Memphis is full of commemorative plaques that declare the spot where so-and-so once lived or operated a successful business, or where a prominent religious or cultural center was erected. These were genuine millionaires, bankers, insurance executives, war heroes, political figures, scholars, and philanthropists. I learned a lot about the trajectory of the city and its people from these historical markers. Robert Church, George W. Lee, Dr. R.Q. Venson, Sara Roberta Church, Abram Langston Taylor, and Mary Church Terrell were among the many wealthy and influential members of Memphis society a century or two ago.
But when I looked around the territory that surrounds the signs celebrating their accomplishments all the structures they had built were gone. The elegant homes, churches, businesses, and civic buildings had been demolished. The accumulated family and community wealth was nowhere to be seen. Only the historical markers remain.
Next to these vacant properties is the Hunt Phelan estate which stands proud in sharp contrast to its eviscerated surroundings. To a considerable degree the buildings that survive the ravages of time do so as a result of pure luck. But who once owned the buildings and how the larger society values them can’t be underestimated. Who in Memphis had both the desire and the resources to preserve which buildings and maintain whose heritage?
That takes me to the Lorraine Motel which was a twenty minute walk away. The Lorraine was the site of the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I wandered the immediate neighborhood and the facility which is now a Civil Rights Museum trying to understand the larger picture beyond the events of a single historic moment.
The Lorraine was originally a two story brick hotel called the Windsor that dated to 1925. In that era many out of town guests arrived by train. The Bailey family bought the property in 1945 and gradually grew their business to include nearby bungalows. Memphis was strictly segregated by race and there were a limited number of establishments that would (or could) accommodate black guests. The Baileys provided high quality rooms and meals for both ordinary travelers as well as black celebrities and dignitaries.
Over time the Baileys expanded and modernized the hotel in keeping with the times. The hotel became a motel with parking lots front and back and a swimming pool where a plaza is today. The Baileys were incrementally building wealth while serving the real needs of the larger community. They were part of a small but thriving black middle class in Memphis.
The day Dr. King was shot and killed the Bailey family and their business entered permanent decline. Mrs. Bailey suffered a stroke that same day, no doubt associated with the stress of the event. She passed a few days later. From that point forward Mr. Bailey and his family struggled to preserve the memory of Dr. King and his work, but also to maintain a solvent business. The assassination was a flashpoint that ignited riots in cities all across the country. The area around the Lorraine was hit hard by decades of disinvestment, flight from the city center, and the on-going loss of business.
Rooms became more or less permanent rentals for low income people who were left behind in the great suburban exodus. Ironically, as civil rights legislation gradually dismantled legal segregation and Southern culture slowly shifted – haltingly and imperfectly to be sure – there was less need for special accommodations for black travelers. By the time Mr. Bailey died the Lorraine had closed for good and the family’s wealth had evaporated. If it hadn’t been transformed into a museum it would have suffered the same fate as so many other prominent black owned buildings in town. Demolition.
Across the street is a woman who sits vigil in quiet protest. Jacqueline Smith was one of the long term residents of the Lorraine before the building was repurposed. The police carried her out of her room in 1988 as part of the eviction and renovation process. She’s still there on the corner across the street thirty one years later. She would prefer society address the underlying economic conditions of the people of Memphis rather than use the memory of Dr. King to promote tourism and real estate development in the neighborhood. It’s complicated…
My trip to Memphis was associated with the Incremental Development Alliance which exists to try and reconcile these competing needs. How does a place like Memphis add value to neighborhoods in a way that generates new jobs and much needed municipal revenue without displacing lower income residents? And how can that be done without depending on outside sources of government funding and without loading up on subsidies, tax holidays, and exotic financing techniques that inevitably favor the largest best connected players who are least in need of support?
In other words, how does Memphis take the Jacqueline Smiths of the neighborhood and allow them to build personal wealth one baby step at a time like the Baileys did? It’s not about government cash payments, or wealth transfers, or “make work” programs. It’s about creating the conditions that allow people of modest means to cultivate very small places at a price point they can truly manage and then upgrade and expand over time under their own steam. So far I see no evidence that Memphis – or anyplace else in the country – has any genuine interest in embracing that process beyond lip service. But we’ll see how it goes…