First there was a slope of woodland that met the Mississippi River. Chickasaw Indians hunted there until the early 19th century. Then there was Beale Street. It began as the main road of South Memphis and by 1850, when that separate town was consolidated with Memphis, Beale was already a major thoroughfare. At its western end, where it met the Mississippi, roustabout's piled cotton on to 200-foot steamboats; about a mile upriver at its eastern end gentry live in mansions. In between was a growing community based on commerce and good times.
Before 1900 Beale Street had an opera house, a fashionable hotel, a girls finishing school, and one of the first large office buildings in Memphis. It was a place where Jewish, Italian, Greek, and Chinese immigrants live and worked. And it was, especially, a place where African-American freemen came to make a world.
By the early 1920s Beale Street had become the capital of Black Memphis and the mid-South. It was a mecca for musicians, politicians, ministers, businessmen, gamblers, conjurers, and bootleggers. There were banks and bordellos, pawn shops and theaters - a few blocks of brick and cement where the well-heeled and down-and-out could hope and dream and have a life.
By the 1960s, after civil rights struggles had provided new opportunities and after urban renewal
had taken its toll, that flourishing Beale Street had vanished. Today, old Beale Street lives amid the rebuilt environment mostly as a memory for people who experienced it and as a symbol for those who only heard its name.
Center for Southern Folklore