19 January 2014

A Few of My Favorite Things: M is for Memphis

I have sort of a love-hate relationship with Memphis.  I was born in Helena, Arkansas but moved to Memphis at a very young age, so although I prefer to tell people I’m from “West Tennessee,” I always have to say “around Memphis” for them to know where I’m talking about.  My favorite town is Arlington, the little eastern suburb I lived in before moving to Oregon in 2007, but I spent most of my life in Memphis. Although I love the life I’ve built here in the Pacific Northwest, and would never consider moving back, the Mid-South will always be “home.”

Memphis is a study in contradictions.  It’s the home of two of the largest, most respected children’s hospitals in the world: Le BonheurChildren's Hospital, and St.Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  It’s largest university, and my alma mater, The University of Memphis, is a perennial basketball powerhouse, and a perennial football dog house.  It’s a political nightmare, having the distinction of electing a city councilman; having him go to prison for taking bribes; getting out and being re-elected; and being convicted of taking bribes AGAIN! 

The music scene is legendary, most notably blues.  Musical legends getting their start in Memphis include  Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, B.B. King, and, of course, Elvis.  Beale Street is one of the most popular destinations in town, but music isn’t the only draw.  The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is one of the largest and most prestigious events in the world of ‘Q.  I often discourse on barbecue styles with Yankees and other foreigners I encounter out here.  Carolina, Kansas City, and Texas all claim rich barbecue heritages, and their distinctive styles all have their merits.  Other than being the wrong animal over the wrong wood at the wrong temperature with the wrong sauce, they’re fine.

Memphis is situated on a natural bluff above the east bank of the Mississippi River, hence its nickname; “The Bluff City.”  Its first notable inhabitants were of the Mississippian Culture in the late first millennia AD, followed by the Chickasaw tribe.  Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto passed through the area in the mid-16th century.  Its flood-proof location made it an early transportation hub, and the convergence of Interstates 40, 55, and (eventually) 69, as well as the world-wide headquarters of FedEx, keep that distinction alive today.  Until it was overtaken by Hong Kong International Airport in 2010, Memphis International Airport was the busiest cargo airport in the world.

Memphis was founded in 1819 by John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson.  Its transportation advantages made it a cotton mecca and a strategic asset to both North and South during the Civil War.  At the time, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad was the only east-west rail connection in the newly-formed Confederacy.  Memphis fell to Union gunboats in June 1862 and remained in Federal hands despite numerous raids by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  A series of yellow fever epidemics in the late 1870s cost the city 75% of its population and caused it to briefly lose its charter. 

An example of Memphis’ contrasts may be found in the fact that Travel + Leisure Magazine named Memphis one of its top ten "Dirtiest Cities," for widespread, visibly littered public spaces,[22]  while it made Forbes Magazine’s 2012 list of the top 15 cities in the United States with an emerging downtown area.


Memphis is in the buckle of the Bible Belt, and home to the international headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States. Although predominantly “Christian,” virtually all faiths are well represented.  It is strategically located atop four fresh water aquifers, the largest of which is estimated to contain over 100 trillion gallons of soft, pure water.  The river delta soils to the south in Mississippi and west in Arkansas and abundant water sources make it ideal cotton and rice growing areas, and those crops vastly dominate agriculture in the Mid-South.

Memphis history is darkened by a racially charged sanitation strike in February, 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of that same year.  Racial tensions continue to run high, with the predominantly black population of Memphis contrasting politically and economically with the predominantly white suburbs of greater Shelby County.  The gritty inner city neighborhoods, depicted pretty well in the movie “The Blind Side", contrast with Shelby Farms, the largest urban park in the United States after New York’s Central Park.

During the early heyday of professional wrestling, Memphis was one of the pioneer cities, with Monday nights at the Mid-South Coliseum hosting all the biggest names in the “sport” as they passed through taking on local legend Jerry “The King” Lawler for one iteration or another of the “World Championship.”  Lawler’s most widely publicized bout was likely against comedian Andy Kaufman in April, 1982, after which he famously slapped the comedian on the David Letterman Show.  The arena also hosted concerts by The Beatles, The Jacksons, Judas Priest, and, of course, Elvis, his last being in July 1976, a little over a year prior to his death.

One of these days, I want to get home again, but I’ll settle for a visit.  No way do I miss the heat and humidity that beset Memphis from March to October!


Where is “home” for you?

1 comment:

Suzanne Shumaker said...

I enjoy reading about your life and roots. Thank you for sharing the highlights and history of your hometown.