Daily Archives: 26 June 2007

Black Memphis vs. Black Nashville

From Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, by Lawrence Otis Graham (Harper, 2000), pp. 276-277:

I am still a devoted fan of Memphis because of my childhood memories and because of the progressive people—both black and white—who I know are working together today; but like its black elite, who were educated elsewhere, I feel it is a town trying to overcome great odds. The thriving downtown that it once had along Main Street—between Beale and Jefferson—was killed in the 1970s when the whites abandoned the increasingly black city, which now is only 44 percent white. There is not a department store within ten miles of City Hall. Big stores like Gerber’s, Lowenstein’s, and Bry’s are all gone now. The area surrounding the municipal buildings, courthouses, and county offices is littered with pawnshops, bail bondsmen, and vacant storefronts. What would have long ago been a well-developed Mississippi River waterfront in any other town is just now seeing walking paths, green grass, and trees. With the exception of a few tall buildings built by the city’s superior hospitals—Baptist and Methodist—and by First Tennessee Bank and Union Planters Bank, one gets the sense that no major company or industry calls Memphis its home. Federal Express is there—several miles out of downtown, near the airport, but the headquarters for Holiday Inn and Cook Industries left years ago.

Statue of B. B. King, Memphis Visitor CenterEven the city’s premier hotel, the Peabody—as plush as it is, by Memphis standards—seems a bit corny and anachronistic. Founded in 1869 and rebuilt in the 1920s, the imposing brick structure attracts tourists to its main lobby each morning for a ritual that began in the 1930s and continues today, seven days a week. At 11:00 A.M. sharp, an elevator door opens on the main floor, and marching in line across the carpeted floor are five trained ducks. Marching in unison to taped music that plays over the lobby speakers, the small ducks waddle toward a small, ornate fountain and pool in the middle of the floor. One by one, they hop up to the fountain and then dive into the pool. The routine is repeated in reverse at 5:00 each afternoon. Since the hotel had a policy of segregation thoughout my older relatives’ lives, it was not until we were teenagers that they permitted us to visit the building and view this amusing event.

“Memphis used to have the largest and most developed metropolitan area in Tennessee,” explained a black former city councilman who acknowledges that a fear of integration is what kept Memphis small and rather underdeveloped. “It can’t be blamed on the people who are in power today,” he says, “but those who were making decisions in the 1950s and 1960s created a problem between the races and within the corporate community that was hard to correct.”

The city’s black elite seem to be painfully aware of how much better their black counterparts are doing in Nashville—a city whose metropolitan area had once been less affluent, less respected, and less populated than that of Memphis. In fact, most of the Memphis black elite who had grown up in the city prior to the 1960s had to leave town and go to Nashville in order to get their education. Although the town had the small, all-black LeMoyne College since 1870, it lacked the truly elite black institutions that Nashville had: Fisk University and Meharry Medical College. The black Memphians also lacked Nashville’s Tennessee State University, a black public college that ran itself like an elite private school.

“Although I grew up in Memphis—a city that looked down on Nashville at the time,” explains a sixty-year-old physician who attended Fisk, “I always had the feeling that Nashville was going to catch up and then leave us behind—intellectually and racially. Memphis had no premier schools for whites or blacks, and Nashville had Vanderbilt for whites and these other top schools for us. White Memphians—and even some black Memphians—seemed to get more backward and more provincial as other cities outgrew us. So few blacks here were able to break out of the box and really gain national exposure the way that blacks in Nashville did.”

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