Beale Street: Home of … a Neighborhood

NEIGHBORHOOD BOARD

Today’s neon Home of the Blues district was once a thriving Memphis neighborhood

By Tiara Campbell

Beale Street is the Home of the Blues. It says so on the neon signs lining the street and the shot glasses sold in souvenir shops and the homepage of bealestreet.com. With such consistent branding, you might think that the blues had selfishly claimed Beale Street for itself, leaving no room for anything or anybody else. But from its birth in the 1800s to its death in the 1970s, the Home of the Blues was home to people as well. It was more than any district; it was a neighborhood.


Beale’s Founding, 1840s-1880s

Though its exact origins are difficult to ascertain, Beale Street was established sometime during the first half of the nineteenth century. In the years leading to the Civil War, the western end of Beale near the Mississippi River transformed into a commercial district for free black people. During the Civil War, Union forces quickly took control of Memphis, and former enslaved people flooded into the city.

Following the war, Beale became a hub for black land ownership, entrepreneurship, and community activity as early Jim Crow policies concentrated black Memphians onto Beale and the surrounding streets. Upper- and middle-class black families moved into Victorian homes on the eastern end of the street, while central Beale blended commercial, entertainment, and residential space.

The Pettit House, built in 1848, once sat at 496 Beale St (Memphis Public Library).
Automobiles and horse-drawn vehicles are seen in this picture of Beale Street. Pee Wee’s Saloon is visible on the right side of the street. (Memphis Public Library)

A. Schwab discount store, at 163 Beale St.
The store to the right of the picture has a sidewalk display of shoes and boots. The sign above the store to the left reads: Morris Pinstein, Shoes, 167.
(Memphis Public Library)

Beale’s Neighborhood, 1890s-1930s

As one of the few areas black individuals and families could live in Memphis, Beale Street became the main commercial and entertainment district for black people throughout the area. Many black Memphians lived just south of Beale in a dense complex of single-story shotgun houses. Others lived on the street itself in rented apartments, furnished rooms, and shotgun houses sandwiched between saloons, shoe repair shops, and grocery stores. Hoodoo practitioners, blues musicians, physicians, lawyers, gamblers, barbers, and beauticians all interacted with each other in Beale’s neighborhood. Black Memphians of all identities and cultures made a home on Beale Street. They lived, worked, and played on Beale. Church Park, founded in 1899 at the junction of Beale and Fourth, became the heart of black community activity, hosting graduation celebrations, dances, religious gatherings, and conventions.

For many Beale Streeters, having a good time did not entail frequenting the sort of saloons and clubs that gave Beale its reputation as “the underworld.”

“Beale is more than just a little street prowled by midnight marauders and seductive concubines,” wrote George W. Lee in 1934. “The working people are on parade, going nowhere in particular, just out strolling, just glad of a chance to dress up and expose themselves on the avenue after working hard all week.”

View west on Beale from Fourth Street.
Businesses visible include, to the right: Wilson Drugs; Avalon Pool Room; Beale Street Lanes; New Daisy Theatre. To the left: Buffington Tailors; Eggleston, the Tailor. c. 1940.
(Memphis Public Library)
Here’s the view of Beale Street looking east, from Main Street.
Visible on the left is Weinman’s Loans at 106 Beale. On the right, Home of the Blues Records, Memphis Cobbing Co. and Bernstein’s Loans. c. 1940.
(Memphis Public Library)
Beale Street at Third Street, view west. Pictured, Left: The Golden Rule, the white facade of the Memphis Meat Company, on the ground floor of the 1891 Gallina Exchange Building, “among the grandest structures on Beale Street,” said Beverly G. Bond and Janann Sherman in Images of America: Beale Street. “Three stories of elegant brickwork, brick arches framing the third-story windows with a terra cotta cornice at the top.”
Right: Nathan’s Loans at 178 Beale
(source unknown)
A photo of A. Schwab store having an anniversary sale. c. 1955. There is a display of vinyl records under the sign “Latest Blues”. Two men appear to be pushing a car into a parking spot. (Memphis Public Library)

Newman’s Beale, 1940s-1950s

As Don Newman stood with his tripod and camera at the intersection of Beale and Fourth in 1948, he captured a Memphis neighborhood. Before him was what would become the Beale Street Historic District in 1966: Busy Bee Cab Service, Avalon Pool Room, the Pantaze Drug Company, cafés, liquor stores, barber shops, lunch counters, and countless people. To his left, just out of frame of his camera, was Joe Raffanti’s Liquor Store. To his right, Lady Louise’s Hosiery Shop. At his back was the length of Beale Street from Fourth down to East: tailor shops, drug stores, and dentists’ offices. All around Don were places to live and make a living.

Beale Street, view west from about 175 Beale Street (west of Third Street, now B.B.King Blvd). Sept 9, 1953.
A. Schwab, at 163 Beale St., is visible middle-left, past Pinstein Shoes at 167 Beale.
(From negative: CV7991 Collection: Dept. of Conservation Photograph Collection)
From the same building, an elevated picture of the traffic on Beale Street looking west. Businesses visible are: Morris Pinstein Shoes, Ladies Ready to Wear; A. Schwab; Wm Epstein, Morris Lippman Loans; Commercial Loan Office (Memphis Public Library).

Don took his photographs to immortalize a Memphis he felt would soon be changing. In the mid-1950s, Beale Street, like the rest of Downtown, faced competition from East Memphis. Desegregation, white flight, and the opportunity for middle-class black families to finally move past the barriers of Jim Crow that had bound them since the end of Reconstruction all contributed to the long decline of the Downtown area, and investors put their money into projects in the east instead.

In the summer of 1959, Mayor Edmund Orgill announced that Beale Street would become the center of a new tourist attraction. Downtown needed to be revitalized, and tourism would bring in much-needed revenue to the area. That same year Don returned to Beale to capture the street once again. “He really saw such a change in Memphis,” said Bertha Mae Newman of her husband. “It really bothered him because he hated to see everything change… He was really dedicated to preserving a lot of the places in Memphis that we hoped would never change, but, eventually, so many of them did.”

(Editor’s note: Don Newman’s Beale Street photograph appeared in the print version of this article on page 16 of StoryBoard’s Neighborhoods Issue)


Urban Renewal, 1960s-1970s

Front page of The Commercial Appeal on February 21, 1968.

There were saloons and bars and gambling dens alongside the stores and funeral parlors. A former resident remembers eight to ten pawnshops in the three block area. Gamblers and pimps and prostitutes rubbed shoulders with young men fresh from the country, wide-eyed at the flashy dress of the city slickers. After the hard work of the day, people were ready to enjoy themselves in the cool of the evening, and the street never closed down.

~Perre Magness, from the book Good Abode, 1983

In 1964, the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA), an urban renewal agency, released an 800-page plan for Beale Street’s redevelopment. Beale was to be transformed into a suburban-inspired area, complete with a cobblestone walkway and covered shopping mall. Attracting potential white tourists was paramount. While promising that Beale “would not be a bulldozer project,” MHA also made clear that much of the street’s built environment would not survive redevelopment.

“Beale Street has been permitted to deteriorate to a point where little remains, from a practical standpoint, of its lively past,” read an MHA brochure in 1966. MHA promised to retain the structures with “historical value,” but what did historical value mean to a federally funded organization with a lone black member on its executive board? MHA determined that only 70 structures were structurally sound enough to warrant saving.

There would be no room for a sustainable black neighborhood on the new Beale Street. According to MHA Deputy Director Randall A. P. Johnson, MHA decided that “people just wouldn’t come to that type of area”—as if black Memphians had not been coming to Beale for generations. MHA planned to demolish Beale’s tool stores, liquor stores, and beauty shops to build night clubs, restaurants, and curio shops in their place.

It was an unfortunate reminder, and a validation, of the term sometimes used in reference to urban renewal: negro removal.

Picture above shows parked automobiles and traffic on the 100 block of Beale Street in August 1968. The business visible in the foreground is Nathan’s Loans at 178 Beale; behind it is Lippman’s Loan Office at 174 Beale. Businesses on the other side of the street include John’s Cafe, Horseshoe Liquor Store, Safferstone’s Loans at 167 Beale and the A. Schwab variety store. This image was included in a folder of photographs labeled “Beale Street, ca. August 1968,” which were donated by Robert A. Lanier on June 2, 2015.

Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center

“They did everything they could to get us out of here.”

Abraham Schwab, 1979.

In 1969, MHA brought in the bulldozers. Beale’s 625 buildings were reduced to 65 by 1979. An estimated 1500 residents were displaced as a result of MHA’s renewal efforts on Beale Street. What had been a 40-block long street stretching from the riverfront to East Street was reduced to just a 3-block strip between Second and Fourth streets. This 3-block strip had been included as part of the Beale Street Historic District in 1966, but even it could not escape the specter of urban renewal.

“They pushed the stores out,” stated Abraham Schwab in 1979. “They did everything they could to get us out of here. They offered us money and sent in condemnation crews.” While A. Schwab’s – with resources not available to other businesses along the street – survived the destruction of urban renewal, other Beale businesses and homes were not so fortunate, falling prey to the city’s predatory real estate practices. As Beale Streeters went bankrupt or moved away, the city gained possession of the vacant buildings they left behind.

Photo of a seemingly abandoned Beale Street, south side of the street between Second and Third. Signs advertise: Memphis Meat Co., Safferstone’s Loans, A. Schwab, and Art Hutkins Tools. c. 1976 (Memphis Public Library)
Beale Street destruction, view east from 4th Street (Mississippi Valley Collection).
Buildings reduced to rubble at the important corner of Beale and Hernando
(Mississippi Valley Collection).

Beale’s Redevelopment, 1973-1980s

After razing hundreds of buildings and displacing hundreds more residents, MHA was finally ready to rebuild Beale Street from the ground up. But by 1973, MHA’s federal funding had run out, and Beale deteriorated even further.

“Beale Street Historic District can best be described as a group of small, burned out or decayed buildings immediately adjacent to extensive urban renewal areas of downtown,” read a National Park Service survey in 1977. “The buildings are decayed and old with many rear walls and roofs falling down and with interiors which are in a deplorable state of repair. Only three businesses appear to be operating in the three block Beale Street District.”

Even prominent music journalist Stanley Booth lamented the state of Beale and the Downtown area in the late 1970s. “The path of Martin Luther King from the Clayborn Temple A.M.E. Church to Beale Street has been scraped clean, bound by curbs, and planted in grass,” he wrote on the back of the landmark record album Beale Street Saturday Night in 1979 (commissioned by the Memphis Development Foundation and shown below).

“Across Main Street both sides of Beale have been bulldozed, a new bank and a new public utilities building have been constructed, and all traces of the past have been destroyed up to Lansky’s Men’s Wear, the place Sam Phillips sent Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley to learn how to dress cool.” Booth, like Don Newman, predicted a change in Memphis. “Through the wisdom of its civic leaders,” he prophesized, “Memphis is once again nearing the point of being worthless enough to attract money.” And so it did.

Aerial view of Beale Street in the late 1970s after completion of the Beale Street Urban Renewal Project (courtesy of the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library).
“Beale Street Will Live Again,” from a 1980 publication of Beale Street Developments. View west along Beale. (Memphis Public Library)
In the center of the photo is the facade of the Gallina Exchange Building, built in 1891.
In the far distance, right at center, is the front facade and rooftop of the Orpheum.
From the back cover of the one-of-a-kind 1979 album Beale Street Saturday Night. For part of its liner notes producer Jim Dickinson enlisted journalist Stanley Booth, who wrote a poignant but sardonic essay that describes the sad destruction of Beale Street, and that certainly captures the bitter mood of late ‘70s Memphis.

After years of scandal and disastrous private redevelopment ventures on Beale Street, the city selected Elkington & Keltner, a private non-profit corporation, to serve as the management and development company for Beale Street in 1982. Like MHA, John Elkington planned to turn Beale into a tourist attraction. Instead of the suburbs, however, Beale’s music history provided the inspiration for the renovations. Elkington’s strategy for redeveloping Beale relied on “develop[ing] a concept that will give patrons the music and food that they are expecting to get on Beale Street,” as he described in his 2008 book, Resurrecting the Home of the Blues. Tourists would expect and be made to expect the blues, and all of the elements that made Beale so similar to other neighborhoods across the country—the grocers, tailors, doctors, mothers, fathers—would remain buried deep in the past. Beale Street would be the Home of the Blues.

Beale Today

Beale Street is home to the blues. That is all.


Tiara Campbell is a native Memphian and recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. As a student intern with Memphis Heritage, Inc., Tiara contributed significantly to the archival research behind the Newman to Now project featured monthly in StoryBoard Memphis.


Then and Now

View east from South Main Street, between Main & Second

Down came all the buildings, with the exception of a church or two, to the north, east, and south of Beale. Worse even, the block of the street itself between Second and Main also was razed. Now Main Street would be forever insulated from Beale, whereas before they had joined seamlessly in a living urban fabric, even if the glue that held them together had been a row of pawnshops hanging their gilded balls out over the sidewalk.

~Memphis, an architectural guide, 1990
Above, 1956, the intersection of Beale and S. Main looking east. On the left is Weinman’s. The sign reads “Clothes Jewelry on Credit.” Beyond Weinman’s is Bursk Dept. Store. On the right is Pantaze’s on the corner, the Stork Shop and Men’s Sample Shoes. Jan-3-1956.
Note the shadow of the Orpheum sign (then the Malco) in the lower left of the photo.
(Memphis Public Library)
Above, 2019, same view today. Google street-view image.
“Main Street forever insulated from Beale.”
Note the bottom of the Orpheum sign upper right.

View west from Third Street (B.B.King Blvd)

Above, 1940s, view west from Third Street.
Above, 1969. A view from Handy Park looking west at the intersection of Beale and S. Third. Nathan’s Loans and Lippman’s signs can be seen on the right and Safferstone’s Loans is visible on the left. The Memphis Meat Co. building on the left appears to be vacated.
(Memphis Public Library)
Above, 2019. Google street view image. From Beverly G. Bond and Janann Sherman in Images of America: Beale Street: Every effort was made to save the facade of the 1891 Gallina Exchange Building – “three stories of elegant brickwork, brick arches framing the third-story windows with a terra cotta cornice at the top.”

View west from Fourth Street

Above, 1940, looking west from Beale and Fourth. (Memphis Public Library)
2019, view west from Fourth St. Photograph by Gary Walpole

About Newman to Now

Memphis Heritage’s Newman to Now project is based on a “then and now” juxtaposition of Don Newman’s historic photographs and Gary Walpole’s contemporary photographs of Memphis buildings and streetscapes. It explores forces behind the continuity and change in Memphis’ built environ- ment revealed by this juxtaposition, including the roles of citizens and communities in shaping these changes. Preservation plays a key role in the present and future of Memphis. The completed project will include a digital exhibit and lesson plans for use in Memphis schools. The Newman to Now project is partially funded by Humanities Tennessee, and independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Memphis Heritage has managed the Newman Collection since 2002 in agreement with Don Newman’s family. Images from the Newman’s Memphis collection are available for purchase through the MHI offices and can be viewed at: newmansmemphis.com

4 Replies to “Beale Street: Home of … a Neighborhood”

    1. I’ve seen that too, and I am not sure about either. It was also called Beale Avenue for a time (in the 1940s the city commission designated all west-east streets ‘avenues’ and all north-south streets ‘streets’) until Danny Thomas, here for a fundraiser in 1955, said “Beale Street belongs to the nation; this avenue business isn’t right.” The city listened, thankfully.

  1. Excellent article and photos. It may seem petty of me, but I took the photo of the men pushing the car in front of A. Schwab’s in 1953. When I donated it to the Library, it was with the understanding that I would be credited if it was to be published.

    1. Thanks Robert! Very cool that you took that photo! Regarding the credit, your name is of course all over the library collection, and I’m sure you know that you have a specific collection under your name. However when citing photo credits, the library only requires that we say ‘Memphis Public Library’ or a more complete ‘Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.’ But all of your photos in the their collection reference you as image Creator and as “A Gift of…” I personally think, in the interest of scholarly practices, they should require publishers to also cite the collection.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.