Beale Street Bordellos

Having grown up in Memphis, I was intrigued by this account of historic archaeologists uncovering the remains of houses of prostitution off Beale Street there. These date from around 1900-1915, when Beale Street was a cultural and entertainment center for blacks in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. It played a key role in the development of blues and jazz. W.C. Handy, “Father of the Blues”, lived and worked there and there is a city park with a statue honoring him nearby.

A number of other historic archaeology projects have uncovered remains of houses of ill-repute from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and there are even specialists who study what they call Late Victorian “sporting culture.” The archaeologists find lots of liquor bottles, drug paraphernalia (especially syringes and opium pipes), and remains of medicine bottles and medical devices used to treat venereal diseases in those pre-antibiotic days. The first of these sites that I remember hearing about was the Vanoli Block excavated by Steven Baker in Ouray, a mining town in western Colorado.

Today Beale Street has been cleaned up and gentrified as an entertainment district, with nice restaurants and night clubs. BB King owns a nightclub there. Reading the article, one is given the impression that after prohibition was enforced in 1915, that Beale Street’s days as a red-light district were largely over. Nothing could be further from the truth: it was a going concern well into the 1970s. Beginning in WWII, there has been a large military presence in Memphis from the Millington Naval Air Station north of town, and lots of sailors and marines ended up on Beale Street on the weekends. It was known as a dangerous part of town and most of us stayed away. A high school classmate of mine was murdered by a pimp there.

I was also interested by the article’s references to the political power of E.H. Crump, who was the boss of a political machine that ran Memphis politics from his first term as mayor in 1910 until his death in 1954. Crump’s machine wasn’t as well known as the Dailey machine in Chicago or the Pendergast machine in Kansas City (that produced Harry Truman) but it was every bit as effective. Boss Crump was unusual in the Jim Crow era in that he respected and courted the African American community and allowed them a certain amount of autonomy. In contrast to most of the South, where blacks were actively disinfranchised, they were enrolled and allowed to vote in Memphis. In return for Crump’s support, black ward-heelers and church leaders turned out the vote for his candidates.

Memphis was already the largest city in Tennessee, and its electoral weight was increased by its black voters, whose counterparts were kept from voting in the rest of the state. Boss Crump was the major player in Tennessee politics in the first half of the 20th century.

Beale Street was the exception to Crump’s agenda, which was to make Memphis a “clean” city. I was a baby when Crump died, but the inertia of the government bureaucracry he formed continued long after his death. Memphis was always proud of being ranked as one of the cleanest (physically!) cities in the country and lots of attention was paid to street-sweeping and similar activity. You rarely saw homeless people – the police quickly hustled them out of town. Prohibition was of course, repealed, but its legacy continued in a series of baroque liquor laws that prevented restaurants from serving alcohol and kept bars from serving anything but beer. That didn’t get changed until the early 1970s. One of the yardsticks of the city’s virtue often cited in the newspapers was that “Memphis had more churches than service stations.” I don’t know that anyone tracks that statistic anymore.

One of the best examples of this attitude was that Memphis had a board of censors from the 1920s til the 1950s that had to approve all movies. It’s hard to believe that Hollywood fare from this era was too racy for the general public, but the Memphis censors banned a large number of movies. The chairman and public face of the censor board was Lloyd Binford, who received accolades from religious leaders and was a figure of ridicule for the general public. The practical consequence of this was people drove 10 minutes to West Memphis, Arkansas where a number of theaters opened up and could see any movie they wanted. William Faulkner (a frequent visitor to Memphis) gained a measure of revenge in his novel The Reivers. Part of the novel is set (appropriately enough!) in a Memphis bordello, and Faulkner named its proprietor “Mr. Binford” as an inside joke for Memphians.

Boss Crump’s machine mostly died with him, but machine politics is far from dead in Memphis. The African American community learned its lessons well from Crump, and after throwing off the shackles of Jim Crow built their own machine. Beginning with the election of Harold Ford Sr. to the Tennessee Senate in 1970, the Ford family has dominated Memphis politics. Harold Sr. won a seat in Congress in 1974 that he “passed” to his son Harold Jr. in 1996. The Fords have used the family funeral home business to network within the community. Now there are a series of Ford “family seats” on the Memphis City Council, Shelby County Commission, and Tennessee House and Senate. These have been passed around Harold Jr’s uncles and aunt: Edmund, Emmitt, James, John, Joseph and Ophelia. Harold Jr. is now making noises about running against Bill Frist for US Senate.

It hasn’t all been easy for the Fords. Harold Sr. was indicted on bank fraud charges in 1987 and acquitted. Emmitt resigned from the Tennessee House after an insurance fraud conviction in 1981. This year John resigned his seat in the Tennessee Senate after indictments on bribery, extortion and witness intimidation. Ophelia was forced to run in a special election in September to protect John’s seat and won by 13 votes out of 8750 cast. But the more things change, the more they stay the same: turns out several of the votes in that 13 vote landslide were cast by dead people.

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