Occupying a substantial bluff rising from the Mississippi River, the site of Memphis has been a natural location for human settlement by varying cultures over thousands of years. The area was known to be settled in the first millennium A.D. by people of the Mississippian Culture, who had a network of communities throughout the Mississippi River Valley and its tributaries. They built complexes with large earthwork ceremonial and burial mounds as expressions of their sophisticated culture. The historic Chickasaw Indian tribe, believed to be their descendants, later occupied the site.
French explorers led by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto encountered the Chickasaw tribe in that area in the 16th century.
J.D.L. Holmes, writing in Hudson's Four Centuries of Southern Indians (2007), notes that this site was a third strategic point in the late 18th century through which European powers could control United States encroachment and their interference with Indian matters—after Fort Nogales (present day Vicksburg) and Fort Confederación (present day Epes, Alabama): "...Chickasaw Bluffs, located on the Mississippi River at the present-day location of Memphis. Spain and the United States vied for control of this site, which was a favorite of the Chickasaws.":71
In 1795 the Spanish Governor-General of Louisiana, Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondelet sent his Lieutenant Governor, Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, to negotiate and secure consent from the local Chickasaw so that a Spanish fort could be erected on the bluff; Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas was the result.:71 Holmes notes that consent was reached despite opposition from "disappointed Americans and a pro-American faction of the Chickasaws", when the "pro-Spanish faction signed the Chickasaw Bluffs Cession and Spain provided the Chickasaws with a trading post…".:71
Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas remained a focal point of Spanish activity until, as Holmes summarizes:
[T]he Treaty of San Lorenzo or Pinckney's Treaty of 1795 [implemented in March 1797], [had as its result that] all of the careful, diplomatic work by Spanish officials in Louisiana and West Florida, which has succeeded for a decade in controlling the Indians [e.g., the Choctaws], was undone. The United States gained the right to navigate the Mississippi River and won control over the Yazoo Strip north of the thirty-first parallel.:75,71
The Spanish dismantled the fort, shipping its lumber and iron to their locations in Arkansas.
In 1796, the site became the westernmost point of the newly admitted state of Tennessee, located in what was then called the Southwest United States. The area was still largely occupied and controlled by the Chickasaw nation. Captain Isaac Guion led an American force down the Ohio River to claim the land, arriving on July 20, 1797. By this time, the Spanish had departed. The fort's ruins went unnoticed twenty years later when Memphis was laid out as a city, after the United States government paid the Chickasaw for land.
The city of Memphis was founded on May 22, 1819 (incorporated December 19, 1826) by John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson. They named it after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River. Memphis developed as a trade and transportation center in the 19th century because of its flood-free location high above the Mississippi River. Located in the low-lying delta region along the river, its outlying areas were developed as cotton plantations, and the city became a major cotton market and brokerage center.
The cotton economy of the antebellum South depended on the forced labor of large numbers of African-American slaves, and Memphis also developed as a major slave market for the domestic slave trade. Through the early 19th century, one million slaves were transported from the Upper South, in a huge forced migration to newly developed plantation areas in the Deep South. Many were transported by steamboats along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. In 1857, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad was completed, connecting the Atlantic Coast of South Carolina and this major Mississippi River port; it was the only east-west railroad constructed across the southern states prior to the Civil War. This gave planters and cotton brokers access to the Atlantic Coast for shipping cotton to England, a major market.
The city's demographics changed dramatically in the 1850s and 1860s under waves of immigration and domestic migration. Due to increased immigration since the 1840s and the Great Famine, ethnic Irish made up 9.9 percent of the population in 1850, but 23.2 percent in 1860, when the total population was 22,623. They had encountered considerable discrimination in the city but by 1860, the Irish constituted most of the police force. They also gained many elected and patronage positions in the Democratic Party city government, and an Irish man was elected as mayor before the Civil War. At that time, representatives were elected to the city council from 30 wards. The elite were worried about corruption in this system and that so many saloonkeepers were active in the wards. German immigrants also made this city a destination following the 1848 revolutions; both the Irish and German immigrants were mostly Catholic, adding another element to demographic change in this formerly Protestant city.
Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, and Memphis briefly became a Confederate stronghold. Union ironclad gunboats captured the city in the naval Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862, and the city and state were occupied by the Union Army for the duration of the war. The Union Army commanders allowed the city to maintain its civil government during most of this period but excluded Confederate veterans from office, which shifted political dynamics in the city as the war went on. As Memphis was used as a Union supply base, associated with nearby Fort Pickering, it continued to prosper economically throughout the war. Meanwhile, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest harassed Union forces in the area.
The war years contributed to additional dramatic changes in city population. The presence of the Union Army attracted many fugitive slaves who escaped from surrounding rural plantations. So many sought protection behind Union lines that the Army set up contraband camps to accommodate them. The black population of Memphis increased from 3,000 in 1860, when the total population was 22,623, to nearly 20,000 in 1865, with most settling south of what was then the city limits. The white population was also increasing, but not to the same degree. After race riots against the blacks in 1866, thousands left the city. The total population in 1870 was 40,220; the number of blacks had declined to 15,000 that year, or 37.4% of the total.(See census table in Demographics section.)
Postwar years, Reconstruction and Democratic control
The rapid demographic changes, added to the stress of war and occupation, and uncertainty about who was in charge, resulted in growing tensions between the Irish policemen and black Union soldiers following the war. In three days of rioting in early May 1866, the Memphis Riot erupted, in which white mobs made up of policemen, firemen, and other mostly ethnic Irish Americans, attacked and killed 46 blacks, wounding 75 and injuring 100 persons; raped several women, and destroyed nearly 100 houses while severely damaging churches and schools in South Memphis. Much of the black settlement was left in ruins. Two whites were killed in the riot. Many blacks permanently fled Memphis after the riot, especially as the Freedmen's Bureau continued to have difficulty in protecting them. Their population fell to about 15,000 by 1870, or 37.4% of the city, which then had a total population of 40,226.(See census table in Demographics section.)
Historic aerial view of Memphis, 1870
Historian Barrington Walker suggests that the Irish rioted against blacks because of their relatively recent arrival as immigrants and the uncertain nature of their own claim to "whiteness"; they were trying to separate themselves from blacks in the underclass. The main fighting participants were ethnic Irish, decommissioned black Union soldiers, and newly emancipated freedmen from the African-American community. Walker suggests that most of the mob were not in direct economic conflict with the blacks, as by then the Irish had attained better jobs, but the Irish were establishing dominance over the freedmen.
In Memphis, unlike disturbances in some other cities, ex-Confederate veterans were generally not part of the attacks against blacks. The outrages of the riot in Memphis and a similar one in New Orleans in September (the latter did include Confederate veterans) resulted in support in the North for Congress to pass the Reconstruction Act and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the 1870s, a series of yellow fever epidemics devastated Memphis, with the disease being carried by river passengers along the waterways. During the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, more than 5000 people were listed in the official register of deaths between July 26 and November 27. The vast majority died of yellow fever, making the epidemic in the city of 40,000 people one of the most traumatic and severe in urban United States' history. Within four days of the Memphis Board of Health's declaration of a yellow fever outbreak, 20,000 residents had fled the city. The panic ensuing left the poverty-stricken, the working classes, and the African-American community at most risk from the epidemic. Those who remained in Memphis relied on volunteers from religious and physician organizations to tend to the sick. By the end of the year, more than 5,000 were confirmed dead in Memphis. The New Orleans health board listed "not less than 4,600" dead. The Mississippi Valley recorded 120,000 cases of yellow fever, with 20,000 deaths. The $15 million in losses caused by the epidemic bankrupted the city of Memphis, and as a result its charter was revoked by the state legislature.
Woodcut representing the waterfront of Memphis, c. 1879
By 1870, Memphis's population of 40,000 was almost double that of Nashville and Atlanta, and it ranked as the second-largest city in the South after New Orleans. The population of Memphis continued to grow after 1870, even when the Panic of 1873 hit the US hard, particularly in the South. The Panic of 1873 resulted in expanding Memphis's underclasses amidst the poverty and hardship wrought by the panic, giving further credence to Memphis as a rough, shiftless city. Leading up to the outbreak in 1878, it had suffered two yellow fever epidemics, cholera, and malaria, which gave Memphis a reputation as a sickly city and a filthy one. It was unheard of for a city with a population as large as that of Memphis not to have any waterworks; the city still relied for supplies entirely on collecting water from the river and rain cisterns, and it had no way to remove sewage. The combination of a swelling population, especially of lower and working classes, and the abysmal health and sanitary conditions of Memphis, made the city ripe for a serious epidemic.
The first case recorded for the public was when Mrs. Kate Bionda, an owner of an Italian "snack house", died of the fever on August 13. Hers was officially reported by the Board of Health, on August 14, as the first case of yellow fever in the city. A massive panic ensued. The same trains and steamboats that brought thousands into Memphis now in five days carried away over 25,000 Memphians, more than half of the population. On August 23, the Board of Health finally declared a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, and the city collapsed, hemorrhaging its population. In July of that year, the city boasted a population of 47,000. By September, 19,000 remained and 17,000 of them had yellow fever. The only people left in the city were the lower classes, such as German and Irish immigrant workers, and African Americans. None had the means to flee the city, as did the middle and upper class whites of Memphis, and thus they were subjected to a city of death.
Immediately following the Board of Health's declaration, a Citizen's Relief Committee was formed by Charles G. Fisher. It organized the city into refugee camps. The committee's main priority was separating the poor from the city and isolating them into refugee camps. Also, the Howard Association, formed specifically for yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans and Memphis, organized nurses and doctors within Memphis and throughout the country in response to the outbreak. They stayed at the Peabody Hotel, the only hotel to keep its doors open during the epidemic (Crosby 60). From there they were assigned to their respective districts. Physicians of the epidemic reported seeing as many as 100 to 150 patients daily.
The sisters of St. Mary's Hospital played an important role during the epidemic in caring for the lower classes. Already supporting a girls' school and church orphanage, the sisters of St. Mary's also sought to provide care for the Canfield Asylum, a home for black children. Each day, the sisters alternated caring for the orphans at St. Mary's, delivering children to the Canfield Asylum, and taking soup and medicine on house calls to patients. Between September 9 and October 4, Sister Constance and three other Sisters fell victim themselves to the epidemic and died. They later became known as "The Martyrs of Memphis".
At long last, on October 28, a killing frost struck. The city sent out word to Memphians scattered all over the country to come home. Though yellow fever cases were recorded in the pages of Elmwood Cemetery's burial record as late as February 29, 1874, the epidemic seemed quieted. The Board of Health declared the epidemic, which caused over 20,000 deaths and financial losses of nearly $200 million, at an end. On November 27, a general citizen's meeting was called at the Greenlaw Opera House to offer thanks to those who had stayed behind to serve, of whom many died. Over the next year property tax revenues collapsed, and the city could not make payments on its municipal debts. As a result of this crisis, Memphis temporarily lost its city charter and was reclassified by the state legislature as a Taxing District from 1878–1893. Although Memphis lost its charter and 75% of its population, a new era of sanitation was developed in the city. A new municipal government in 1879 helped form the first regional health organization and during the 1880s led the nation in sanitary reform and improvements.
Perhaps the most significant effect of the yellow fever on Memphis was in demographic changes. Nearly all of Memphis's upper and middle classes vanished, depriving the city of its general leadership and class structure that dictated everyday life, similar to other large Southern cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, and Atlanta. In Memphis, the poorer whites and blacks fundamentally made up the city and played the greatest role in rebuilding it. The epidemic had resulted in Memphis being a less cosmopolitan place, with an economy that served the cotton trade and a population drawn increasingly from poor white and black Southerners.
Late 19th century
The 1890 election was strongly contested, resulting in opponents of the
D. P. Hadden faction working to deprive them of votes by disenfranchising blacks. The state had enacted several laws, including the requirement of poll taxes, that served to disenfranchise many blacks. Although political party factions in the future sometimes paid poll taxes to enable blacks to vote, African Americans lost their last positions on the city council in this election and were forced out of the police force. (They did not recover the ability to exercise the franchise until after passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.) Historian L. B. Wrenn suggests the heightened political hostility of the Democratic contest and related social tensions contributed to a white mob lynching three black grocers in Memphis in 1892.:124,131
Journalist Ida B. Wells of Memphis investigated the lynchings, as one of the men killed was a friend of hers. She demonstrated that these and other lynchings were more often due to economic and social competition than any criminal offenses by black men. Her findings were considered so controversial and aroused so much anger that she was forced to move away from the city. But she continued to investigate and publish the abuses of lynching.:131
Businessmen were eager to increase city population after the losses of 1878–79, and supported annexation of new areas to the city; this was passed in 1890 before the census. The annexation measure was finally approved by the state legislature through a compromise achieved with real estate magnates, and the area annexed was slightly smaller than first proposed.:126
In 1893 the city was rechartered with home rule, which restored its ability to enact taxes. The state legislature established a cap rate. Although commission government was retained and enlarged to five commissioners, Democratic politicians regained control from the business elite. The commission form of government was believed effective in getting things done, but because all positions were elected at-large, requiring them to gain majority votes, this practice reduced representation by candidates representing significant minority political interests.:126f
Cotton merchants on Union Avenue (1937)
In terms of its economy, Memphis developed as the world's largest spot cotton market and the world's largest hardwood lumber market, both commodity products of the Mississippi Delta. Into the 1950s, it was the world's largest mule market. Attracting workers from rural areas as well as new immigrants, from 1900 to 1950 the city increased nearly fourfold in population, from 102,350 to 396,000 residents.
From the 1910s to the 1950s, Memphis was a place of machine politics under the direction of E. H. "Boss" Crump. He gained a state law in 1911 to establish a small commission to manage the city. The city retained a form of commission government until 1967 and patronage flourished under Crump. Per the publisher's summary of L.B. Wrenn's study of the period, "This centralization of political power in a small commission aided the efficient transaction of municipal business, but the public policies that resulted from it tended to benefit upper-class Memphians while neglecting the less affluent residents and neighborhoods." The city installed a revolutionary sewer system and upgraded sanitation and drainage to prevent another epidemic. Pure water from an artesian well was discovered in the 1880s, securing the city's water supply. The commissioners developed an extensive network of parks and public works as part of the national City Beautiful movement, but did not encourage heavy industry, which might have provided substantial employment for the working-class population. The lack of representation in city government resulted in the poor and minorities being underrepresented. The majority controlled the election of all the at-large positions.
Memphis did not become a home rule city until 1963, although the state legislature had amended the constitution in 1953 to provide home rule for cities and counties. Before that, the city had to get state bills approved in order to change its charter and for other policies and programs. Since 1963, it can change the charter by popular approval of the electorate.:194
During the 1960s, the city was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement, as its large African-American population had been affected by state segregation practices and disenfranchisement in the early 20th century. African-American residents drew from the civil rights movement to improve their lives. In 1968, the Memphis sanitation strike began for living wages and better working conditions; the workers were overwhelmingly African American. They marched to gain public awareness and support for their plight: the danger of their work, and the struggles to support families with their low pay. Their drive for better pay had been met with resistance by the city government.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, known for his leadership in the non-violent movement, came to lend his support to the workers' cause. King stayed at the Lorraine Motel in the city, and was assassinated by a sniper on April 4, 1968, the day after giving his prophetic I've Been to the Mountaintop speech at the Mason Temple.
Grief-stricken and enraged after learning of King's murder, many African Americans in the city rioted, looting and destroying businesses and other facilities, some by arson. The governor ordered Tennessee National Guardsmen into the city within hours, where small, roving bands of rioters continued to be active. Fearing the violence, more of the middle-class began to leave the city for the suburbs.
In 1970, the Census Bureau reported Memphis's population as 60.8% white and 38.9% black. Suburbanization was attracting wealthier residents to newer housing outside the city. After the riots and court-ordered busing in 1973 to achieve desegregation of public schools, "about 40,000 of the system's 71,000 white students abandon[ed] the system in four years." The city now has a majority-black population; the larger metropolitan area is narrowly majority white.
Memphis is well known for its cultural contributions to the identity of the American South. Many renowned musicians grew up in and around Memphis and moved to Chicago and other areas from the Mississippi Delta, carrying their music with them to influence other cities and listeners over radio airwaves. These included musicians such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, W. C. Handy, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. Jones, Eric Gales, Al Green, Alex Chilton, Justin Timberlake, Three 6 Mafia, the Sylvers, Jay Reatard, Zach Myers, Aretha Franklin, and many others.