Memphis is a city in the southwestern corner of the State of Tennessee and the county seat of Shelby County. The city is located on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff, south of the confluence of the Wolf and Mississippi rivers.
Memphis had a population of 653,450 in 2013, making it the largest city in the state of Tennessee, the largest city on the Mississippi River, the third largest in the greater Southeastern United States (Tennessee is in the Upper South), and the 20th largest in the United States.
The greater Memphis metropolitan area, including adjacent counties in Mississippi and Arkansas, had a 2010 population of 1,316,100. This makes Memphis the second-largest metropolitan area in Tennessee, surpassed only by metropolitan Nashville.
Memphis is the youngest of Tennessee's major cities, founded in 1819 by European Americans, and developed with the skilled work of their African-American slaves. A resident of Memphis is referred to as a Memphian, and the Memphis region is known, particularly to media outlets, as "Memphis & the Mid-South".
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 CE by people of the Mississippian Culture, who had a network of communities throughout the Mississippi River Valley and its tributaries and built earthwork ceremonial and burial mounds. The historic Chickasaw Indian tribe, believed to be their descendants, later occupied the site. They were the ones to encounter European explorers to the area, beginning in the 16th century with Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and French explorers led by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.
In 1795 the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, acquired land for a fort from the Chickasaw. Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas was built in the summer of 1795 on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff, just south of the Wolf River. It gave Spain control of navigation on the Mississippi River in the region, but they abandoned it after Spain ceded the territory to the United States under Pinckney's Treaty. The Spanish dismantled the fort, shipping its lumber and iron to their other locations in Arkansas.
In 1796, the site became the westernmost point of the newly admitted state of Tennessee, located in the Southwest United States but the area was 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 European-American 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. 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 Germans 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. The total population in 1870 was 40,220, after thousands of blacks had left the city; they numbered 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, 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 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 37.5% of the city, which then had a total population of 40,226.(See census table in Demographics section.)
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.
In the 1870s, a series of yellow fever epidemics devastated Memphis, with the disease being carried by river passengers along the waterways. With 2,000 deaths in 1873, Memphis had the highest fatalities of any inland city. The worst outbreak, in 1878,reduced the population by nearly 75%, as 5,000 people died and 25,000 fled the city in the first two weeks, some permanently, moving to St. Louis or Atlanta. 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. The legislature established a commission government to replace the elected mayor and 30 ward representatives. Each of the three commissioners was elected at-large, a system which favored the elite of the majority-white society.
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 Lynette Boney 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 1892. 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 so controversial and aroused so much anger that she was forced to moved away from the city. She continued to investigate and publish the abuses of lynching.
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.
In 1893 the city was rechartered with home rule, which restored its ability to enact taxes, although 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 it reduced representation of the city's full population.
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. "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.
During the 1960s, the city was at the center of civil rights issues, 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 a city sanitation workers' 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. He stayed at the Lorraine Motel in the city, where he 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' 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 such musical greats 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 and many others. Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis.