rose to vice president. He also was one of the founders of the National Negro Insurance Association in Durham, North Carolina. When Mississippi Life was sold to a white company, Lee resigned and became the manager of Atlanta Life Insurance Company, then newly formed, local and black-owned.
Lee’s civic activities included serving as grand commissioner of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, an African-American fraternal organization. He wrote two books -- Beale Street, Where the Blues Began (1934) and River George (1937) -- and a collection of short stories about Beale Street characters.
A staunch Republican, Lee rose quickly through the ranks and led Memphis’ Lincoln League. He visited the White House on several occasions and was formidable in national politics for over 20 years. During the 1956 presidential election, he was credited with delivering Tennessee to Eisenhower, the Republican candidate.
Lee was honored numerous times in his life. His portrait hangs in the rotunda of the state capital in Nashville, and a street in Memphis and post office were named after him.
At a later date a more detailed accounting of the areas history will be posted to this website.