Memphis Burning

To understand racial inequality in America, start with housing. Here, in the nation’s poorest major city, the segregationist roots go deep.

This is the first article in an ongoing series, “The Inequality Chronicles.

Black Lives Matter: Darrius Stewart protest
Activists protest the death of Darrius Stewart, an unarmed black man killed by Memphis police at a traffic stop in July 2015. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

In the afternoon of February 26, 1953, fire destroyed a landmark in south Memphis, on Lauderdale Street. A stately three-story home, with eighteen rooms and twin gables, burned from its spires down.

Firefighters weren’t late to the blaze — in fact, they’d ignited it. The city of Memphis, which was then hosting a convention of fire safety officials from around the country, had authorized the burning of the vacant mansion in order to demonstrate a new, efficient, fog nozzle fire-hose. Thousands stood in the street to watch. For two hours, firemen in black helmets and black slickers fought flames that burst through the roof and out of the windows. After blasting down each fire, they set another part of the home ablaze. Afterwards, the ruins steamed. 1

But there was much more to this demonstration than a test of new firefighting equipment. As locals understood, the burning of this particular home was an assertion of power, because of who it had belonged to and what it symbolized. Abandoned, weather-beaten, but still grand, the mansion at 384 South Lauderdale represented the pinnacle of black achievement in the city.

Home of R. R. Church, 384 South Lauderdale, Memphis, Tennessee.
R. R. Church family home, 384 South Lauderdale, Memphis, ca. 1899. [Library of Congress]

The Fire

A man named Robert Reed Church had built that home seventy years earlier. Church, though born a slave, made a fortune in real estate and was known as the South’s first black millionaire. He helped lead the rebuilding of Memphis after yellow fever nearly wiped out the city in the 1870s, and from there he became the key developer of an iconic thoroughfare, presiding over a thriving African-American community on Beale Street. The street is legendary as the home of the blues, but it also nurtured early civil rights activism, notably in the work of crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, and black political power, through Robert Church’s son, known in civic circles nationwide as Bob Church.

Bob was born and grew up in the fine house on Lauderdale Street, a half mile from a city park named for his father, in circumstances quite unlike what most African Americans knew. Not only had he come into the world in a mansion, all he could see out its windows were houses like his. Inside those houses lived prosperous whites — the families of U.S. Senator Kenneth McKellar and Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas — and successful blacks, like city councilman Lymus Wallace and Julia and Charles Hooks, a music teacher and juvenile court judge, respectively, whose grandson Benjamin went on to lead the NAACP.

When Bob was born, in 1885, ten black families lived among whites on three blocks of South Lauderdale. In 1900, there were eleven black households; in 1910, there were ten. The decennial census is a small sample, but it shows a stable, racially mixed neighborhood in the heart of the South, during what were bleak decades for African Americans. And these weren’t Negro servants living in backhouse quarters, but a professional class of homeowners. A child growing up on this street would have absorbed a certain sense of equality. These white families tolerated black neighbors, and these black families kept pace with white elites. According to racist doctrine in the post-Reconstruction South, nothing about this was normal.

Bob Church, W.C. Handy, and George Washington Lee
Political kingpin Bob Church, musician W. C. Handy, and civic leader George W. Lee, in front of Church’s office at 392 Beale. [Memphis Library]

Robert Church, Sr., groomed his son as his heir in business. He founded a bank and put Bob in charge; built an auditorium and put Bob in charge; and consolidated his real estate holdings, including modest but attractive homes for African-American renters, into the R.R. Church & Son company, making Bob president. But the son yearned for politics. Determined to fight for racial equality, Bob Church saw the greatest opportunity to make a difference at the ballot box.

The house on South Lauderdale demonstrated the potential of black power in Memphis.

As a rising Republican star in the early 20th century — at that time the G.O.P. was still the party of Lincoln, and therefore had virtually the entire black vote — the younger Church achieved tremendous victories. He organized and registered black voters, and in 1920 helped win Tennessee for Warren Harding, the first time since 1876 that a former Confederate state had voted Republican. As the chief patronage dispenser in Memphis, Church controlled numerous federally appointed jobs, from postal workers to district attorneys. An admiring foe noted that he had a hotline running from Beale Street to the White House. Memphis blacks revered Church and all he stood for. The house on South Lauderdale symbolized his family’s courage, drive, and success, and demonstrated the potential of black power in Memphis. Bob Church strove to make black people “politically alive,” in his words. 2

Meanwhile, a new power was rising in the form of a political machine controlled by Edward Hull “Boss” Crump. The white Democrat had moved to Memphis from Holly Springs, Mississippi, the same town where Robert Church, Sr., was born. Crump was elected mayor in 1909, at age thirty-five, and resigned in 1916. From then until his death in 1954, he ran Memphis as the undisputed boss of a formidable political machine. With his clouds of white hair, bushy eyebrows, and flashy attire, Crump cut an iconic figure, and his sharp wit made him good copy for Time and the Saturday Evening Post. He characterized one opponent as “the kind of man who’d milk his neighbor’s cow through the fence.” 3

Edward "Boss" Crump, Memphis political leader
Boss Crump wields his cane. [Memphis Library]

On the surface, Bob Church and Boss Crump, the black Republican and white Democrat, would seem to be natural enemies, yet for a time the two men coexisted and even partnered. In the 1920s, they led a bipartisan, biracial coalition that controlled Memphis politics and elected most of its officials. Crump encouraged the black vote, and in return Church used his sway with Republican presidents to help place friendly officials in federal posts, while protecting the Crump machine from federal investigation. Together, they helmed Memphis through a time of exceptional growth, until the Great Depression hit.

But the period of biracial cooperation would prove short-lived. In the late 1930s, Boss Crump turned on his counterpart. In the span of a few years, the Democratic machine banished Bob Church, seized his property, broke the family fortune, and dismantled his Republican organization, crushing the most vital arm of black enfranchisement in the city.

Smoke in the Memphis sky signaled Boss Crump’s complete triumph, as the former Church mansion was burned to the ground.

The betrayal was mostly a matter of political expediency. With Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office, Crump no longer needed a Republican ally. As one of his operatives explained, “Pendergast, Daley, Roosevelt, Crump, the one characteristic that they all had in common was the ability, when necessary, to be absolutely and completely ruthless when it came to the organization. … I don’t care how close a person was to them, how loyal they’d been, how much they had accomplished, as soon as they felt like they were no longer politically advantageous, out they went.” 4 But even by that callous standard, the excommunication of Bob Church was particularly vicious. Crump accused Church of spreading dangerous ideas, and he told the editor of the black Memphis World, “You have a bunch of niggers teaching social equality, stirring up racial hatred. I am not going to stand for it. I’ve dealt with niggers all my life, and I know how to treat them. … This is Memphis.” 5

Smoke in the Memphis sky on that day in February 1953 signaled Crump’s complete triumph, as the former Church mansion was burned to the ground. “An act of infamy,” the black Tri-State Defender called it. 6 Decades later, a black Memphis resident, Lester Lynom, described it as “almost a lynching of the Negroes of Memphis.” He added, “It wasn’t just the house, it was what the house represented.” 7

William H. Foote Homes, public housing project in Memphis
The Memphis Housing Authority is second oldest in the nation. William H. Foote Homes, a black-only public housing complex, was built in 1941, across the street from the Church family home. [© The Commercial Appeal / Zuma Press]

The Bulldozers

The burning of 384 South Lauderdale was the coda to decades of racist housing policy. When Crump turned on Church in the 1930s, the machine initiated the federally funded “slum clearance” of ten blocks across the street from the Church family home. The problem was that it was no slum at all, but a stable, middle-class, black neighborhood. The clearance area, west of Lauderdale from Vance Avenue to Mississippi Boulevard, featured houses that ranged in size from the Church mansion to the Hooks’ single-story, single-family home, and small businesses such as flower shops, groceries, cafes, and funeral parlors. The structures were no more than sixty years old, and the few surviving dwellings from that era attest to their sturdy construction.

The ‘slum clearance’ area was no slum at all, but a stable, middle-class, black neighborhood.

Residents beseeched Senator McKellar, their onetime neighbor and a conduit of federal authority, not to “wreck this whole section of the city.” as one letter put it. “The home owners are sick and distressed beyond measure.” 8 They wrote that that they had toiled for years to pay off their mortgages and fix up their properties, and they’d succeeded in making this the best neighborhood for blacks in Memphis. Their community was more valuable than any relocation funds the city might provide. One of Crump’s leading black organizers, the Reverend T.O. Fuller, protested that he’d lose his home, workplace, and church. 9

Their grievances were ignored. The Memphis Housing Authority — established in the mid-’30s, part of the wave of local authorities begun under Roosevelt’s New Deal — leveled a 46-acre area and replaced the single-family homes with a low-rise, 900-unit public housing complex. As justification, the Housing Authority cited statistics showing that the city’s black population had doubled in less than thirty years. Densifying an existing black neighborhood was a racist strategy to prevent African Americans from encroaching on predominantly white areas. The complex, known as William H. Foote Homes, opened in 1940 — directly across the street from the Robert Church house.

Albert Tucker, resident of Foote Homes, Memphis
Albert Tucker, a longtime resident of Foote Homes, the last of the six original public housing projects in Memphis. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

Lisa Conrad, Foote Homes resident, Memphis
Lisa Conrad has lived in Foote Homes for over a decade; before that, she lived in Dixie Homes, a public housing project that was demolished in 2006. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

What was left of the city’s most prosperous, integrated neighborhood began to deteriorate. Surrounded by dense, low-income housing, the fine Victorian homes were subdivided and turned into cheap rooming houses. The city — which had previously allowed Bob Church to skip paying property taxes — foreclosed on his estate and auctioned off ten properties to pay the tax debt. 10

Federal funds enabled one group to hold down another, as Boss Crump crushed Bob Church’s political movement.

Two decades later, the Crump machine finished the job. Another slum clearance program demolished the area east of Lauderdale, including the vacant lot where the Church mansion had stood, and in 1955 the MHA opened the 650-unit Edward O. Cleaborn Homes. Both public housing complexes were designated exclusively for African Americans.

Thus Boss Crump converted one of the black community’s greatest strengths into a monument to inequality. No one had ever studied the neighborhood to figure out how it worked, how it had thrived for a half century when social equality failed nearly everywhere else in Memphis, and nearly everywhere throughout the South. Instead, federal funds enabled one group to hold down another, as Boss Crump crushed Bob Church’s movement for black political power.

Victorian homes in an integrated Memphis neighborhood
Victorian homes in a prosperous, integrated neighborhood on Vance Avenue, east of Lauderdale Street, in 1900. [Memphis Library]

Black Lives Matter rally for Darrius Stewart, Memphis.
Black Lives Matter rally for Darrius Stewart, July 2015. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

The Bomb

Inequality is enforced in Memphis, and it always has been. Indeed, the city was founded on the backs of slaves, as the capital of a cotton empire that stretched across the Mississippi Delta. The great river connected the city to the slave port at New Orleans, while a railroad linked Memphis to another slave port at Charleston, South Carolina. Confederate icon Nathan Bedford Forrest, both a slave trader and an alderman, helped shape the city’s identity, investing in the Memphis-Charleston railroad and pushing local ordinances to benefit the business of slavery. Emancipation did little to change his outlook on labor conditions. When asked in 1869 who could solve the shortage of farm workers in west Tennessee, Forrest responded, “Get them from Africa. If you put them in squads of ten, with one experienced leader in each squad, they will soon revive our country.” He had already imported one such lot for his Mississippi plantation, boasting, “They were very fond of grasshoppers and bugs, and I taught them to eat cooked meat, and they were as good niggers as I ever had.” 11

Inequality is enforced in Memphis, and it always has been.

Cotton continued to dominate the Memphis economy after the Civil War, with black hands to do the planting, weeding, picking, baling, and the hauling to brokerages and warehouses along the river. Even as the industry declined, the crop defined the city’s identity. The annual Cotton Carnival celebrated a “King” and “Queen” who were drawn ceremonially through the streets in a parade of floats carried by shirtless black men in frayed knickers. And the city never totally divested itself of old symbols. To this day, a statue topping the grave of Nathan Bedford Forrest is the centerpiece of a city park. It stood there in 1940, as Boss Crump’s machine stripped the Church family name from another park not a mile away.

Nathan Bedford Forrest statue, Memphis
Annual gathering in Memphis to celebrate the birthday of Confederate icon Nathan Bedford Forrest. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

In 1953, the year of the burning of the old Church home, the Memphis Urban League reported that the median income for black households was $1,348 annually, less than half the white median of $3,085. These figures represent Memphis inequality in the last years of the Crump era. Roughly 23,000 black families lived in extreme poverty, making less than $1,000 annually, and more black families were grouped in the sub-$500 category than in any other bracket. “Can anyone be amazed when these people appear in large numbers on relief rolls, in juvenile and criminal courts, and as contributors to illegitimacy, delinquency?” observed an official of the Urban League. “Their plight is the result of cheap labor, poor schools, and slums.” Inequality was also firmly established at the upper end of the scale. Of the 4,000 Memphis families earning $10,000 or more annually, only 35 were black. 12

Crump is the master behind the city’s narrative, and his legacy lives on. His rule was so absolute, following his destruction of the black Republican organization, that the boss faced no real opposition. He handpicked local officials and candidates who did things the Crump way. According to former machine operative Guy Bates, Crump’s reign did lasting damage to the city’s long-term development. When the boss died in 1954 he left no heir, and his style of governing allowed no room for competing visions or compromise. No one was ready to take over. “We had generations of office holders and people that literally couldn’t think for themselves. He stifled all other political thoughts,” Bates said. “Where Houston grew, Dallas grew, and Atlanta grew, Memphis stayed where Mr. Crump wanted it to stay.” 13

Today, the majority-black city ranks first nationally in both overall and child poverty, among large metro areas. 14 A recent study found that 68 percent of the population lives in economic distress, as measured by indices of educational attainment, unemployment, median income, vacant houses, and shuttered businesses. 15 And nearly 80 percent of the poor are black. Elena Delavega at the University of Memphis has reported that black poverty in the city ranks far above state and national averages, while poverty among non-Hispanic whites is below average. 16 Memphis also ranks near the top for murders, aggravated assaults, and robberies per capita. 17

Blighted homes boarded up in South Memphis
South Memphis. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

Of course, poverty and crime are the symptoms of inequality, not its root causes. To truly understand racial inequality in America, you have to start with housing. In Memphis, inequality between black and white citizens is enforced at the neighborhood level, block by block, house by house.

The burning of the Church family home was far from the last fire in the housing battle. Four months later, on June 28, 1953, an explosion shattered windows at a house two miles away, sending residents of the block running for cover. Integration of that neighborhood had begun peacefully enough — years, in fact, before the integration of city schools, before the desegregation of public washrooms and dining rooms, and before downtown department stores and cafeterias served white and black customers equally. South Memphis could have been the model for an integrated Memphis. The bomb changed all that.

South Memphis could have been the model for an integrated Memphis. The bomb changed all that.

The house that exploded, at 430 East Olive Avenue, had been recently sold to the Williams family, the sixth or seventh black household to move into a neighborhood of small cottages occupied mainly by whites. Apparently, that was one black family too many. Soon after they moved in, white neighbors formed a violent, reactionary mob, shouting epithets at the new residents, patrolling the streets and taking down For Sale signs. They threatened to tar and feather homeowners who sold to black buyers. “When they see a house being shown, they round up the mob,” said Mrs. L.C. Hauser, a white resident of East Olive. “It’s like the Paul Revere signal.” 18

The explosion ignited citywide discussion of “the housing problem,” as a rapidly growing black population challenged the status quo of racially segregated neighborhoods. African-American leader Benjamin Hooks — the future NAACP director and FCC commissioner who had grown up on Lauderdale near the Church family — wrote to the mayor: “There is an urgent demand for additional housing facilities for Negroes, which can only be met by natural area expansion … the extension of Negro home ownership into ever-widening areas.” 19 This was a clear warning that the clash on Olive Avenue would be repeated, as black families continued their movement into formerly all-white neighborhoods.

Blighted home and church on E. Olive Ave, Memphis

Blighted home on E. Olive Ave, Memphis
The 400 block of E. Olive Avenue, photographed in 2016, half a century after a white supremacist mob patrolled the streets. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

Two months after the bombing, a group of white Olive Avenue residents called on the mayor. They planned to sell their houses, and they wanted the city’s protection from the mob. “Mr. Mayor, these Negroes who have moved in there seem to be a fine class of Negroes,” remarked one. “They keep up their homes and they look better than when the white people owned them.” The group assured the mayor that they didn’t object to the presence of blacks: “We object to the whites.” But in any case, they were getting out. One owner reported, “My husband says he’ll move and let that house sit there empty before he’ll stay there. We do not want our children in that situation.” Another neatly summarized the theme of the next five decades of Memphis history, telling the mayor, “You have to get out of that neighborhood if you want decent children.” 20

Today, East Olive Avenue looks as though more than one stick of dynamite went off.

These events took place a year before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and a year before the death of Boss Crump. But between Brown v. Board and Mr. Edward Hull Crump, it was no contest: the boss would have a much longer afterlife in the city of Memphis.

Today, East Olive Avenue looks as though more than one stick of dynamite went off. Where neat, solid frame houses once stood on tidy little lawns, now derelict buildings are collapsing between overgrown vacant lots. It exemplifies the cycle of fight, flight, and blight that has made Memphis what it is today.

Downtown Memphis as seen from the Lorraine Motel (now the National Civil Rights Museum), where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was fatally shot in April 1968. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

The Gunshot

Fifteen years after the bombing of the house on East Olive, the city’s reputation for inequality was reinforced by one of history’s greatest tragedies.

In early 1968, city sanitation workers went on strike, appealing for higher wages, better working conditions, and union recognition, following the deaths of two workers who were crushed in a garbage truck. Memphis was now ruled by Mayor Henry Loeb — a staunch segregationist and true successor to Crump. Loeb refused their demands, and the confrontation quickly became not just a labor dispute but a matter of civil rights, attracting national leaders like NAACP head Roy Wilkins and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King made three trips to Memphis during the strike, first to speak at a rally on March 18, then to lead a demonstration that exploded into a riot on March 28. The riot hurt King’s reputation for nonviolence, and his associates organized another event, “the makeup march,” to prove that a peaceful demonstration could be held in Memphis. King returned to the city on April 3, and that evening delivered one of his most famous speeches, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

The next evening, King was fatally shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis. The assassination stands out not only as a signal moment in American history, but also as a powerful example of the consequences of bad leadership. For in Memphis the persistence of inequality is inextricably bound up with the city’s long decline, and Loeb’s obstinance seems as crucial to its social psychology as Boss Crump’s bulldozers were to its built environment.

Martin Luther King at the Mason Temple, Memphis, 1968
Dr. King speaks at the Mason Temple in support of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, shortly before his assassination. [Memphis Press-Scimitar via the Civil Rights Digital Library]

Historian Kenneth T. Jackson of Columbia University is a preeminent scholar of suburbanization and author of The Crabgrass Frontier. He’s also a Memphian, born and raised during the Crump reign. “Seventy years ago, Memphis, Atlanta, and Dallas were more or less in the same place, size-wise,” he said, in an interview last summer. Memphis had the advantage of the Mississippi River as well as rail and interstate highway connections; its economy should have kept pace with, if not surpassed, its southern peers. Instead, Jackson said, it “got obliterated by those other cities.”

While Atlanta leadership embraced a racially progressive, pro-business attitude behind Mayor Ivan Allen — adopting the slogan, The City Too Busy to Hate — Memphis “got on the wrong side of the civil rights revolution,” Jackson said. “I would put a lot of the blame on Henry Loeb.” He recalled watching the TV news the day of King’s funeral in Atlanta, and seeing the mayor of that city hold an umbrella for Coretta Scott King. “Same night, same news, Henry Loeb was apoplectic, talking about how outside agitators had caused all of this,” Jackson said. As the nation mourned, white leaders in Memphis were tragically out of step. Time called Memphis a “decaying Mississippi river town,” blaming the assassination on “intransigent white mayor Henry Loeb” and his refusal to meet “modest wage and compensation demands.” 21

To this day, many believe that King’s death coincided with the death of Memphis, that it marked the beginning of a half century of decline. It’s a convenient notion, but it doesn’t ring true. The assassination merely punctuated events set in motion decades earlier, when Boss Crump suppressed Bob Church’s dream of social equality and economic justice.

"White Out Sunday" march in Memphis

"White Out Sunday" march in Memphis
Memphis churchgoers march against violence on “White Out Sunday,” August 2015. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

The Retreat

White flight intensified the geography of disparity. Beginning in the 1950s, working-class whites moved just beyond the city’s boundaries, first north to Frayser and south to Whitehaven, and then “out East” to Germantown, Collierville, and Cordova, where they built roads, schools, shopping centers, and hospitals — all the features of a city, spread over small rural communities. The completion of the I-240 freeway loop, in 1984, directed commerce away from the urban core of Memphis and toward the suburbs. Today, the highest concentrations of wealth, educational attainment, and jobs are on the eastern edge.

Over time the city has grown to a sprawling 324 square miles without increasing its population of 650,000.

In an ongoing effort to recapture its lost revenue base, Memphis has annexed this ever-expanding crabgrass frontier so that it can collect property taxes from white flighters. Over time, the city has grown to a sprawling 324 square miles, larger than New York City, Atlanta, or St. Louis, without increasing its population of 650,000. Now the city government is responsible for providing services to that vast area, and yet the county roll shows that a third of the land — 95 square miles — is essentially vacant, and much more is sparsely populated. In several cases the city gambled badly, annexing planned developments that never materialized, and now its diminished resources are spread thin across an ever larger territory, much of which generates no revenue.

Statue of Liberation, East Memphis
Statue of Liberation in suburban East Memphis, built in 2006 by a pastor of the World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

In modern Memphis there is no figurehead, no Henry Loeb or Boss Crump, to articulate and symbolize the tenets of white supremacy. In fact, one result of white flight and black population growth has been the ascent of African-American political leadership. In 1974, Harold Ford, Sr., won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the state’s first black congressman. In 1991, former school superintendent Dr. Willie Herenton became the city’s first African-American mayor, an office he held for five terms. But the election of black leaders has done nothing to end racial division in Memphis — today, white opposition is expressed in continual growth beyond the city. In suburban malls and parks, you hear the loud echo of those nice white ladies in the mayor’s office in 1953: “You have to get out of that neighborhood if you want decent children.”

In suburban malls and parks, you hear the loud echo of those nice white ladies in the mayor’s office in 1953.

The racial prejudice of many suburbanites is revealed by their hostility to integrated public schools. Over the years, proposals to merge the government of surrounding Shelby County with the city government never gained much traction — but when county and city schools were finally merged, in 2011, that sparked a new segregationist revolt. Within two years, six suburban municipalities withdrew from the consolidated system and established their own schools (with a huge assist from the state legislature, which changed a law that had prohibited new school districts), and now those suburban districts no longer need to share their resources with the city. Urban residents nonetheless pay both city and county property taxes, benefiting the communities that have withdrawn their resources from Memphis.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey shows the magnitude of disparity between Memphis proper and its suburbs out East. The wealthiest, best-educated households live clustered among the best job opportunities east of the city, while the least educated, most impoverished households live near low-skill, low-wage jobs. The survey found the city’s unemployment rate to be double the national average, with black unemployment double that of whites. Median annual household income in Memphis proper was $37,072, compared with $46,102 in Shelby County (including the city) and $51,324 nationally.

Poplar Avenue in East Memphis
Poplar Avenue, widened with the help of community development grants, leads drivers away from the struggling city center to wealthy East Memphis. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

The Money

The closest thing modern Memphis has to an era-defining figure is Robert Lipscomb. Quite unlike the audacious Boss Crump, Lipscomb is soft-spoken and nonpolitical. He is also African American, a graduate of storied Booker T. Washington High School in South Memphis. As head of Housing and Community Development from 1992 to 2015, he led many of the signature initiatives of Mayor Herenton and oversaw the transformation of public housing. For a time, he held three high-ranking posts simultaneously, as head of HCD, director of the Memphis Housing Authority, and chief financial officer of the city. That made him the municipal leader most directly engaged with poverty in Memphis, which is to say, with the problems that define the city.

Lipscomb had such a profound influence on the built environment that people here compare him to Robert Moses.

Lipscomb is like Crump in one crucial respect: for many years his actual power transcended his official authority. He outlasted the five-term mayor who appointed him and continued to play a central role in public policy — perhaps the central role — through the next two mayoral terms. His reign now appears to be over; in late 2015, he was ousted from power amid allegations of sexual abuse. Yet his legacy will shape Memphis for generations. He had such a profound influence on the built environment that people here compare him to Robert Moses, the powerful midcentury planner of New York City. With that comparison comes the insinuation — sometimes the open accusation — that he wielded too much power.

On the west side of Lauderdale Street, William H. Foote Homes, the last of the city’s original public housing projects, is slated for demolition this year. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

Certainly his power is evident in the transformation of public housing that’s happened in the past quarter century. When Lipscomb joined the Herenton administration, there were six public housing projects in Memphis. Today, only Foote Homes remains. The rest have been redeveloped under HOPE VI, a Clinton-era initiative that replaces rundown public housing with new, mixed-income developments and turns them over to private management. Lipscomb leveraged tens of millions of federal dollars to demolish the old projects and then partnered with commercial developers to build new affordable housing.

The contrast can be seen clearly on Lauderdale Street, near the former site of the Church family home. On the west side of the street, the squat, brick buildings of Foote Homes glower behind a high black fence. On the east side, the Cleaborn Homes have been torn down and replaced by “Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing,” a HOPE VI development of clean pastel townhouses with bright white trim. Likewise, in North Memphis, the Housing Authority under Lipscomb demolished the notorious Hurt Village projects and created the 100-block Uptown redevelopment area, where young professionals live among lower-income residents whose housing is subsidized by federal Section 8 vouchers.

Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing, Memphis
On the east side of Lauderdale Street, the public housing complex of Cleaborn Homes has been replaced by the townhouses of Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

Critics say such efforts don’t cure poverty so much as they improve neighborhood appearances and line the pockets of private developers. Steve Lockwood, who runs a community development corporation in Frayser, just north of Uptown, said that his neighborhood now has the highest concentration of Section 8 residents in the city. He associates rising violent crime with an influx of people displaced from Hurt Village.

In practice, Robert Lipscomb could use the community development grants however he liked. Almost any project could be justified.

Housing is not the only sphere in which Lipscomb wielded outsized power. People need jobs as well as shelter, and as it turns out, those pretty pastel redevelopments are located far from the city’s best opportunities. Wearing his other hat, as HCD director, Lipscomb was charged with stimulating economic growth in the urban core. Here his legacy is especially controversial. Whereas Housing Boss Lipscomb administered the flow of federal dollars tied to specific projects, Development Boss Lipscomb controlled discretionary funds in the form of Community Development Block Grants. Both funding streams are administered by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, but the CDBGs come with far fewer restrictions. Which meant that in practice, one man — Robert Lipscomb — could use the community development grants however he liked, within the broad mandate of creating economic growth in impoverished areas. Almost any project could be justified.

With significant federal funds at his discretion, Lipscomb was the point man between the city government and the nonprofit CDCs that operate at a neighborhood scale — and that all across Memphis struggle with the fallout of white flight, with surging crime, failing schools, and blighted properties. The CDCs have scant resources. In contrast, the federal dollars flowing through Housing and Community Development represent the largest pot of money this poverty-stricken city has ever had for alleviating social problems. No private charity or public entity came close to Lipscomb’s budget.

South Main Street arts district, Memphis
South Main Street in Memphis is being redeveloped as an arts district. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

Of the dozen or so sources interviewed for this story, all people who are deeply engaged with poverty and inequality in Memphis, none hesitated to bring up Lipscomb by name or to question how “the city” — synonymous with Lipscomb — spends its resources. 22 Two concerns were raised by nearly everyone. First is the disparity between the meager funds spent at the neighborhood level, on CDC programs that assist small businesses and finance home repairs and construction in blighted areas, and the much larger sums of money funneled into big business projects, including for-profit ventures. The second is how the misuse of those federal millions reveals a lack of comprehensive planning.

Attorneys Webb Brewer and Steve Barlow have been engaged in fair housing suits in Memphis for two decades, and in that time they have worked both for and against the city government. In one recent, high-profile case, they represented the city in a predatory lending lawsuit against Wells-Fargo that resulted in a $7.5 million settlement. In fact,  it was Lipscomb who alerted Brewer and Barlow to an unusually high number of foreclosures against black homeowners in economically depressed areas.

Despite their professional connections to the city, the attorneys are sharply critical of how funds have been distributed. “If you look at what they were spent for, it’s all on macroeconomic development deals,” Barlow said. His partner explained how the city has done an end run around federal guidelines that specify that funds must benefit low- and moderate-income people. “What they’ve gotten away with here forever is saying, ‘This is going to provide jobs,’” Brewer said. He cited the widening of Poplar Avenue, the main artery leading out East, as a project funded with community development grants that actually benefited “business people” above all.

Left: The Pyramid basketball arena was redeveloped with federal funds as a sporting goods megastore. Right: Overton Square in Midtown Memphis was redeveloped by Loeb Properties, owned by the nephew of former mayor Henry Loeb. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

Federal money also helped build a new downtown basketball arena and, later, convert the old arena, The Pyramid, into a sporting goods megastore. The Pyramid project was locally notorious: it dragged on for nearly ten years, which did as much to inflame anti-Lipscomb sentiment as the millions of public dollars committed to the conversion of a civic venue (owned and operated by the city of Memphis and Shelby County) into a private business. The Pyramid finally reopened last year, as a Bass Pro Shop that includes a hotel, restaurant, and observation deck overlooking the Mississippi River. As with other projects, the city justified its allocation of HUD funds by promising to create jobs, and federal administrators accepted that at face value.

Yet no matter such promises, it’s clear that inequality and poverty haven’t statistically improved, despite decades of investment. One specific case seems particularly wasteful: the city’s investment in the Peabody Place project, located not a mile from the old Church family home. In 1998, Lipscomb’s division gave $1.2 million to Belz Enterprises, the developer of Peabody Place and the nearby Gibson Guitar Factory — the first installment in what would become a steady stream of federal funds that passed through the city to the project. Peabody Place mall opened in 2001, featuring tenants like Gap, Starbucks, and a twenty-screen movieplex; by 2012 it had closed, a casualty of the Great Recession. Over a decade and a half, the city provided more than $26 million in assistance, including $2.7 million in Community Development Block Grants, $14.9 million from a HUD Urban Development Action Grant, and $9.9 million in the form of a Section 108 loan. 23 All those millions amounted to zero long-term job growth, and community activists believe the funds should have gone instead toward tangible improvement at the neighborhood level.

Peabody Place, Memphis
Despite $26 million in public assistance, the Peabody Place mall closed after only a decade. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

Tom Burns is an urban planning consultant who came to Memphis to work with a local nonprofit focused on neighborhood revitalization. He’s been in the field for forty years and has consulted in cities — including Detroit and Baltimore — that also struggle with poverty, blight, and a lack of resources. In Memphis, he interviewed the heads of some twenty HUD-approved community development corporations. It turns out, “they’re not getting a lot of city money,” Burns said. “Why, given the evident patterns of inequity, [is] there … so little attention and investment in government toward neighborhood revitalization?”

Powerful local developers and corporations are siphoning off federal anti-poverty subsidies…. That’s pretty much the definition of inequality.

Burns was impressed by Lipscomb’s housing achievements, particularly the HOPE VI development in Cleaborn Pointe. And yet, he said, other projects showed that city planners were making no connection between multimillion-dollar municipal investments and the neighborhoods that urgently needed help. “The scale of the problems here is enormous,” he said, “but if you’re trying to make a big difference, you have to link things up in a way that builds momentum. I don’t see the civic leaders connecting the dots.” Connecting the dots, he said, means linking housing developments to centers of job growth. It means avoiding public-private projects that lack a direct connection to neighborhood concerns. It means avoiding The Pyramid.

The city may no longer have a boss, but nearly a century after it was founded, the Memphis machine is alive and kicking. Here, in the nation’s poorest major city, powerful local developers and corporations are siphoning off federal anti-poverty subsidies that should go directly to stimulate the economic progress of poor neighborhoods. That’s pretty much the definition of inequality. Boss Lipscomb will be remembered for tearing down the neglected housing projects that symbolized the overt racism of earlier leaders, but he will also be remembered for controlling the purse-strings of a city government that provided a wealthy elite with resources that the poor majority desperately needed.

The two-year-old grandson of Proctor Wilson peers through a screen door at Foote Homes. Residents will be relocated starting in April. [Andrea Morales for Places Journal]

The Future

Although Robert Lipscomb had seemed invincible for a generation, his critics now get to see how the city works without its powerbroker. Late last year, in the midst of a heated mayoral campaign, Memphis suddenly found itself at the conclusion of a substantial chapter in its history.

Lipscomb’s reign ended with a late-night announcement that the HCD director had stepped down following a criminal complaint that he had engaged in sexual relations with a minor. When reporters rang the bell the next morning, he answered his front door wearing an undershirt. He proclaimed his innocence. Within days, the MHA board suspended Lipscomb from his other job, and as more accusers came forward they cut off his pay.

The timing of the coup, less than six weeks from Election Day, made it seem like a reprise of dirty politics from the Crump era, when physical beatings and character assassination were standard tactics. The allegations came to light as incumbent mayor A.C. Wharton battled a trio of worthy challengers. Opinions flew about whether the city had unburdened itself of a problem or entered a leadership vacuum. Wharton lost in a landslide to Jim Strickland, who became Memphis’s first white mayor since 1992. Six months later, no charges have been filed against Lipscomb.

Memphis now stands on the verge of a new era. Lipscomb’s critics will get to see how Memphis works without its powerbroker.

The city now stands on the verge of a new era. Shortly before the election, HUD announced that Memphis would receive a $29.75 million Choice Neighborhood grant to demolish the city’s last public housing project, Foote Homes. The feds had declined the city’s application for the same project the previous year. Elsewhere, there are signs that the city is ready to turn the page on its racist history. Last summer the city council voted to take down the monument to Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, although state legislators are trying to block the move.

HCD has a new leader for the first time in nearly 25 years — former sustainable planning director Paul Young — and soon the mayor will appoint a permanent successor at the MHA. The city is working with private developers to replace Foote Homes with 700 market-rate units, and current residents will be displaced starting in April. What happens next in South Memphis is an open question.

Just as Boss Crump shaped the landscape of inequality with the burning of the Church family home, the new regime will have an opportunity to remake the city. What will happen to the poor, mostly black residents who now live in the public housing complex? What kind of community will rise in its place? Will the South Lauderdale neighborhood once again nurture leaders black and white, as it did in the early 20th century? Or will the city continue with policies and practices that have condemned African Americans to live on the wrong side of inequality?

The future begins with destruction.

About the Series: The Inequality Chronicles

This is the first article in an ongoing series, “The Inequality Chronicles,” supported by The Kresge Foundation. To date, the series includes articles on Houston, Baltimore, and Chicago, in addition to Memphis.

  1. “Fog Nozzle Spray Shows Speed in Dousing Blaze of Two Houses,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, February 27, 1953: 1.
  2. Walter P. Adkins, “Beale Street Goes to the Polls,” M.A. Thesis, Ohio State University, 1935: 88.
  3. “Tennessee Primary Politics Shock a Senate Committee,” Life, August 15, 1938: 17.
  4. Guy Bates interviewed by Charles Crawford, February 15, 1977, transcript at the University of Memphis Special Collections.
  5. Roger Biles, Memphis in the Great Depression, University of Tennessee Press, 1986: 45.
  6. “Almost An Act of Infamy,” Tri-State Defender, March 21, 1953: 9.
  7. Lester Lynom interviewed by Charles Crawford, July 6, 1983, transcript at the University of Memphis Special Collections.
  8. Letter from Lida and Kate Hewitt to K.D. McKellar, letter, September 27, 1938, in the Watkins Overton Papers, Box Four, Series One, Memphis Room, Memphis Public Library.
  9. Letter from T.O. Fuller to Watkins Overton, letter, September 21, 1938, in the Watkins Overton Papers, Box Four, Series One, Memphis Room, Memphis Public Library.
  10. “Bob Church Property Will Be Auctioned,” Commercial Appeal, February 14, 1939: 11.
  11. “An Interview with Gen. Forrest: A Talk About the Negro and Railroads,” Memphis Daily Appeal, March 12, 1869: 4.
  12. Statistics are from a Memphis Urban League pamphlet archived with the papers of mayor Frank Tobey, Memphis Room, Memphis Public Library.
  13. Bates, op cit.
  14. In 2014, Memphis ranked first in overall poverty rate (20.3%) and child poverty rate (30.8%) among the 52 Metropolitan Statistical Areas with populations greater than one million. See Elena Delavega, “2015 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet” (pdf), data from the American Community Survey.
  15. According to an index by the Economic Innovation Group, which uses data from the American Community Survey. See EIG, “Defining Economic Distress” (pdf).
  16. Delavega, op cit.
  17. 2015 FBI uniform crime report.
  18. Quote from an August 26, 1953, meeting in the mayor’s office, transcript in the Frank Tobey Papers, “Negro Housing Problem” folder, Memphis Room, Memphis Public Library.
  19. Letter from Benjamin Hooks to Frank Tobey, July 16, 1953, in the Frank Tobey Papers, “Negro Housing Problem” folder, Memphis Room, Memphis Public Library.
  20. Quote from the August 26, 1953 meeting in the mayor’s office, op cit.
  21. The Assassination,” Time, originally published April 12, 1968.
  22. Interviews took place during June and July 2015, prior to the allegations against Lipscomb, which surfaced in August.
  23. Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development Consolidated Plan FY 2012, on file at the Memphis Public Library.
Preston Lauterbach, “Memphis Burning,” Places Journal, March 2016. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.