Beale Street Dynasty
Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis
W. W. Norton 2015
New Books in African American StudiesNew Books in American StudiesNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in HistoryNew Books in MusicNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network August 4, 2015 Jonathan Judaken and Justin Willingham
Following the Civil War, Memphis emerged a center of black progress, optimism, and cultural ferment, after a period of turmoil. Preston Lauterbach joins host Jonathan Judaken for an in-depth discussion in advance of the launch of Lauterbach’s latest book, Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis (Norton, 2015).
Robert Church, Sr., who would become “the South’s first black millionaire,” was a slave owned by his white father. Having survived a deadly race riot in 1866, Church constructed an empire of vice in the booming river town of post-Civil War Memphis. He made a fortune with saloons, gambling, and–shockingly–white prostitution. But he also nurtured the militant journalism of Ida B. Wells and helped revolutionize American music through the work of composer W.C. Handy, the man called “the inventor of the blues.”
In the face of Jim Crow, the Church fortune helped fashion the most powerful black political organization of the early twentieth century. Robert and his son, Robert, Jr., bought and sold property, founded a bank, and created a park and auditorium for their people finer than the places whites had forbidden them to attend.
However, the Church family operated through a tense arrangement with the Democrat machine run by the notorious E. H. “Boss” Crump, who stole elections and controlled city hall. The battle between this black dynasty and the white political machine would define the future of Memphis.