Celebrate Memphis: Highlights from the city’s first 200 years

Local News

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) – It started May 22, 1819 when three men from Nashville, named Overton, Winchester, and Jackson, founded Memphis as part of a real-estate venture. We weren’t even a part of Tennessee, but the state of Carolina!

Cotton was King, picked by slaves and hauled away by the Mighty Mississippi River. The city chugged along, growing even more when the railroad was built. That is, until the Civil War tore the city apart. 

The Confederacy had a stronghold initially, but when Union soldiers took control, thousands of slaves and their families fled to Memphis. That created tensions between blacks and whites.

Although the city was starting to grow again during Reconstruction, it wasn’t black and white, but something yellow that once again tested the city’s soul. Mosquitos brought Yellow Fever to Memphis. It ravaged the city. In just one month, 75% of the city either fled or died. Memphis went bankrupt and lost its charter for 14 years.

But it was a wealthy black businessman named Robert Church who helped save Memphis. He was the first to invest his own money so Memphis could pay-off its debt and get its charter back.

That started another comeback period. The hardwood lumber industry was growing almost as fast as cotton. We discovered our famous Artesian aquifer as a clean source for water. And the first bridge was built across the Mississippi River.

Memphis business and culture were on the rise. Beale Street gave birth to Blues greats like W.C. Handy, who also happened to write a campaign song for a new candidate, who would be like no other, prior or since. 

For 50 years, E-H “Boss” Crump was a boss in every respect, ushering in a prosperous time for Memphis. He was so powerful, he ran the city even when he wasn’t mayor. He’d actually tell other mayors what to do. He’d tell Nashville lawmakers which laws to pass. And he had the ear of presidents, especially FDR, winning millions in funding for Memphis.  

Although no one would accuse Boss Crump of being a progressive on racial issues, he did work to have relationships with the black community. But he died just as the Civil Rights movement was getting started and leaders after him only stoked tensions. 

Memphis was mired in division. The sanitation strike was the most obvious, ugly, and avoidable example, and it would lead to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an event that paralyzed the city.

Many say that stagnation still looms today, exacerbating problems with poverty, public education, and crime. However, despite those challenges, Memphis made the map as a city of kings.

In our last century, Dr. King tragically lost his life here. Countless musicians, like B.B. King made it here, including the “King of Rock n’ Roll.” And don’t forget about pro-wrestling’s Jerry “The King” Lawler.

We also became a city for “kings” of commerce and innovation such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, AutoZone, and FedEx, all names known worldwide. Beale Street went from empty to the state’s largest grossing tourist attraction. In 2004, FedExForum became home to the NBA Grizzlies.  

With billions invested or planned for Downtown and elsewhere, Memphis is entering its third century with more promise than it has had since celebrating its first 100 years. It wasn’t an easy journey, and there’s a lot of water under the bridge, but Memphians know that’s also what makes it a special place to live. 

Local 24 is a proud supporting partner of ‘A New Century of Soul,’ the official Memphis bicentennial celebrations.

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