South Memphis

Walking in Memphis: Put on your tennis shoes and discover South Memphis history

[Author Ramona Springfield is a resident of South Memphis. She covers her community's news and events as a High Ground News Community Correspondent.]


As one of the oldest communities in the city, South Memphis boasts far more history than many Memphians realize.

A tour through South Memphis' 38126 and 38106 ZIP codes will lead you to a total of 29 historical markers. Most were erected by the Tennessee Historical Commission, the Shelby County Historical Commission, the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, or the Center City Commission.

Together they capture a complex, history that runs deep through historic music, churches, schools, businesses, events, and individuals. These are stories where triumphs are often merged with sadness, and innovation and resilience are a common thread.

Many are clustered, which makes for an ideal walking tour. A car, bike, or bus can move you between clusters or get you to the outliers. You can also check out tour services like A Tour of Possibilities, which focuses on Black and African American contributions to Memphis. 

For those familiar with this side of town and even those who aren’t quite acquainted, a walking tour is a fun and safe activity to soak up some local history during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's also a great way to supplement kids' history lessons and adults' Memphis knowledge.

Need a starting point for your tour? Here are some of the community's favorites. They're all within a three mile radius. 
 

The Birthplace of Aretha Franklin and American Soul

South Memphis is the birthplace of American soul music and was an important location for the development of funk, blues, and rock. You can learn its history at its Stax Museum of American Soul Music or you can hit the streets to see it firsthand. 

On Lucy Avenue, a small shotgun house surrounded by chain link fence and makeshift memorial is the birthplace of famous songstress Aretha Franklin. A few blocks away is the famous Willie Mitchell Royal Studio where Al Green, Bruno Mars, Rod Stewart, and a host of others recorded chart-topping songs. 

Aretha Franklin's birthplace at 406 Lucy Avenue in South Memphis. The house is now surrounded by a chain link fence, which visitors have decorated with memorial messages and gifts. (Wikimedia Commons)
 

People’s Grocery

1026 Mississippi Boulevard
The People’s Grocery was a grocery store opened in 1889 by three African American men: Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart. They chose a location at the southeast corner of Mississippi and Walker Avenue known as The Curve. At the time it was economically and racially mixed. Across from People’s Grocery was another grocer store owned by W. R. Barrett, who was white. Barrett was in business first and tensions began to rise as People’s Grocery gained success and support from the black community.

On March 2, 1892 Moss, McDowell and Stewart were arrested and put in jail in connection with a disturbance near their store. On March 9, 1892 while sitting in jail waiting on a judge to decide whether they should be brought to trial, the three men were dragged from their jail cells by an angry mob of white Memphians and lynched. The marker for this tragic event was erected by the Tennessee Historical Commission on June 5, 1991.
 

South Memphis' Other Historically Black College

Intersection of McLemore Avenue and Krayer Street
The University of West Tennessee was a school for Black medical students established in 1900 by African American physician, journalist, and educator Miles Vandarhurt Lynk. Lynk also lived in the same South Memphis community.

At the time, there were less than 15 Black medical schools in the country. It UWT closed in 1923 after graduating just over 150 doctors, nurses, and dentists.

The historical marker is nestled between overgrown shrubbery and a beaten path. It was erected in 1996 by The Tennessee Historical Commission.

“This really makes you think,” says John Knox when asked about a historic Black college in his old South Memphis neighborhood. Knox spent most of his childhood just a block away from the University of West Tennessee marker but had no clue it existed. He was only familiar with Lemoyne Owen College, which is the area's historically Black college founded in 1870 and still in operation. It's located on Walker Avenue and also has a historic marker. 

A historic marker tells the story of LeMoyne-Owen College, one of two historically Black colleges that had been located in South Memphis. The University of West Tennessee also has a historic marker but is no longer in operation. (Lauren Turner)
 

Chew C. Sawyer

South Parkway East at Pillow Street, on median strip
Chew C. Sawyer was an African American entrepreneur who founded Sawyer Realty Company. Later company names included Cornette Realty, Arnette Construction Company, Future Insurance Agency, and Sawyer Rental Agency. Sawyer was an accomplished businessman who become the the first president of Mutual Federal Savings and Loan, the first African American savings and loan company in Memphis. The marker is located in an area of South Memphis where Sawyer built and financed many homes, including his own.
 

Zion Cemetery

South Parkway East between Dunnavant and Willett streets
Zion Cemetery is the oldest African American cemetery in Memphis, TN. The 15 acre property was purchased by the The United Sons and Daughters of Zion Association, an African American burial association, in 1873. Rev. Morris Henderson started the cemetery in 1876.

The lives of its eternal residents spanned from the Civil War through the Jim Crow era. Among them are Moss, McDowell and Stewart, the victims of the 1892 People’s Grocery Lynchings. It also includes Georgia Patton Washington, the first African American female medical doctor in the state of Tennessee and lawyer Thomas F. Cassels, who served in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The Zion Cemetery registry lists around over 22,000 burials but estimates run as high as 25,000.Because the original Zion Cemetery burial registry was lost or destroyed, there is no accurate number of how many people are actually buried there.

In February of 1990 Zion Cemetery was entered on the National Register of Historic Places.

Zion National Cemetery is the oldest Black cemetery in Memphis. It was designated as a historic site in 1990. (Wikimedia Commons)

Boss Ugly Bob Records

726 East McLemore Avenue
Robert Karriem, better known as Boss Ugly Bob, opened his first Boss Ugly Bob record outlet in April 1971. Boss Ugly Bob was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The shop carried albums, LPs, cassettes, and 8-track tapes and was known to be a place where you could find the hardest to find hits. Patrons could also purchase concert tickets at the record store, which was ideal for many in the community since the store was walking distance of their homes. The shop was an asset to the community, but Karriem himself was also known to be a major supporter of local artists.

The record shop was dedicated to customer satisfaction until the day its doors closed in 2006. Karriem passed away in 2004 and remained a legend and pillar of his South Memphis community until his death.

Many that grew up in the neighborhood aren't aware that Karriem has a historic marker, which was erected in 2013. They knew him simply as Boss, the millionaire that continued to serve the community even as it began to face decline.

Strolling through the neighborhood you quickly see that there are still plenty of friendly faces outside the Friendly Market, which sits next to the now vacant building once inhabited by Boss Ugly Bob Records.
 

South Memphis Pride

For those who lived through the limelight days of this community and have also seen the lows, they are proud to know that their neighborhood once had physicians, professors, and at least one millionaire living within the community.

For a community that was once vibrant and bustling with businesses and shops of all kinds, history means a lot to those who call it home.

The neighborhood has seen deterioration and decline but is now on the verge of rebirth due to reinvestment in areas like Soulsville and the city’s revitalization plans for the South City. For those that live there, this will allow opportunity for more history to be made.
 

Read more articles by Ramona Springfield.

Ramona Springfield is a freelance writer, blogger, and avid reader. She is a Native Memphian and graduate of Booker T. Washington High School. Springfield enjoys supporting local libraries and writing about Memphis' happenings, culture, and history. Springfield.is a graduate of the first High Ground News Community Correspondents program, which trains everyday Memphians from underserved communities in the basics of community-based reporting.  
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