- Historic Sites
A gracious antebellum city of stern-wheelers and cotton money; a restless, violent city with a hot grain of genius at its heart; a city of calamity, desolation, and rebirth; a city that changed the way the whole world hears music. It’s all the same city, and it is this year’s Great American Place. Thomas Childers answers a summons to Memphis, Tennessee.
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
When I visited the Hunt-Phelan Home early on a bright, already humid morning in April, I found myself virtually alone taking the tour. At the entrance I was greeted by guides in period hoop skirts and issued a tape and headphones. Leading the visitor from room to room, the recorded story of the house is engagingly told by various members of the family, but particularly by its women. They weave family stories into the fabric of the estate’s history in a manner so compelling, so vibrant, that at times I found myself turning around as if I had been tapped on the shoulder, expecting to find the lady of the house beckoning me graciously into the adjoining parlor or library. Over the years, I have taken a great many such tours, from Appomattox Courthouse to Versailles, and none so successfully captures a sense of historical time and place as this lonely antebellum estate on Beale Street.
However much Memphians may have resented the Federal occupation, the city’s commerce did not suffer unduly during the war years. In fact, the enterprising business community quickly adapted, selling cotton to the Yankees and, under the very noses of the Union authorities, nails, shoes, and gunpowder to Rebel agents.
The war did nonetheless bring momentous changes to Memphis, far-reaching changes that would increasingly define the social and cultural contours of the city. During its early years Memphis had been overwhelmingly white, its inhabitants largely Southern Anglo-Saxons, with an admixture of Irish and Italian newcomers. But shortly after Federal troops arrived, Union authorities established a freedmen’s camp for escaping slaves just south of town. As the fortunes of the Confederacy waned, the camp population mushroomed, and when the war ended in 1865, most of the freedmen decided to stay on. Many moved into the south part of town around Beale Street, swelling the black population from four thousand to fifteen thousand. The city acted as a magnet for blacks from all over the rural South, and within just a few years after Lee’s surrender, 40 percent of Memphis’s population was black. Well before other cities, Northern or Southern, Memphis was on its way to developing a distinct African-American community, and in the years of Reconstruction that community continued to grow.
Having been spared the devastation of war, the city in the late 1860s and 1870s was ravaged by a series of catastrophic yellow fever epidemics that killed thousands and forced thousands more to flee. By the end of the decade Memphis was bankrupt and virtually abandoned, prompting the state to revoke its city charter in 1879. From this extreme low ebb Memphis staged a remarkable comeback, riding a surge of revived river trade that swept the Mississippi Valley in the following decades. By the late 1880s the city had re-emerged as the cotton center of the South, and in the 1890s it became the world’s largest hardwood market.
Well before other cities, Northern or Southern, Memphis was developing a true African-American community.
The commission houses of the great cotton brokers still look toward the river from Cotton Row on Front Street between Exchange and Union, though most have long since been converted into architects’ studios, law firms, and restaurants. The ornate Cotton Exchange Building, constructed in 1873 and featured prominently in the film version of John Grisham’s The Firm , is still the centerpiece of Cotton Row, and although the hectic bustle of the nineteenth-century cotton business has subsided, Memphis remains to this day the world’s largest spot market for the commodity.
More striking vestiges of the city’s Gilded Age effulgence may be found just a few blocks away, on what locals once referred to as Millionaires’ Row. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, this was an avenue of cotton merchants’ houses, running from the river eastward along Adams Avenue—a series of Italianate villas, Second Empire French mansions, and Victorian estates strung like pearls along the lush tree-lined street. Today only a handful of these magnificent estates remain, clustered together in a two-block area called the Victorian Village Historic District in an otherwise dreary, mildly decaying neighborhood. The Mallory-Neely House, built in 1852, and the nearby Woodruff-Fontaine House, from the 1870s, are exquisite period gems that have been restored with elaborate attention to detail. A successful cotton merchant who bought his house in 1883, James C. Neely purchased an enormous stained-glass window at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair and built an expansive landing into the house’s main staircase to display his acquisition. The window is as stunning today as it was one hundred years ago, but if you stand on the landing and peer through one of the tiny leaded panes, you cannot miss the faded grandeur of the era and the haunted quality that clings to the remaining houses. The cotton coming upriver is no longer visible, but the pawnshops of Poplar Avenue will stare back at you from just a block away.