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An Introduction to Memphis Neighborhoods - July 1, 2020

An Introduction to Memphis Neighborhoods - July 1, 2020

Neighborhoods can be a tricky thing to define, both geographically and socially. Where does one neighborhood start and the other end? Why are some neighborhoods demographically and culturally uniform while others are more varied? Simply defined, neighborhoods are smaller communities within larger communities. Usually, residents share some common trait, such as a specific country of origin or socio-economic status. In the history of Memphis, race has been the commonality in most neighborhoods. Beyond broad common characteristics, each neighborhood also has its own reputations, values and boundaries. However, each of those aspects can change over time and might be different depending on who you ask.

This month, we’re going to take a closer look at some of Memphis’s neighborhoods, dissecting the history of each and how they fit into the broader history of Memphis itself. Today, let’s get a general sense of how neighborhoods in Memphis have evolved over the years.

In the Beginning…

While the Lower Mississippi River frequently flooded most of the lands on its banks, Memphis’s position atop the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff made it much less vulnerable to flooding. This gave the city incredible potential as a center of trade and commerce in the region and the initial plans had to accommodate for the city’s inevitable growth. With this in mind, Memphis’s founders, Andrew Jackson, James Winchester, and John Overton, designed the city’s original layout. The plans featured much of what we know as Downtown Memphis today, including the Pinch District and Uptown to the north and the Central Business District surrounding Court Square to the south.

Memphis’s importance as a port town, first for river travel and later as part of America’s growing railroad system, led to rapid population growth in the first half of the 19th century. With the vast expanse of the Mighty Mississippi to the west and floodplains covering much of the land to the north and south, this left Memphis with just one direction for growth: East.

Victorian Village, home to both the Mallory-Neely and Magevney Houses, was one of the first neighborhoods to expand Memphis’s eastern boundary. While Victorian Village could not quite be considered a suburb at the time, this was the first example of a common trend in Memphis’s expansion: wealthy citizens moving farther and farther East to build grand homes on large plots of land.

Trials and Tribulations

Memphis continued to grow during the mid-19th Century, becoming the sixth largest city in the South in 1860. The city was even lucky enough to emerge from the Civil War relatively unscathed compared to many other major Southern cities. And with the emancipation of enslaved peoples at the end of the Civil War, several African American neighborhoods began sprouting in South Memphis. Unfortunately, this promising development was cut short by a devastating, horrifying event.

In 1886, racial tensions resulted in three days of violence and bloodshed when white residents and policemen attacked the black community. By the end of this event, known as the Memphis Massacre of 1866, forty-six African Americans were murdered, many more injured and much of their newly established neighborhoods in South Memphis, including every school and church, destroyed. This led  much of the black population to relocate to more rural locations outside of Memphis or leave the city entirely.

Revival, Expansion, and Segregation

Even though their home had lost its city charter for fourteen years, Memphians did not lay idle during this time. Local leaders revitalized the city by creating a new and much more sophisticated sanitation system. The Memphis Sands Aquifer was discovered beneath the city, guaranteeing a clean and bountiful water supply. And in 1892, the Frisco Bridge was completed, becoming the first bridge to cross the Lower Mississippi River. Memphis trade and commerce returned, and the city began to recover.

Building on this momentum, Memphis began expanding in earnest during the early 20th Century. There was an increased focus on city beautification, which included improving Memphis’s infrastructure and creating a system of public parks. In 1901, city leaders purchased land that would soon be the grounds for both Overton Park and Martin Luther King Jr. Riverside Park (originally named Riverside Park). To connect these parks to Downtown and to each other, George Kessler, a city planner, created what we now know as the Parkway System. The Parkway System refers to North Parkway, East Parkway, and South Parkway. Upon the System’s completion in 1906, the parkways served as the new general boundaries of Memphis. Many current Midtown neighborhoods, including Central Gardens, Binghampton, Evergreen and Cooper-Young were part of this freshly annexed land.

Since Jim Crow laws made racial segregation legal, the African American community experienced limited benefits from Memphis’s revival. So, while this eastward expansion drove the growth and creation of new white neighborhoods, black Memphians began carving out their own piece of South Memphis. Orange Mound became the first African American neighborhood in the nation to be built by and for African Americans. Orange Mound has thrived for nearly a century, becoming to Memphis what Harlem is to New York City – a center of African American culture with a strong middle-class community.

East Memphis and Poplar Plaza

As the 20th century wore on, Memphis became a city increasingly dependent on automobile transportation. The majority of Memphians still worked Downtown but could commute longer distances thanks to the automobile. Expansion continued eastward, beyond East Parkway along Poplar Avenue and other major roads (collectively known as the Poplar corridor). Again, it was wealthier white families who made the initial move, creating the neighborhoods of Chickasaw Gardens, Red Acres and Hedgemoor.

These three East Memphis neighborhoods created the demand for a “new downtown” along the Poplar corridor so that citizens of East Memphis could work and shop closer to home. To satisfy this desire, the city constructed Poplar Plaza in the late 1940s. Poplar Plaza was one of the first suburban shopping centers in America.

Annexation and White Flight

From the 1950s through 1970s, Memphis grew by leaps and bounds through annexation. Communities which had previously been on the outskirts of town, such as Frayser to the north and Whitehaven to the south, were now Memphis neighborhoods.

After desegregation and busing began in the 1960s, there was an influx of African American families, students and businesses into these “white” neighborhoods and their schools. This was promptly followed by a mass exodus of white families, students and businesses to suburbs and private schools. This trend became known as “white flight.”

White flight, an unfortunately common phenomenon in many, if not all, major American cities, refers to the pattern of white citizens relocating to suburbs as a response to racial integration. White citizens still held the majority of the wealth here in Memphis. And despite the Civil Rights Acts proclaiming forced racial segregation to now be unlawful, there was little stopping white citizens from willfully segregating themselves. Sadly, even today, there are very few neighborhoods or schools in Memphis which exhibit anything resembling actual racial integration.

By and large, white flight had a negative economic impact on neighborhoods. For a time in the 1960s, however, one section of South Memphis, now known as Soulsville, experienced a renaissance as a strong, middle-class African American neighborhood. Lemoyne-Owen College, a Historically Black College, and the success of world-renowned record label Stax Records fueled cultural and economic growth within the neighborhood. Sadly, due to a variety of factors, some racially motivated, Stax closed in the mid-1970s, and the neighborhood could not recover economically for many decades.

Downtown Left Behind

As the city continued to sprawl, cars became by far the most convenient means of transportation. The creation of Interstate 40 and the Interstate 240 loop created a situation in which wealthier families and businesses were no longer tied to the city center. White flight and the general appeal of the suburban lifestyle pushed Memphis’s population and revenue farther away. Downtown Memphis suffered. Over the course of the 1980s into the 21st century, Downtown became increasingly deserted.

21st Century

The 20th century was a busy one for Memphis. From 1960 onward, the city’s land mass had doubled. However, because of the rapid pace of white flight and suburbanization, Memphis’s population and tax base has hardly increased. As of 2019, the city has a both a general poverty rate and a child poverty rate more than double the national average. No major or instantaneous solution is on the horizon, but within the last decade there has been some newfound hope. Memphis has begun committing to increased development and revitalization efforts. Thus far, Crosstown and Downtown have been the primary neighborhoods benefiting from this effort, but hopefully they will not be the last.

That concludes today’s piece on the progression of neighborhoods throughout the history of Memphis. Join us for the rest of June, we will highlight eight specific neighborhoods, beginning with our next post discussing the fascinating story of the Nashoba community.

June 2020 - Systemic Racism & History

Rooted in History and Culture - June 4, 2020

Urban Slavery and Servitude at Mallory-Neely and Magevney Houses - June 9, 2020

Systemic Racism: Slavery in Memphis and Shelby County- June 12, 2020

Systemic Racism: Violence - June 17, 2020

Neighborhoods: The Physical Boundaries of Systemic Racism - June 19, 2020

Systemic Racism: Employment - June 26, 2020


Systemic Racism: Employment - June 26, 2020

Racism is so rooted in the history and culture of the United States and Memphis that it is systemic and institutionalized. It is part of how we operate as a society, knowingly and unknowingly, through laws, actions, and beliefs that create a system of inequality and power that favors whites and excludes non-whites. In this post, we explore how racism and the legacy of slavery have impacted employment opportunities and wages in Memphis and the Mid-South.

Early Memphis and Slavery

Historically, Memphis’s economy was a product of its location on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, surrounded by hardwood forests and rich land perfect for growing crops. It was an ideal location for a river port, providing an avenue for selling and transporting crops. The invention of the cotton gin in the late 18th century, not long before the founding of Memphis, allowed farmers to grow a hybrid cotton in this region. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were transported from the east to the Mississippi valley to clear forests and swamps to make land available for growing cotton. Cotton became a highly profitable, though still labor-intensive crop, setting the stage for this region to become a major slave holding area. Slaveholding and the cotton trade were the surest routes to wealth in the pre-Civil War South. Although few white farmers had a large number of slaves, they were invested in the mythology of white superiority. Even the poorest white people were convinced that they were not only better off than black people, but fundamentally better than them.

The economy of the city depended on enslaved people for the back-breaking labor needed to grow cotton and load boats to transport the crop to market in New Orleans and from there to Europe. Enslaved people also erected buildings, dug wells, and served the white population as house servants.  Wealthy white Memphians also depended on enslaved people and on Memphis’s small community of free blacks for skilled labor at little cost. Enslaved artisans included blacksmiths, seamstresses, and carpenters. Many free black people also worked as skilled laborers, but they could not charge as much for their labor as white workers.

Civil War, Reconstruction, and Yellow Fever

Early in the Civil War, in 1862, Memphis fell to the Union, and Union troops occupied Fort Pickering in South Memphis. Many enslaved people left plantations and after dangerous journeys, took refuge at the fort. A number of the men, many caught at battles in the surrounding area, joined the Union Army, trained as soldiers and manned the fort. After the Civil War, many of the refugees stayed in Memphis and settled in communities near Fort Pickering. Most did not want to return to rural areas. However, the lack of employment opportunities, the existing racial tensions, and the violence directed towards drove some people back to work on farms.

A decree from General William Sherman encouraged a return to farming, with the offer of “40 acres and a mule” for formerly enslaved people who wished to claim it. Owning land was the key to economic independence and many wanted to work their own land after years being forced to work the land for others. Instead, in the summer of 1865, President Andrew Johnson ordered federally controlled land be returned to the former owners, counter to Sherman’s promise. This left African Americans in rural areas of the South without land. To make a living, they had to work as laborers on plantations, often the same places where they had been enslaved. Many former slave masters immediately began to enforce a gang-labor system similar to the one they had used under slavery.

By the early 1870s,  a system of sharecropping came to dominate agriculture across the cotton-planting South. Families would rent small plots of land, or shares, to work themselves; in return, they would give a portion of their crop to the landowner at the end of the year. The plantation owners also owned the nearby stores . They sold to the sharecroppers on credit, at inflated prices. By the time the crops were in, and the sharecroppers had paid the landowner his share, there was usually not enough money left to pay the store, so their debt was never paid off. Sharecroppers were bound to the land by a rigged system.

At the same time, former Confederate state legislatures passed laws denying black people political rights, and other laws forced former slaves to sign yearly labor contracts or be arrested and jailed for vagrancy. Aside from agricultural work, the only jobs open to men were as household servants, dock workers, and unskilled labor. Black women were generally confined to being cooks, maids, and laundresses.

The African Americans who stayed in Memphis soon played a much more important role after a series of yellow fever epidemics swept through Memphis during the 1870s. By the time the last major epidemic struck in 1879, a majority of Memphis’s white citizens fled the city, and many left for good. At this time, the city’s population was seventy percent African American. A black militia and largely black police force remained to maintain order in the city. Robert R. Church, Sr., an African American business owner, was able to amass a fortune buying downtown real estate recently abandoned by white citizens.

Jim Crow Era

By the late 1800s, Southern white leadership reestablished control over state and local government. Southern, white, Democratic legislators passed a series of laws known as Jim Crow laws during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These laws enforced racial segregation in all public spaces and infringed on the freedom of black citizens.

Enforced segregation led to separate living and working conditions, and created a separate economy for black-owned businesses. Robert R. Church, Sr. used his fortune to open the Solvent Savings and Loan Bank on Beale Street, which made it possible for African Americans to obtain loans to start businesses and buy their own houses. A small but influential black upper and middle class, including professionals like doctors, dentists, lawyers, and undertakers, arose in the early twentieth century. One successful black-owned enterprise was George W. Lee’s Universal Life Insurance Company. Many of these businesses were located on Beale Street, which became a mecca for black commerce, as well as a center of musical innovation and nightlife.

Despite these successes, the vast majority of African Americans worked in hard, dirty, and sometimes dangerous, conditions for little money. In addition to farm and domestic work, many worked in the quickly growing lumber industry, clearing the hardwood forests and laboring in sawmills. Others worked on the loading docks. The railroads running through the city offered work, but African Americans were denied better paying positions. Black men worked as porters and stokers, and black women labored as cleaners and cooks. All black workers were prohibited from being conductors or engineers.

At the turn of the century, Memphis’s economy hinged on cotton and the hardwood market. By-products from these industries helped create local manufacturing companies such as Plough Chemical Company and Bruce Hardwood. After World War I, as cotton prices fell, city leaders realized they needed to create a broader economic base and lure manufacturing industries. They offered the incentives of low taxes, natural resources, and a cheap labor force that would not unionize. From the 1920s through the 1960s, large companies moved to Memphis, including Firestone Tire and Rubber (pictured), RCA, Fisher Body Company, and International Harvester. Black and white workers at these plants all made less than the national average, and black workers were paid at a lower scale as a matter of policy. They were also generally assigned to less desirable and more dangerous jobs. This division of the work fed into the longstanding manipulation of white low-wage workers. Instead of banding with African Americans workers to organize for better wages and working conditions, they enjoyed the feeling that their whiteness brought superiority and benefits. Women, both black and white, had lower wages than men.

The Great Migration

Given the unsatisfactory economic opportunities, harsh segregationist laws, and frequent violence directed toward them, many black people headed north, where they took advantage of the need for industrial workers that arose during World War I. It is no surprise that over 6 million African Americans left the South to move to the cities of the North, Midwest and West from about 1916 to 1970. Most people leaving Memphis went to Chicago or Detroit for manufacturing jobs.

Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II

In the 1930s, in response to the devastation of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a series of policies intended to strengthen the economy. The 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act paid farmers to limit cotton production in order to shore up falling cotton prices. Rather than pass on part of the payment to their tenants, many landowners evicted their tenant farmers. In response, some of the tenants formed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. The Supreme Court invalidated the AAA and mandated proportional payment to tenants.

Despite the good intentions of New Deal policies, many backfired in southern cities like Memphis. The local NAACP received complaints from women who were getting groceries through the Civil Works Administration. Their relief benefits were cut off, and they were sent to work as servants to the program’s administrators for 3 to 4 dollars a week. As a concession to southern politicians, domestic workers and farmworkers, both majority-black, were excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which gives employees the right to organize for better working conditions. Live-in workers were, and still are, excluded from the overtime protections in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

Black men had little success in trying to break into white-dominated trade work. Skilled black carpenters formed a union, the Independent Craftsmen Association, but the police commissioner accused the leader of the movement of being a communist and convinced community leaders that the union was “inimical to the interest of the Negro workers...and to labor generally.” Although the period saw several attempts at unionization and attempt to attain better wages, there were few real gains.

With the U.S entry into World War II, production efforts stepped up. Local plants including Fisher and Firestone won defense contracts, which should have ensured equal pay for black workers, as federally mandated. Local manufacturers did not comply. In 1943, the United States Conciliation Service looked into complaints concerning discriminatory job classifications at Fisher Aircraft. In a chilling display of plantation mentality, Mayor Walter Chandler wrote Congressman Clifford Davis asking for his help in avoiding an adverse ruling from the USCS. Urging Davis to explain the South’s problems to federal officials:

“Naturally, if wage differentials which have existed in the South because of the superior mental ability of the white worker are to be destroyed, I fear for the negro’s welfare here. He has kept his job because he has not competed with the white worker in character of work or rate of pay, and, when work is not so plentiful as it is now, he will be laid off.... It is to the interest of the negro that some differential should exist.”

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, the NAACP campaigned to end racial discrimination in schools, public places, and workplaces. This movement was bolstered in part by African Americans like lawyer Benjamin Hooks, who returned from honorable service in World War II to find closed doors at home. The growing number of African American professionals were impatient with lack of progress. By the 1960s, black activists had attained desegregation of public spaces, universities, and schools, but economic justice was more elusive. The majority of the African American work force still labored in low wage jobs with few, if any, benefits.

De-segregation and its aftermath

On February 1, 1968, a malfunctioning garbage truck crushed and killed sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker in East Memphis. They had sought shelter from the rain in the truck’s bin. Sanitation workers did not receive protective clothing, shower facilities, pensions, vacations or health benefits. On average, they earned $1.80 per hour. Forty percent of the city’s 1,300 sanitation workers relied on welfare or a second job to support their families.

On February 12, sanitation workers voted to go on strike to protest their working conditions and pay. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a national labor union, worked with the strikers. Some Memphians urged the City Council and Mayor Henry Loeb to address the sanitation workers’ concerns. The Mayor said that the strike was illegal and refused to negotiate. In response, African American ministers and community leaders formed Citizens on the Move for Equality (COME) under the leadership of Reverend James Lawson. Workers soon began carrying signs with the simple yet powerful slogan: “I Am A Man.” Lawson invited Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. to speak at a rally in support of the strikers on March 18, and King emphasized the need to acknowledge the manhood of black men by paying them a living wage. He encouraged all the city’s African Americans to declare a strike day to bring the city to a halt and make white Memphians realize how dependent they were on black labor. He promised to return to lead a second protest. King did return to the city to lead a peaceful protest against the appalling labor conditions for garbage workers and all black laborers. On April 4, 1968, he was assassinated by a sniper. The April 8 march went on as scheduled, drawing people from across the country who held a peaceful march in his memory. Strikers and supporters carried signs reading “Honor King: End Racism.”

After King’s assassination, Mayor Loeb felt increased pressure to resolve the strike that had brought King to Memphis. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to Memphis to settle the strike. It took Reynolds eleven days to work out compromises that recognized the union and allowed payroll deductions for union fees, improved wages and working conditions, and allowed Loeb to save face. The union voted to accept the terms on April 16, ending the strike.

During the years since the unrest and progress made in the 1960s, many areas of economic opportunity have opened to African American workers, especially those with college and graduate degrees. African Americans are more represented in Memphis as professionals, civil servants, university professors, and businesspeople. However, there are major inequities in the employment prospects of those with high school degrees or without degrees.


In 2019, before the economic maelstrom brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment in the United States was exceptionally low. Even with an historically low black unemployment rate of 6.4%, black workers were twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers (whose unemployment rate was 3.1 %). This pattern has held for more than 40 years in every state with a significant share of black workers. The difference was even higher for workers without a college education. Black workers were less likely than white workers to be employed in a job consistent with their level of education, and they disproportionately represent the underemployed, those who work part-time but would prefer full-time work.

A disproportionate number of domestic workers continue to be African American women. Domestic workers are three times more likely to be living in poverty than other workers. Very few receive health insurance or other benefits, and they are explicitly left out of many federal labor and employment protections. The Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act only cover employers with multiple employees, excluding most domestic workers from these protections.

Black employment and COVID-19

The economic changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have been devastating and have hit black workers especially hard. The pandemic has brought about two major forms of job insecurity: economic and health. Those who have been able to continue working from the safety of home have avoided the immediate effects of both. Many workers have lost their jobs and face grave economic insecurity. Many more work in fields that have been classified as essential and have to report to their workplaces, facing health risks. Black workers are most likely to fall into one of the latter categories. African Americans suffered record job losses during the period of March – May 2020. Those who are employed make up a disproportionate number of essential workers in health care, grocery, convenience, and drug stores, public transit, transportation, warehouse, postal service, childcare, and social services. While this status protects them from job loss, they are at much greater risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job and of exposing their families. It is not surprising that illness and deaths are disproportionately found among black workers and their families.


Photo Credits:

Firestone Tire and Rubber; courtesy of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center

I AM A MAN placard; Collections of the Pink Palace Museum

Harper’s Weekly illustration of African American Troops in the Civil War; Collections of the Pink Palace Museum

World War I Recruitment Poster; Collections of the Pink Palace Museum


Further Reading:

Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers by Michael K. Honey

Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle by Laurie B. Green

Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South by Wanda Rushing 




Neighborhoods: The Physical Boundaries of Systemic Racism - June 19, 2020

Systemic racism has institutionalized norms of exclusion both covertly and overtly within our society, from Jim Crow laws to housing discrimination to food deserts, that negatively and disproportionately affect black neighborhoods. In this post, we will explore some of these issues and their roots. Although Memphis has a rich history of prosperity in black neighborhoods, these areas also face an alarming rate of poverty, blight, and disenfranchisement compared to white neighborhoods.

The Beginnings 

Before the Civil War, the majority of the black people living in Memphis and Shelby County were enslaved to urban white households or farming plantations outside the city. There was also a small population of free black men and women, many of whom migrated to the area from other states, bought their freedom, or were freed by family or previous owners. Despite the privileges of being documented free black persons, they lived with the constant threat of mistreatment and violence and the greater fear of being captured and enslaved. White residents were often suspicious of free African Americans. On January 9, 1846 the Memphis Weekly Eagle published one resident’s concerns: 

“How long will our citizens quietly permit free negroes to remain among us, demoralizing and ruining our slaves and endangering the lives of our families . . . The truth is, the free negroes do more to injure our slaves than all the abolitionists in the world.”

Both Tennessee and Memphis passed laws and ordinances to restrict the movement and activities of free black  persons by subjecting them to fees, physical retribution, forced labor, or expulsion from Memphis.

In spite of this, a small free-black community in Memphis included land owners, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople. Joseph Clouston, a barber and later City Council member, and Milly Swan Price, an entrepreneur, were among a cluster of free black Memphians who owned property in South Memphis around Linden Street during the mid-19 century. Land ownership provided additional economic security, stability, and opportunities for these individuals and their families. South Memphis later grew into a thriving black neighborhood, home to several of the city’s prominent black Memphians. It remains a neighborhood of historic and cultural importance but also serves as an example of the effects of systemic and institutionalized racism.


Migration and Growth of Black Communities

During the Civil War, thousands of enslaved people fled to Memphis after it became Union territory on June 6, 1862 and this continued into 1865.  These individuals, considered “contraband” of war, were not free in the legal sense, thus “contraband.”    More properly, they should be referred to as refugees. Thousands of black men enlisted in the Union Army in Memphis. Families, having nowhere else to go and seeking the protection of Union soldiers, formed “contraband camps" near Fort Pickering and Presidents Island, south  of Downtown Memphis. The camps were cramped, covered in make-shift shelters with limited supplies and food, and had  poor hygienic conditions, leaving  people more susceptible to the elements, malnutrition, and sickness. By 1863, 1900 refugee slaves resided in Memphis.

After the end of the war,  black neighborhoods sprung up south of Beale Street. Businesses, schools, shops, boarding houses, and churches also emerged. Working-class white Memphians, particularly Irish immigrants, also lived in this area, often in the same building. Consequently, racial  tensions  escalated into an event later known as the Memphis Massacre of 1866: three days of violence, murder, rape, and property destruction.  Many black Memphians fled the city in the aftermath.

 In 1890, black Memphians constituted 44% of the city’s population. South Memphis’s black community had rebuilt after the Massacre and included a tight-knit working class, many of whom were former Civil War refugees. There was also a black middle-class of small business owners. Wealthy black Memphians, such as Robert Church Sr., lived  in prosperous, majority white areas around  Lauderdale Street, south of Downtown. A network of black businesses, schools, churches, fraternal and political organizations continued to grow.. In North Memphis, Klondyke and New Chicago  developed into early black neighborhoods with Klondyke boasting a black homeownership rate of approximately 95%. In 1890, white real estate developer, Eugene Meacham, saw a unique economic opportunity to develop Orange Mound, a subdivision that catered to working-class black families. In 1907, Rev. William Plummer founded Douglass in North Memphis. Unlike more economically diverse neighborhoods such as South Memphis, at the time areas like Douglass and Orange Mound suffered the extra burden of being poor, isolated, and lacking indoor plumbing and electricity. At this time, Beale Street became the center of black commerce.

It is no accident that these neighborhoods were or became almost entirely black. Reconstruction Memphis was quickly replaced with a “Jim Crow" city. Black residents were excluded from white neighborhoods, which felt threatened by their presence.  Violence was also a concern. South Memphis has brutal examples of this, starting with the 1892 People’s Grocery lynching.  Between the 1930s-1950s the Crump political machine authorized the burning and destruction of dozens of black homes, mansions (including the Church family’s - pictured), and businesses. Two black-only public housing complexes, Foote and then Cleaborn Homes, were built in their place. This was a clear message against rising black political power, homeownership, and black Memphians encroaching on white neighborhoods. Increasing racial segregation (including reducing black homeownership) and violence produced social and economic barriers that grouped black residents in clusters. This shifted the economic spectrum toward a mostly black working class, fueled a large influx into public housing, and caused a steady rise of white flight and blight.

Public Housing

Public housing complexes were a originally a segregated New Deal program to provide affordable housing in inner cities. Though Memphis originally had white complexes, like Hurt Village, and black complexes, like the Dixie Homes, by the time public housing was integrated in 1965, residents had become majority African American. Over time,  massive housing complexes became concentrated pockets of poverty and crime and developed into slums.

In 1992, the Federal Government introduced the HOPE IV to alleviate rampant issues with public housing. The program provides grants for cities to demolish blighted public housing and replace it with new, mixed income single family homes. The program provides Section 8 vouchers to move to qualifying Section 8 housing. The Memphis Housing Authority has redeveloped Lauderdale Courts,  LeMonye Gardens, Lamar Terrace, Hurt Village, Dixie Homes, Greenlaw Place, Magnolia Terrace Senior Facility and Cleaborn Homes with HOPE VI funds. HOPE VI has faced criticism locally and nationally, due to concerns of gentrification and displacement. Residents who cannot qualify or afford to stay at new developments are forced to move outside the inner city to areas like Frayser and Raleigh. This also impacts social networks, transportation, jobs and adds additional expenses. Critics say these new developments do not address the core issue of poverty, crime, and racism in Memphis that caused concentration of blight and slum housing in the first place. Instead of poverty decreasing, it just moves  to new neighborhoods. Another Federal program, Choice Neighborhood Initiative, was utilized to redevelop the Foote Homes and surrounding “South City” neighborhood. Unlike HOPE VI, it focuses on improving surrounding areas, not just renovating public housing, in attempt to create a more holistic plan. However, it has faced similar criticism.

Property and Home Ownership

Stable homeownership provides a sense of long-term economic and social security and stability. As discussed briefly above, there have been high points in the history of black homeownership which in some ways continue today, as shown in a 2019 study that found approximately 35% of owner-occupied homes in Memphis are owned by black citizens . However, black Memphians have had to deal with a disproportionate number of challenges in attaining homeownership, contributing to low homeownership and a wealth gap compared to white families.

According to the 2016 US Census, nationally, the number of black citizens who own homes compared to the total population of black Americans, was at 41.7%. Although in neighborhoods such as Whitehaven black homeownership remains steady, data from U.S. Census’ 2017 American Community Survey reveals that while 35% of owner-occupied homes owned by black Memphians is high compared to other cities, it is not as proportionally high as one might expect from a city in which nearly 60% of the population is black. The Great Recession (2007-2009), predatory lending, credit issues, subprime mortgages, and gentrification have made it harder for black homeownership to stabilize.

Majority black neighborhoods are greatly affected by the legacy of segregation laws, such as exclusionary zoning and redlining. Redlining is the practice of refusing loans and practicing predatory lending in neighborhoods of color, initially instigated by the Federal Housing Association. The term refers the red outlined maps used by the Home Owner’s Loan Coalition to highlight these neighborhoods. A 1930’s map of Memphis highlights swaths of southeast and northeast Memphis and Orange Mound in red. The 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed redlining but it is now a common but hidden practice and remains a major issue. In 2012, the City of Memphis, along with other cities, won a suit against Wells Fargo for predatory lending practices that targeted majority black zip codes. In 2016, suits were won against First Tennessee and BankCorp South for similar racially discriminatory practices.

Bankruptcy status is another major impediment to homeownership. Memphis has one of the highest rates of Chapter 13 personal bankruptcy filers in the country, and the majority of filers are low-income African Americans. Since the 1970s, Memphis’ bankruptcy filing culture makes filing for Chapter 13 easiest for low-income filers and fosters a vicious cycle of re-filing.

Cycles of poverty contributing to low homeownership manifests in blight, a rampant issue in working-class black neighborhoods like South City, Binghampton, Orange Mound, and Douglass. The Memphis Blight Elimination Steering Team defines blight as “vacant or derelict structures and unmaintained property, usually characterized by litter, dumping, and abandoned personal property.” Blight aggravates the situation by lowering property values further. As discussed later in our series, the Memphis Housing Authority deemed dozens of properties as blight during Beale Street Urban Renewal in the 1960s-1970s, the majority of which were black homes and businesses.

Integration and Neighborhood Change Over

During the 1950s-1970s, the inner city was hit with white flight, due to a combination of housing and education integration, affordable and larger housing, G.I. benefits, and increased car ownership.“Blockbusting,” a tactic used by real estate agencies to scare white-homeowners into selling cheaply because of integration and then resell at higher value to African Americans, was another factor. These conditions especially affected older neighborhoods, causing a “changeover” from white to black residents in neighborhoods like Glenview, upper South Memphis, and Whitehaven. Vollintine-Evergreen was one notable exception to this trend. In a future post, we will explore white flight further.

 Other Ongoing Issues

The physical layout of Memphis makes access to transportation a necessity. The combination of white flight and the creation of the I-240 loop have isolated working-class African Americans within the loop. These individuals make up the majority of MATA bus ridership. Local advocacy groups, such as the Memphis Bus Riders Union, argue that the MATA system is not a reliable alternative, citing limited routes, cuts to services and extremely long ride-times, putting working class black/non-white neighborhoods at a disadvantage. In May, the county allocated $2.5 million in an attempt for more equitable access.

The physical isolation also contributes to wealth, resource, and opportunity gaps between black and white neighborhoods. One of these outcomes is formation of food deserts, defined by the USDA as “neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources.” In Memphis, this mainly effects low-income, majority black communities that lack reliable transportation and grocery stores in areas like Orange Mound and North and South Memphis.

Another notable example is Sam Cooper Boulevard. When the I-40 extension that would have cut through Overton Park was blocked, Sam Cooper Boulevard replaced it and created a physical border between east and west Binghamton. This separation was accentuated by recent revitalization that lead to the Broad Avenue Arts District. The resulting economic growth did not spread across Sam Cooper, where 35% live below poverty level, the median household income is $26,000, and the residents are majority non-white. Organizations like the Binghampton Development Cooperation and Binghampton Community Land Trust are working toward equity between the two sides of Sam Cooper. In the 1970s, in North Memphis, black residents faced a similar issue and cited racial discrimination when West Drive was closed and a barrier constructed. Hein Park Civic Association (an adjacent, strictly white neighborhood) pushed for the closing, stating high levels of traffic on the residential street. In 1981, the issue was brought to the Supreme Court in Memphis v. Greene which ruled against the closure and barrier, stating it  adversely affected the black community and was a clear move to separate from them.

Gentrification is defined as “the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” Minority working-class peoples have a higher chance of becoming further marginalized and not benefiting from redevelopment projects in inner cities, causing “gentrification” and “revitalization” to have the same implied meaning. In Memphis, working class African Americans are the largest marginalized group. While the removal of blighted property can be inherently good, if the new property replacing it has higher rent it can force current residents to move elsewhere. Critics also point out that poverty and lack of policy changes are the rootproblem that creates  the cycle of neighborhood decline. Redevelopments in Binghampton, Crosstown, Uptown, the Pinch, Edge District, and South City have all faced such criticism. Plans such as Memphis 3.0 attempt to get input from and include community members before such projects to offset any negative impact on the communities.  Still, some residents of New Chicago felt black neighborhoods wereleft out of the plan and filed a lawsuit in May 2019. The suit was dismissed shortly after, being ruled as “premature.”

Environmental racism refers to harmful environmental living conditions that disproportionately effects impoverished communities and communities of color. It is often associated with industrial sites located in these communities and is linked to high rates of serious health issues, damage to the ecosystem, and contributes to blight and lower property values. In Memphis, low-income black neighborhoods are most impacted. Since members of these communities are underrepresented on governmental and corporate committees that decide where hazardous sites should be located, low income communities are often viewed by boards as the “lowest impact” areas to build these projects.  However, the impact these have on the people who live in these communities is anything but low. In 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the former Memphis Defense Depot site, located in the Alcy-Ball neighborhood, as a superfund site (an extremely polluted area). The site contains over 75 years of chemical waste that has contaminated groundwater. Other Memphis neighborhoods with current or former industrial or waste sites suffer from similar issues, from Frayser to Whitehaven. Doris Bradshaw, who grew up in Alcy-Ball, experienced firsthand the high rates of cancer, birth defects, and other chronic illnesses that affected residents. Bradshaw is a leading local and national activist in the environmental justice movement. 

Images courtesy of Memphis Public Library and Information Center and the Library of Congress.


Further  Reading

“Milly Swan Price.” In Tennessee Women: Volume 1 edited by Sarah Wilkerson Freeman & Beverly Bond

Memphis in Black and White by Beverley G. Bond and Janann Sherman

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

“In the Hands of the Lord”.  In An Unseen Light edited by Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney, Jr.

“After Stax.” In An Unseen Light edited by Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney, Jr.

“Memphis Burning” by Preston Lauterbach https://placesjournal.org/article/memp

Systemic Racism: Violence - June 17, 2020

Editor’s Note: This post includes graphic discussions of murder and rape. These descriptions are used to explain the trauma of race-based violence.

Violence is the intentional use of physical force to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. Systemic racism refers to policies and practices entrenched in a society’s norms and institutions that cause harm to people of color and confer advantages to Caucasians. Too often, this unequal balance of power can lead to racially charged acts of violence. This violence often goes unchecked because the victims are seen as inherently less than their attackers. This post highlights examples from our community of times when systemic racism led to unconcealed violence and unconstitutional surveillance against black Memphians.

Mob Violence

In May 1866, a series of violent attacks against formerly enslaved peoples in Memphis shocked the nation. Four years prior, the Union army took control of Memphis early in the Civil War. Thousands of escaped, and later emancipated, enslaved people moved to the city from the surrounding farmlands. These migrants competed with the city’s working class, mostly Irish, white residents for jobs, causing rising levels of hostility. The 3rd U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery Unit formed in June 1863 and recruited troops from the city’s black population. Stationed at Fort Pickering in South Memphis, the army discharged the regiment on April 30, 1866, one year after the end of the war. However, most of the former soldiers stayed in uniform and decided to remain in the fort until the army paid them.

Tensions between Memphis’ majority Irish police force and the black former soldiers came to a head on May 1, 1866, when a brief firefight broke out. As word of the clash spread, armed mobs of policemen and white civilians went to South Memphis. When the violence started, many black residents took shelter in Fort Pickering, but not everyone was safe. Three days of rioting left 46 black individuals killed, at least 5 black women raped, 75 people injured, 100 people robbed, and 4 black churches and 12 black schools burned. The violence did not stop until General George Stoneman declared martial law on the afternoon of May 3. As far as some Memphians were concerned, the riots were successful. The Memphis Daily Avalanche reported on May 5, 1866, “The chief source of all our trouble being removed…we may confidently expect a restoration of the old order of things.  The Negro population will now do their duty…Negro men and Negro women are suddenly looking for work on country farms… Thank heaven, the white race are once more rulers in Memphis.” No white men were ever tried for their involvement in the riots.

Violence against Black Women

After the Civil War, conservative Memphis newspapers represented black women as “bad women,” portraying them as having loose morals or as prostitutes. Police officers frequently arrested black women, often falsely, on charges of lewdness and vagrancy. The high number of arrests led to the press reporting on an epidemic of black prostitution. As mentioned above, sexual violence against women occurred during the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Lucy Tibbs, Harriet Armour, Lucy Smith, Frances Thompson, and Rebecca Ann Bloom were victims of rape. These five women reported their attacks during the Congressional investigation into the event. It is unknown how many unreported rapes occurred. According to their testimony, several of the women were first solicited by their attackers who made it clear that they believed the women were either prostitutes or “loose” women. When they refused to engage in sexual activities, their attackers reacted with sexual violence. No one was arrested for these crimes.

On August 3, 1945, two strikingly similar acts of violence occurred. Alice Wright and Annie Mae Williams were waiting at a bus stop after their late night shift at Fred’s Café. Patrolmen J.W. Torrey and B.J. Lewis arrested them, implying that they were prostitutes. They drove the women to a secluded site and raped them. Wright and Williams’ mothers insisted that their daughters file charges with the police chief directly. Instead of treating the women as victims, the chief arrested them and used their time in jail to discredit their claims. The chief’s superior officer quietly fired the officers without pressing legal charges, but the Shelby County attorney general did file charges. The defense lawyers relied on stereotypes about black women to imply that if sex had occurred, force had not been needed. The officers were acquitted despite the evidence of their guilt and their victims’ testimony.

According to a 2017 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, homicide and police brutality disproportionately affect black women even today. Black women are two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than white women. The National Organization of Women reported in 2018 that over 18% of black women will report being sexually assaulted during their lifetimes.

Vigilante Violence

In 1940, anti-lynching activists met at the Tuskegee Institute to define lynching. According to their definition, “There must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition.” This remains the most commonly used definition today. Lynchings are a form of domestic terrorism that enforced segregation and racial inequality. Between 1841-1939, 24 confirmed lynchings occurred in Shelby County. Another 12 lynchings likely occurred, but ongoing research is needed to confirm the cases. Ell Persons was one of these men.

In 1917, 16-year-old Antoinette Rappel went missing. Her family organized a search party, and the men found Antoinette's bicycle with books and homework still in the basket below the west Wolf River bridge abutment. Following a fresh trail, the searchers discovered Rappel’s decapitated body, her clothes torn and body scratched. They also saw ax marks in the ground. The medical examiner found that she had been sexually assaulted and surmised that she was decapitated after her death.

A white handkerchief, a white vest, and fresh car tracks were also found at the scene. The Shelby County sheriff believed that black woodcutters in the area committed the crime. City detectives disagreed, feeling that the type of crime and the evidence more likely pointed to a white man. The city’s competing newspapers, The Memphis News-Scimitar and The Commercial Appeal, fueled the race baiting and reported that it was likely that “Negro woodcutters” had committed the crime.

Ell Persons, a 50-year-old black woodcutter, came to Shelby County Sheriff Mike Tate’s attention when a white man said that Persons had once scared his wife. A local judge gave permission to exhume Rappel’s body to test a theory then in fashion that after a violent death the last image the victim saw stayed on the retina. The police photographed Antoinette's eyes and believed that an indistinct blob was Persons’ forehead. The sheriff arrested Persons and subjected him to a physically and psychologically damaging interrogation. Persons agreed to confess if he was sent to an asylum. The sheriff knew that Persons had a high probability of being lynched because of the nature of the crime and the race baiting in the newspapers. Sherriff Tate sent Persons to a Nashville jail, but word leaked of his transport back to Shelby County for arraignment. A highly organized mob captured Persons. The Commercial Appeal wrote about his capture and the plans to lynch him at the crime scene.

On May 22, 1917, a crowd of several thousand men, women, and children waited at the Macon Road Wolf River Bridge. Vendors sold soft drinks and snacks. Rappel’s mother Minnie called for Persons to suffer the way her daughter had, and the crowd collected money for her daughter’s gravestone. The leaders tied Ell Persons to a log and doused him with gasoline. The crowd watched as Persons burned alive. Before his body cooled, some pressed forward for souvenirs. Later in the afternoon, a car drove down Beale Street, and the occupants threw Person’s head into a crowd of African American men. Newspapers throughout the country reported the event. The coroner listed Person’s cause of death as “unknown” and no one  was ever tried for Persons’ murder.

Vigilante violence against black people still happens today. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2018 hate crime statistics, which aggregates self-reported crime data from law enforcement agencies, indicate that 59.6% of the bias motivation for the 8,496 reported hate crimes was race or ethnicity.


Edward Hull “Boss” Crump, who dominated Memphis politics for more than 40 years, was notorious for brutal policing. He served as mayor from 1910-1916, built a Democratic political machine, and continued to influence and control the city from behind the scenes. During the 1940s, the Memphis police instituted a “Reign of Terror” against black union organizers and anti-Crump activists. Police Commissioner Boyle trained police in gas, rifles, and machine guns to prepare them for “riot duty.” By October 1940, thirty officers a week were going through the new program, and Boyle announced the city would soon have one of the country’s “shootingest” police forces. During this period, police raided black-owned establishments on Beale Street, arrested black citizens on charges of vagrancy, and surveilled nineteen black professionals they believed were “fanning race hatred.”

Police surveillance of black citizens continued in the 1960s as the police department embedded officers in local civil rights organizations to report on their activities. Police surveillance continued, and in 1976 the ACLU of Tennessee filed suit against the City of Memphis for First Amendment violations. In 1978, the judge signed the Kendrick consent decree, which prohibits the police from surveilling protesters  for political reasons. The ACLU sued the City again in 2017, arguing that the police department had again violated the consent decree.

Today, the ongoing protests surrounding brutal policing tactics highlight instances when institutional racism leads to violence. The 2016 Black Lives Matter protest that shut down the I-40 bridge and the continuing protests in June 2020 bring racially-motivated violence to our community’s attention and advocate for systemic change.

For further reading:

A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War by Stephen V. Ash

Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South by Hannah Rosen

An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee edited by Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney Jr.


Systemic Racism: Slavery in Memphis and Shelby County - June 12, 2020

Racism is so rooted in the history and culture of the United States and Memphis that it is systemic and institutionalized. It is part of how we operate as a society, knowingly and unknowingly, through laws, actions, and beliefs that create a system of inequality and power that favors whites and excludes non-whites. This month, we will explore how systemic racism has historically impacted our region, and how it affects us today.

The Development of Race in North America

The concept of "race” is a human construct that has changed over the centuries and differs by culture. To understand race in the Americas, we must first examine the history of colonization in North America and how it was influenced by massive changes during the so-called “Age of Exploration,” from the 15th through the 17th centuries. As Europeans encountered new civilizations in Africa and the Americas, European society had to determine where these people fit in their prevailing Christian worldview.  Within Europe, the social standing of Africans was vastly different in England than it was in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. The Mediterranean countries had maintained social relations and commercial trade with Northern Africa for centuries. Especially in Spain and Portugal, Africans who accepted Christianity were accepted members of society. However, Africans brought to those countries by force were considered savages, and philosophers and scholars debated their level of humanity. Africans accompanied Columbus, Pizarro, Cortez, de Soto, and other colonizers both as full members of the crew and as enslaved persons. As the Spanish explored and colonized North and South America, they enslaved the indigenous people, who they also considered less than human. (pictured - shackles used to transport slaves)

Unlike the Spaniards, the English did not have a historic relationship with Africa. They created a new human classification system and labeled Irish, African, and American Indians as savages. The Spanish and the Portuguese were also considered beneath the English in this worldview. Very few Africans accompanied English colonizers to the New World.

After a century of enslavement of Africans by Spain, Portugal, and France in the New World, the English followed suit. The English first bought enslaved Africans in 1699 from Dutch slave traders in the English Jamestown colony. The use of enslaved Africans as laborers spread throughout the English colonies because the development of the tobacco, indigo, and sugar cane for export to England required more labor than the colonists could do themselves. The triangle trade of enslaved people, agricultural exports, and finished commodities between Africa, the Americas, and European countries became an economic offshoot of colonization. The English viewed slaves as fundamentally different than servants. They believed that in becoming a slave, a person lost their status as human.

Slavery in the English colonies was soon an integral part of the economy. Slave trading became a major multinational enterprise. Plantations in the Southern colonies grew as more slave labor became available. Indentured servitude of Europeans was practiced alongside of the use of enslaved Africans. This led to the question of how to classify the difference between slaves and servants. The most obvious means was the physical, or phenotypical, differences between Africans and Europeans. Less obvious were differences in customs, particularly religion. The English regarded the Africans as heathens because they were not Christians. The rationale for considering enslaved Africans as less than human was based on these differences. Some colonists rationalized their use of slaves by noting that they did not enslave people, rather the Africans were already enslaved when they purchased them.

All of these events occurred at the same time that economists developed the concept of European capitalism. As plantations grew, owners shifted from merchant farmers to capitalists who derived wealth from the ownership of raw materials and control of the means of production. The peculiar view of enslaved Africans as both valuable capital and as savage, child-like, non-believers spread throughout the Americas. The United States of America was born amid an argument about the nature and morality of slavery.

The Cotton Gin and the Expansion of Slavery

The climate of the southern United States was well suited for growing cotton. Two varieties of cotton, short and long staple, were available to farmers. Long staple cotton was easier to harvest and remove the seeds, but it could only be grown in small areas of the coastal colonies. Short staple cotton could be grown throughout the South, but removing the seeds was so labor intensive that it was cost prohibitive, even using enslaved labor. When Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin in 1794, a mechanical means of separating the seeds from short staple cotton became available to farmers. The cotton gin made processing short staple cotton less labor intensive, and large plantations became more economically profitable. Large plantations needed more labor, so the growth of plantations coincided with a large influx of enslaved labor.  (pictured - Cotton Gin)

Eastern slave owners sold at least 500,000 enslaved people to Southern entrepreneurs in order to clear forests and swamps in the Mississippi Delta, the Memphis region, Kentucky, and Missouri. Steamboats capable of navigating the entire Mississippi River debuted in 1812, which provided a way to transport enslaved people to the region, along with the cotton and logs that were produced there, to markets up and down the river. 

Slavery in Memphis and the Mid-South

Land speculators, including future United States President Andrew Jackson, founded Memphis in 1819 on Chickasaw hunting and camping grounds. The Fourth Bluff above the Mississippi River was a natural geographic location for trade and commerce. From the beginning, white settlers brought enslaved black people to the region. As enslaved people cleared hardwood forests in the Mississippi Valley, opening the area for cotton farming, the region’s economic growth became dependent on enslaved people brought to Memphis by the new settlers and business owners. In 1820, 103 people were enslaved in Shelby County. Before the clearing of the land in West Tennessee and Northern Mississippi, some people in Memphis felt that there was an excess of laborers because of slavery, which they believed might damage the chances of employment for white citizens. When the rush to clear the land began in earnest, any thoughts about excess labor quickly disappeared, and the business of selling enslaved persons as market commodities became one of Memphis’ major enterprises. Traders brought enslaved people to the Mississippi Valley in staggering numbers. In fact, the movement of enslaved people from the East to the Mississippi Valley was one of the largest internal migrations in our nation’s history. The working conditions were appalling. Enslaved men, women, and children were forced to clear swamps, cut the forests, and plow, plant, and harvest cotton by hand, all while working in the southern heat and humidity. (pictured - slave sale announcement)

By 1860, there were 16,960 enslaved people in Shelby County, a growth of 16,366% in 40 years. There was a constant inflow and outflow of enslaved men, women, and children as Memphis became the largest inland slave market in the South. The buying and selling of human beings became a major source of capital for the city. Tennessee law prohibited slave auctions, so sales took place in warehouses or brokers' offices. Regardless of location, the trade in human beings as a commodity was dehumanizing for the enslaved. 

Owners could loan or lease enslaved people to do jobs for others. In the city, owners leased them to households as washers, carpenters, and leather workers. In rural areas, people were leased for agricultural labor. In 1836, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers leased enslaved people to construct a military road between Memphis and the St. Francis River. Owners received $22 per month for men and $10-$12 dollars per month for women. The enslaved workers received food, shelter, and clothes for winter and summer work. In the city, some slave owners allowed enslaved men and women to hire themselves out as craftspeople or household help. The work and money earned provided a sense of independence, but the knowledge that those freedoms could be taken away at any moment always remained. (pictured - slave lease agreement)

Enslaved people lived in two cultures. In white American culture, they existed as capital and commodity. They also inhabited a culture shared among the enslaved community. Within these communities, life was rich with storytelling, shared recipes, love, marriages, children, sickness, and death. This was a culture, taught and shared throughout the South, largely invisible to the white culture on the plantations and in cities. Archaeologists have excavated slave assemblages, groups of objects found together at slave quarters, throughout the South. Objects in these assemblages include fist-shaped metal charms, animal bones, pierced coins, glass beads, marbles with “x” engraved on them, broken ceramic pieces that have been smoothed in the gullets of chickens, and other objects. These findings indicate a shared cultural importance attached to these items among the enslaved members of the diaspora.

Slavery During the Civil War

As Southern states began to argue the case for succession, Memphis and Tennessee were divided on the issue. As a center of cotton trading, Memphis was firmly entrenched in American commerce. It was unclear what impact succession would have on the unprecedented prosperity that Memphis enjoyed just before the start of Civil War. However, Memphis and Tennessee were not willing to give up the institution of slavery, which was fundamentally entwined with the cotton and hardwood industries. Ultimately, Tennessee was the last state to secede. Memphis fell to Union naval forces on June 6, 1862, and became a Union stronghold on the edge of the Confederacy.

Seven months later, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be, free.” Memphis, as an occupied city, was no longer in rebellion, which meant that enslaved people in Memphis were not free. Eventually, the focus of the war turned from solely maintaining the Union to doing so and ending slavery. As Union forces marched across West Tennessee, Eastern Arkansas, and Northern Mississippi, thousands of enslaved people fled the places where they had been held. Because they were not free, they were considered contraband, enemy property that had fallen into Union hands. The Army was overwhelmed by the 6,000 slaves and “free Blacks” who poured into Memphis, overwhelming their resources and angering Memphians, many of them who still held people in slavery. The Army appointed a Superintendent of Freedmen and established camps in Memphis on President’s Island on the south bluffs around Fort Pickering. The population of Memphis in 1863 showed 11,000 white inhabitants, 5,000 enslaved people, and an astounding 19,000 contraband. During this period, 15,000 black men, including 7,000 men from the contraband camps, enlisted in the Union Army and received their training near Memphis. U.S. Colored Troops were stationed at Fort Pillow and fought in battles at Moscow, Tennessee, and Brice’s Crossroads, Mississippi. On April 12, 1864, Confederate troops led by former Memphis slave trader General Nathan Bedford Forrest killed over 300 black troops and civilians as they tried to surrender at Fort Pillow.  

After the war ended in 1865, Memphis became a simmering mix of longtime residents, free black citizens, residents of the contraband camps, recent Irish immigrants, and U.S. Colored Troops discharged from the Army. Races and cultures who didn’t understand each other’s world views lived in close proximity. The air was electric with misunderstanding and hatred at a time when the city needed to rebuild its social order and commerce.


Further reading:

Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview by Audrey Smedly and Brian D. Smedly

Memphis in Black and White by Beverley G. Bond and Janann Sherman 

Remembering the Memphis Massacre: An American Story edited by Beverley Greene Bond and Susan Eva O'Donovan 


All images are from the Pink Palace Museum Collection. 


Urban Slavery and Servitude at Mallory-Neely and Magevney Houses - June 9, 2020

As we continue our exploration of how systemic racism has impacted our region and still affects us today, we explore the history of slavery and servitude at the museum's Mallory-Neely and Magevney Houses. Systemic racism is part of how we operate as a society, knowingly and unknowingly, through laws, actions, and beliefs that create a system of inequality and power that favors whites and excludes non-whites.

African Americans have lived and worked in the Mallory-Neely and Magevney Houses throughout history as both enslaved people and servants. Recent research tells us twelve individuals were enslaved to the households of Issac and Lucy Kirtland and Eugene and Mary Magevney in the years before the Civil War. While we do not know much about these individuals, other than their names, ages, and purchase deeds, we are continuing our research to shed light on their stories.

Urban Slavery

When asked, “Where did enslaved people live and what did they do?” most people will answer, “They lived on plantations and grew cotton.” While this is true, enslaved people and free blacks also lived in cities.

One out of every 10 enslaved people lived and worked in southern cities like Memphis, Charleston, and New Orleans. In 1860, Memphis had a population of approximately 23,000. There were 3,684 enslaved people and 198 free black people included in that number. During the 1850s, Memphis was the site of the largest inland slave market in the Southeast. Slave dealers advertised in the newspapers and the City Directory.

Some traders even sold enslaved people in public auctions, but most were sold in special rooms rather than on an auction block. Women were on one side, men on the other. Buyers walked up and down asking questions like “Are you a good cook? Dressmaker? Can you care for children? Can you plow? Are you a blacksmith?” If they had the skills the buyers were looking for, they were purchased. (pictured below – Eugene Magevney slave purchase receipt)

Urban slaves were sometimes granted special permission to live away from their owners and to work for money for other whites, though their owner would receive a part of their wages. This was called “living out.” The owner would sign a permit allowing his slave to live out, and the permit was renewed yearly. This arrangement allowed slaves to rent their own places to live and gave them a sense of independence and privacy that would have been impossible otherwise. It also led to a more diverse social life, where enslaved people could get away from their owners and interact with other slaves and free black people. Urban slaves, whether living with their owners or on their own, had unique opportunities not granted to their counterparts  on plantations. However, they were still enslaved. They were owned and controlled by their masters. They could not vote or travel freely, and they had few protections under the law. Slavery was not abolished until the ratification of the 13th amendment after the end of the Civil War in 1865. After the war, men and women who were born into slavery became free people who helped build Memphis. Many went from being enslaved to being paid servants earning wages for their skills.

The Mallory-Neely House

The Mallory-Neely House is named for two of the later families who lived here. Originally, the house (pictured right) was home to Issac Kirtland and his family. Kirtland purchased the land in May 1852 and began building what we now call the Mallory-Neely House. This was nine years before the start of the Civil War. Kirtland was in the banking and insurance business, and he and his wife Lucy had eight children. The 1860 census tells us that, in addition to these family members, there were seven enslaved African Americans who lived at and worked for the household. Four were men, three were women. We know the names of two of the men, George and Mal, and the three women, Lucinda, Martha, and Cathlene.

In cities, owners and enslaved people lived in close quarters. The slave quarters at Mallory-Neely were located in the building behind the house. The kitchen and butler’s pantry were on the first floor, while the second floor was the living quarters. They were tasked with keeping the house clean, taking care of the family, cooking, caring for the animals, managing the carriages, and whatever else the Kirtland family saw fit.

The Kirtlands sold the house in December 1864 to Benjamin Babb and his family. The Babbs lived in the house until they sold it to James Columbus Neely in July 1883. Unfortunately, we do not know much about the time that the Babbs lived in the house. This remains an ongoing research project. What we do know is that the Neelys always had black servants in and out of the house.

During the time of Daisy Neely, who became Daisy Mallory after her marriage, Annie Cartwright Bess was a family servant. Bess (pictured right) worked for the family for 55 years. Hired in 1907 as a domestic worker, Bess began her career as a nurse for the Mallory’s three children. When they were older, she became the housekeeper responsible for the many tasks required to maintain the house in its longstanding grand style. Younger servants who worked in the house in subsequent years spoke of Bess with great respect as they described her “in charge” personality. By the late 1920s, she and her husband occupied the second-floor servants’ quarters. Following the death of their husbands, Jeff Bess in 1934 and Barton Mallory in 1938, Bess was invited to relocate from the servant’s quarters to the room next to Mallory. Bess would become a close friend, confidant, and caretaker for Mallory until her passing in 1962 at the age of 80.

When the house opened as a museum in the 1980s, it was open for all to see. While the exhibits have mostly focused on the families that lived here, especially that of the Mallorys and Neelys, we are creating newer exhibits that illuminate the history of enslaved people and servants inside the house and the experience of black Memphians during the Victorian time period.

The Magevney House

Eugene Magevney was an Irish immigrant who came to Memphis in the 1830s. He and his wife Mary had two daughters, Kate and Mary. He was a schoolteacher before making a fortune in the real estate business, which gave Magevney enough money to purchase enslaved people. He owned five slaves, three women and two men. Their names were Leah, Hanah, John, George, and Elizabeth. We are unsure of where they lived at the Magevney House. We believe they may have resided in the kitchen area; however, there are no drawings of the original kitchen to confirm our hypothesis. The Magevneys added a new kitchen in the 1870s. It is possible that the original slave quarters and kitchen were a separate building enclosed within the perimeter of the property. After the Civil War, the family switched to having black servants. The family lived in the house (pictured above, right) until 1925. After their residency, the house sat empty for 15 years before it was gifted to the City of Memphis. The City worked to restore the old house and opened it as a museum. When it opened in 1941, it was almost assuredly only open to white Memphians, because of the Jim Crow segregation that ruled black Memphians’ daily lives. Ongoing research into the home’s early years as a museum is needed to confirm this assumption. The City transferred operation of the Magevney House to the Pink Palace Museum in 1974.

While urban slavery might have looked different from its plantation counterpart, it was still dehumanizing. Enslaved peoples’ records were not deemed important enough to maintain because they were viewed as property, not people. It is our responsibility to find out as much as we can about these individuals and tell their stories. We will continue our research into the lives of the enslaved people who lived in our historic houses so we can share their experiences with our visitors. It is an integral part of our museum’s ongoing goal to authentically represent our city's past to foster meaningful discussions that move us towards a more equitable and compassionate future.

Rooted in History & Culture - June 4, 2020

Racism is so rooted in the history and culture of the United States and Memphis that it is systemic and institutionalized. It is part of how we operate as a society, knowingly and unknowingly, through laws, actions, and beliefs that create a system of inequality and power that favors whites and excludes non-whites. This month, we will explore how systemic racism has historically impacted our region, and how it affects us today.

The Pink Palace Museum’s institutional history is not exempt from systemic racism. Our museum system is composed of several separate facilities, each with a unique history of exclusion based on race and power dynamics that favor whites. Before any of these buildings were part of the museum, the land was part of the Chickasaw Nation. We begin this post by recognizing and acknowledging that we occupy land that once belonged to them. The Chickasaw Nation used this land for hunting grounds, but white settlers’ desire for land led to violence and unfair treaties across the region, forcing Indigenous peoples to leave their homeland. This forced migration, which had the support of Andrew Jackson, a Tennessean who founded Memphis and was President of the United States, is one of the first instances of institutionalized racism in the region.

Before there was a Pink Palace mansion or the Chickasaw Gardens subdivision, this land was part of several dairy farms. In 1922, Clarence Saunders purchased 155-acres between Central and Poplar Avenues to build a palatial estate. There were black families already living on the land he purchased.

On May 29, 1922, workers removed at least one black family from their home and burned it to the ground the same day to clear the site for construction. While we do not know the names of these individuals, we have a photograph of the event. Learning their story is an ongoing research project.  

The Pink Palace mansion became a part of the Memphis Park System in 1926 after Saunders declared bankruptcy and lost his estate. The Garden Development Corporation bought the property and donated the mansion to the City to be used as a museum. The original property transfer deed between the company and the City of Memphis explicitly stated that the building could only “be used wholly and exclusively for public uses for the benefit of persons of the Caucasian race.” The deed also included a clause for the forfeiture of the property and its return to the corporation if any part of the contract was broken. During the years that the museum was segregated, the institution offered separate programs for white and black children. Classes for white children were held at the museum while programs for black children were held at other locations. In 1957, the museum began to offer a series of Saturday science programs at LeMoyne College for black students and their parents.

In the 1950s, black community leaders petitioned the Park Commission to integrate public parks and cultural institutions, but they were repeatedly denied. As their letters went unanswered, some black Memphians began to move toward direct, nonviolent action. In March 1960, students from LeMoyne College and Owen Junior College organized the first sit-ins in the city. On April 19, 1960, five students demonstrated at the Pink Palace Museum. Allen Stiles, Robert Cox, Ernice Taylor, Barbara Stazes and Ernestine Hill met at LeMoyne College that morning and organizers told them that they would be desegregating the Pink Palace. Other students were sent out on buses and in cars as decoys to draw police attention away from the real protest. The five demonstrators entered the museum around 10:45 AM. According to newspaper accounts, Mary Jo Darden, the office secretary, saw the students enter and asked Ladzar Carrafa, the museum’s porter, to request that they leave. The students ignored him and went upstairs to the exhibit gallery. Next, Darden informed Earl Fuller, the director of the museum’s youth department, about the situation. Fuller also asked the students to leave. When the students ignored him and continued looking at the museum exhibits, he called the police and instructed the students to remain in the area. The police arrived and arrested the students. They were taken to the city jail, where they spent the next twenty-four hours before being charged with disturbing the peace, threatened breach of peace, disorderly conduct, and loitering. The Memphis NAACP paid the students’ bonds and provided lawyers.

The next year, eight black attorneys representing 11 men filed a lawsuit against the City of Memphis, the Board of Directors, and the Memphis Park Commission to integrate public facilities. On May 15, 1961, a federal judge approved the Park Commission’s plan to gradually integrate the park system over a 10-year period. The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and requested that the desegregation of the park system occur immediately. However, the Appeals Court upheld the lower court’s ruling. The plaintiffs appealed again, and the United States Supreme Court heard the case in May 1963. With regard to the museum, the City attorneys argued that they were not opposed to integrating the museum, but they were worried that ending segregation would violate the original property deed. In his majority opinion, Justice Arthur Goldberg noted that the city did not meet its burden of proof that delaying the integration of the city parks was constitutional. He also stressed that the best way to guarantee civil peace would be to follow and respect the law instead of delaying its application.

The Pink Palace Museum was singled out for individual consideration because of the property deed. The Court ruled that the possibility that the City may lose the property was irrelevant to whether or not the City could constitutionally support segregation and required the City to integrate the museum. In the days following the verdict, the City quietly desegregated the Pink Palace and the remaining segregated parks without any of the feared violence or rioting and without losing the museum property.

Systemic racism has had a lasting legacy on the museum. After the museum was integrated, the exhibits still reflected the history of white Memphians without considering the unique experiences of black or brown citizens. The board of trustees did not begin to include non-white members until 1969. It took several decades for the museum to begin to incorporate African American history into its permanent exhibits. In the early 1980s, the museum developed an exhibit titled “Historic Black Memphians” and published a booklet of the biographies of the men and women included in the exhibit. The museum did maintain a collection of artifacts related to black history, but the collection did not fully represent the African American history of the region. In 2005, staff members created an initiative to systematically collect artifacts that related to the history of African Americans in the Mid-South in order to address this problem. Annual temporary exhibits have highlighted this growing African American collection.

As a museum, we strive for authenticity and recognize the intersections between past and present events. We promote our space as one of learning and dialogue about past and current injustices in hopes of educating ourselves and others to prevent them in the future. Our next steps include expanding our collection to include other non-represented communities, inviting people of color to decide how their stories are told, and including their histories in new permanent exhibits.

In the next post, we will explore the historic ties to slavery and indentured servitude at the Mallory-Neely House and the Magevney House.

All images are from the Pink Palace Museum Collection.

May 2020 - Antarctica Past, Present & Future

May 5 - A Closer Look at The End of The Earth

May 7 - Living at the End of The Earth

May 12 - Meet the Seals

May 14 - Seal Bodies - Adapting to a Harsh, Frigid Climate

May 19 - The Amazing Weddell Seals

May 21 - Warming Waters in Antarctica Could Affect Invertebrates

May 26 - Global Warming and Greenhouse Gases

May 28 - A Greener Antarctica



A Greener Antarctica - May 28, 2020

Greenhouse gases become trapped in the atmosphere and spread to all areas of the globe, regardless of where their emission occurred. These gases not only effect the temperature and acidity levels of the Antarctic waters, but also the temperature levels on land. Antarctica is covered in many sheets of ice, and as temperatures rise, the ice is melting away, allowing vegetation to grow.

Antarctica was not always a frozen desert. Fossils uncovered by scientists and explorers have revealed that Antarctica was once a lush land with many thriving plant species. Fast forward millions of years and we can see that the climate has changed dramatically. However, even though Antarctica is the coldest, driest, iciest, highest, and windiest continent, that does not mean it is completely devoid of plant life. Mosses have been growing on the northernmost, rocky stretches of land near the Antarctic peninsula for thousands of years. The coastline there tends to be warmer and wetter than areas inland, which creates a more hospitable environment for the mosses. However, with the warming climate, mosses are now spreading and growing in areas that used to be uninhabitable for them. Principal investigator, David Beilman, and his team are examining ancient moss beds to better understand the conditions in which they thrived. With that knowledge, they hope to uncover what a warmer and greener Antarctica will look like in the future.

Moss grows in a stratified, or layered, manner. This means that new moss grows on top of the old, partially decomposed moss from long ago. The cold temperatures keep the old moss from completely decomposing. This preserves the ecological and environmental history of the time in which the moss lived, effectively creating what Beilman describes as “little time capsules frozen in the past” (Lucibella). When Beilman’s team study these ancient mosses, they take deep samples of the peat using a drill to remove cores from the Earth. The layers of moss can be several feet thick which can equate to thousands of years of ecological information. To date the samples, they use radiocarbon dating which compares different carbon isotopes in the sample taken. The team is also taking samples of black moss. Black moss refers to, the dead plants that were once covered by a glacier. Climate change causes the ice to melt, exposing the black moss once again after many years.

Beilman and his team are also studying the rocky cliffside moss with drones and thermal cameras to track whether the mosses are becoming too hot. The surface area of hot moss can have around a 30-degree temperature difference from the surrounding environment. This greatly effects the sensitive organisms that live near the moss because it reradiates the heat it takes in from the sun out onto the organisms.

When moss becomes too hot, it also effects how much carbon dioxide the moss pulls out of the air. The heat stunts the moss’s growth and makes it unable to take in carbon dioxide. It merely survives. Beilman estimates that of the near 300 square kilometers of moss in Antarctica, the moss removes around 30,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere per year. Therefore, if mosses become too hot in Antarctica, the amount of carbon taken from the atmosphere will lower significantly. This leaves a greater amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. To monitor the rising heat levels and patches of moss, two weather stations have been established near Palmer station. They focus their attention on the specific microclimates of mosses and collect data across different weather conditions to gather more information on the changing situation. With that knowledge, they hope to apply what they have learned to other moss sites across the Antarctic peninsula.

But why should we care about what goes on in Antarctica? Does is really matter what happens there? Yes! Even though geographically we are very far removed from Antarctica, we can still feel the ripple-effect of what happens at the South Pole across the globe. Glacial melting has raised sea levels. Extreme weather, including tornadoes, floods, ice storms, and hurricanes to name a few, have become more common. Habitats and ecosystems have been lost. All of these have occurred due to greenhouse gas emissions that warm the Earth and spur on climate change. Knowing the impact we make on multiple areas of the world, including the Antarctic, is the first step to creating a positive change that can help repair some of the damage done.

We hope you have enjoyed taking a closer look at Antarctica with us these past few weeks. Let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!


Lucibella, Michael, and Antarctic Sun Editor. “Masses of Mosses.” The Antarctic Sun Science News, 2020, https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/science/4420/


Photo Credits:

Derek Ford Collecting Samples – Mike Lucibella

Peat Samples – Mike Lucibella

Drone – Mike Lucibella

Mound of Peat – Mike Lucibella


Global Warming and Greenhouse Gases - May 26, 2020

As climate change continues to become a global issue, more and more research on greenhouse gases is being conducted. Greenhouse gases become trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, which distributes heat across the globe, regardless of where the emission occurred. This creates a number of problems with changing temperatures, including the warming of oceans. However, greenhouse gases not only effect the temperature of waters but also the chemistry of the oceans. The oceans absorb the greenhouse gases as well as the heat they produce in the atmosphere, causing the water to become more acidic. Charles Amsler and James McClintock, co-principal investigators, and their team at Palmer station, Antarctica are studying rising acidity levels in the Southern Ocean.

Antarctic waters are more susceptible to the absorption of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide because cold waters absorb the gases more efficiently than warmer waters. Now, the Southern Ocean acidity levels rest at around 8.1 on the pH scale, which measures how acidic or basic substances are on a scale of 0 to 14. The closer to 0, the more acidic something is. The closer to 14, the more basic something is. Neutral substances are near the middle point of 7. If acidity levels rise in the Southern Ocean by merely one point on the scale, this can have a major effect on the creatures who live there. Hannah Oswalt, a PhD student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and member of Amsler and McClintock’s team explains this perfectly, stating “If you go down one point on the logarithmic scale, that’s 10 times more acidic. So, it’s a really big difference even though on paper it may not look like a huge difference.” (Lucibella)

Amsler and McClintock’s team is focusing on how rising acidity levels effect marine amphipods, which are tiny crustaceans. Even though these crustaceans are very small, they play an important role, or niche, in the Southern Ocean’s niche ecosystems. Amphipods are consumed by larger fish and invertebrates, but they also have developed a symbiotic relationship with macroalgae, or seaweeds, which allows these niche ecosystems to thrive. A symbiotic relationship like the one between amphipods and macroalgae means that it is a mutually beneficial relationship. These Antarctic amphipods live in macroalgae forests, which helps shield them from predators. Fish that consume the crustaceans do not like the taste of the seaweeds, so the crustaceans are protected.

In return for their safety, amphipods provide a very important service to the seaweed forests. The crustaceans eat species that are even smaller than they are, which like to live on the blades of the macroalgae. If the amphipods did not eat the smaller creatures, the macroalgae could be eaten or they would not have enough light and nutrients to thrive. The abundance of amphipods in the Antarctic macroalgae forests is unlike anywhere else in the world and Amsler and McClintock’s team are capitalizing on this by studying how they would adapt to rising acidity levels.

To examine the crustaceans, the team collects different crustacean species from a number of areas near Palmer station. Once in the lab, they place the creatures in tanks that have different acidity levels on the pH scale. The team hopes to understand more clearly which species collected are best able to adapt to the changing levels and which are most vulnerable. When the water becomes more acidic, it negatively affects the amphipods’ ability to pull dissolved calcium out of the water. They use the dissolved calcium to form their exoskeletons which acts as a hard, protective shell for the crustaceans. Therefore, more acidic waters mean it’s difficult for the amphipods to create their shells. In addition, when they are under stress, as when they molt their outgrown shells, amphipods are dying in more acidic waters. Amsler and McClintock’s team is still working to uncover why this could be happening.

For our final May entry, we will take a closer look at what happens to the Antarctic landscape as greenhouse gases warm the continent, including a somewhat unexpected result: Antarctica is turning greener.


Lucibella, Michael, and Antarctic Sun Editor. “Facing The Ultimate Acid Test.” The Antarctic Sun Science News, 2020, https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/science/4423/


Photo Credits:

Hannah Oswalt Checking Temperature – Mike Lucibella

Macroalgae – Bill Baker

Amphipod – Maggie Amsler

Temperature Tanks – Mike Lucibella

Warming Waters in Antarctica Could Affect Invertebrates - May 21, 2020

The continent of Antarctica is one of the coldest places on Earth, but in the ancient past it has been warm, and thanks to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, it is changing again.

Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a blanket of warmth across the globe. The four main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. These gases can be emitted through several processes including the burning of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, the decaying of organic wastes, and through various industrial and agricultural processes. When light and heat enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they warm the planet, but these gases act like a greenhouse, trapping this heat inside the atmosphere, and heat the Earth further. A blanket of warmth may sound like a nice comfort for Earth, but in reality, the heat speeds up dangerous processes like climate change.


Climate change can be observed in different ways, including through the rise of ocean temperatures. Oceans absorb most of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions This affects many marine species and ecosystems. The warmth can cause the bleaching of corals and the loss of breeding grounds for fish and marine mammals. The Southern Ocean around Antarctica will not be immune to any negative warming effects. Scientists at McMurdo station are investigating how ocean temperature changes could affect the invertebrates who live there.

For millions of years, the Southern Ocean has maintained a consistent temperature year-round, with less than a one-degree Celsius change from summer to winter months. This stability is very important to the creatures who live in the Southern Ocean because they have evolved to rely on this consistency. For species elsewhere on Earth, a few degrees change in the water temperature may not be too troubling because their environment goes through a wider range of water temperature changes throughout the year. However, for Antarctic species, a few degrees could be the difference between normal and abnormal development, because they have not had time to adapt to the change.


Principle investigator, Amy Moran, and her team at McMurdo station are studying invertebrates because of the wide diversity available in the Southern Ocean. Invertebrates do not have backbones and make up most of the animals in the Southern Ocean excluding seals, penguins, and fish. These scientists are examining embryos and newly-hatched invertebrates because they are curious about the developmental changes that could occur in different water temperatures. Warmer temperatures can speed up the development of the creature’s metabolisms in their eggs which causes them to mature faster than normal. A faster maturity rate means that the invertebrate consumes the yolk reserves in their egg too fast, which can stunt development. Therefore, the newly-hatched invertebrate could emerge smaller than expected and face new challenges including a higher susceptibility to predators and a higher risk of starvation.

To more closely examine these future developmental issues, Moran and her team are gathering multiple samples of invertebrates throughout the seasons and bringing them back to their lab. There, they place the samples into different temperature-controlled environments to observe any changes as they grow. They can measure the embryo sizes and how long it takes each embryo to reach each stage of development, providing much information on whether the embryo is developing any abnormalities. One way these scientists can detect an abnormality is by looking at the embryo’s shape. Healthy embryos are symmetrical and have cells that match and are the same size. Abnormal embryos are asymmetrical and irregular.

Oceans not only absorb the heat from greenhouse gases but also the gases themselves, including large amounts of carbon dioxide. This absorption can cause the waters to become more acidic, which also has a negative effect on the creatures who live in them. Next week, we will continue exploring climate change, by discussing research that is being conducted on the rising ocean acidity levels and how that effects crustaceans.

Lucibella, Michael, and Antarctic Sun Editor. “Larvae La Vida Loca.” Th Antarctic Sun Science News, 2020, https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/science/4413/

Photo Credits:

Greenhouse Gas Emission Chart – EPA.gov

Sea Spider – Mike Lucibella

Research Team – Mike Lucibella

Sea Spider Embryos – Mike Lucibella

The Amazing Weddell Seals - May 19, 2020

As mentioned in our Thursday entry, Weddell seals have some amazing adaptions that help them thrive in Antarctica. These adaptions influence Weddell behavior including how they dive, what they eat, how they raise their pups, and how they interact with one another. Now, let’s take a closer look at these behaviors and see what we can discover!

Diving Deeper

Weddells are excellent swimmers. Their fusiform body shape helps them glide underwater while their hind flippers open and close to create thrust-based locomotion, which speeds them forward. Weddells can dive up to 2,000 feet and can swim more than 6.5 feet a second. To put this into perspective, the deepest dive undertaken by a human without scuba gear was 702 feet, completed by Herbert Nitsch. Also, humans only swim on average at 1.8 feet a second. We are definitely no match for these pinnipeds.

To be able to dive 2,000 feet, Weddells can hold their breath for over an hour. When seals need to take another breath, they surface at breathing holes like the one seen here. Large amounts of oxygen help provide energy for the Weddells to swim. To extend their diving time, Weddells collapse their lungs so they do not need as much air. The oxygen that would be in their lungs is moved throughout their bodies to increase their energy. The two proteins that carry the oxygen through their bodies are called hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin carries oxygen to the seals’ organs and tissues while myoglobin carries oxygen to the seals’ muscles. Without these two important proteins, Weddells could not dive for extended periods of time.

What’s on the menu?

Diving is not merely a way for Weddell seals to pass the time. Seals dive to search for food. Weddells are carnivores which means they only eat meat. Scientists know they are carnivores through careful observation of their eating habits and teeth. Weddells have canines, post canines, and incisors that all serve a different purpose. Canines are long, sharp, pointed teeth that are used to quickly grab their prey and firmly hold it. Post canines help the Weddells get their food down. Typically, Weddells swallow their food whole so they do not use them for grinding their prey. The incisors, called “ice reavers,” have a special purpose. Seals use them to “ream” or break through the ice to keep their breathing holes open.

The most common fish eaten by Weddell seals are Antarctic Silverfish. A Weddell can swallow over 100 of these fish whole in a single dive. Other staples of a Weddell’s diet include Borch, Antarctic Cod, squid, shrimp, and krill. Borch are a small fish that Weddells quickly devour. To catch the Borch, Weddells blow air bubbles into the breathing holes to scare them out of their hiding places.

Pregnancy and Pups 

Every October and November, pregnant Weddells haul out on the ice to give birth to their pups. Weddells usually have one pup a year but some Weddells do skip the breeding cycle. Scientists refer to these Weddells as “skip breeders”. Because the pupping cycle is so consistent, all Weddells have birthdays in October and November. These spring months are warmer and more suited for pup rearing.

Pups are born with a downy layer of light gray fur called lanugo, which helps keep them warm in the Antarctic spring. However, as the pups grow and the summer approaches, they molt their lanugo and trade it for dense, silver-gray fur. The summer months of January and February are the height of Weddell molting and new coats shine in the warm sun.

Talk the Talk

Weddells are the most vocal of all the seal species. In fact, some Weddells make 20 calls per minute! Males are more vocal than the females and they use their calls to attract females, compete with other males, and defend their breathing holes. Scientists are fascinated by these calls and have even learned to identify 34 different Weddell sounds. Some of the sound names include chi-chi-chi, too-loo, mew, guttural glug, and what-chunk. This data helps scientists learn more about the temperament of the seals and the dynamic between them.

Now that we have learned so much about life in Antarctica through learning how scientists live and work at McMurdo station, and examining the Weddell seals who call the continent their home, we will now shift our focus to look at the impact climate change makes to this ecosystem. Our next entry will focus on the warming of oceans around the world and how temperature changes in the Antarctic could affect even the tiniest creatures who live there, and how changes in the Antarctic could affect the whole world.


Seal Bodies - Adapting to a Harsh, Frigid Climate - May 14, 2020

Scientists have been researching Weddell seals, the southernmost mammal on Earth, for over 50 years, which has generated much information about how Weddells adapt to their frigid climate. The following are some of the ways in which their bodies are prepared for cold temperatures, dry lands, and deep, dark waters.  

Fur & Blubber

Weddells have short, dense silver-gray fur that helps keep them warm throughout the year. However, after an entire year of use, their fur becomes dry and brown. To encourage new fur growth, Weddells sunbathe in the spring and summer months, which are October-February in the Antarctic. Sunbathing helps the seals molt, or shed, their fur. The sun may not feel warm to the scientists studying the seals, but for Weddells, the sunshine is perfect.

Blubber is another adaption that helps keep Weddells warm. Blubber is a layer of fat, sometimes inches thick, that Weddells store as an insulator for their bodies. An adult Weddell’s body usually consists of about 30-40% fat which keeps them nice and toasty.

However, Weddell pups do not have these same adaptions. When Weddells are first born on Antarctic ice shelves, they have light gray coats with many fluffy, heat-trapping, downy hairs called lanugo. While these coats definitely help keep the pups warm, this is the only known method Weddell pups have for surviving the harsh temperatures. Scientists at McMurdo station are curious about what other adaptions these small creatures have. They do not have thick layers of blubber like adult Weddells or a special fat called brown fat that some other species of seal possess. Not only that, scientists want to know what makes a pup ready to dive into the frigid water. To better understand this, scientists are examining the pups’ metabolisms on the ice and in the water. Mammal’s bodies use energy to stay warm.  When the seals are able to stay in the water without using too much energy, then scientists know they are ready to take extended plunges because the water is not too cold for them.

Body Shape & Flippers

Weddell seals have a sleek, fusiform body shape. This means they are round and compressed at the main part of their bodies but tapered at both their heads and tails. Having a fusiform body shape makes Weddells excellent swimmers. They may seem like big hulks on the ice, but in the water, Weddells are very agile.

Their unique flippers also help propel them through the icy waters. Weddell seals have two types of flippers: fore flippers and hind flippers. Fore flippers are located near the mid-section of the seal while the hind flippers are located near the tip of the tail. Both sets of flippers are webbed which help these mighty seals move across the ice and accelerate through the water. When they swim, seals spread one hind flipper open and keep one hind flipper closed which speeds them forward through a process called thrust-based locomotion.


When studying Weddell eyes, there were a few differences discovered between Weddell eyes and ours. The first is that Weddell eyes are almost twice as big as human eyes. Weddells also have very large, brown irises. The size of the eye and iris both allow Weddells to collect the most light possible which is needed when they dive in the deep, dark ocean. Another difference is the number of cones their eyes possess in their eyes. Cones are the photoreceptor cells on the retinas which “see” color. Humans have three sets of cones while seals only have two sets. This means that Weddells may actually have trouble seeing different colors and may be color-blind.


A Weddell’s nostril flare is about as large as a quarter. This may not seem large, but compared to a human’s, it is huge. When on land, Weddell seals use these large nostrils to sniff out the location of their mates and pups. Weddells also use their nostrils to maintain their body temperature and hydration levels. During mating and pupping season, Weddells fast, which makes this adaption extremely important to their survival.



Weddell seals have three types of whiskers: superciliary, rhinal, and mystacial whiskers. Superciliary whiskers are over the seal’s eyes, rhinal whiskers are near the seal’s nose, and mystacial whiskers are on the seal’s snout. As they grow, the whiskers incorporate molecules and isotopes from the creatures that they eat into the whiskers. Researchers collect Weddell whiskers to track their diets over a long period of time. Weddells use their whiskers to detect the slightest movements in the water which helps them find food and swim safely.

Next week, we will explore Weddell behavior including how Weddells dive deep into the Antarctic waters, what and how Weddells eat, pregnancy and pup rearing, and how a Weddell “speaks”.

Meet the Seals - May 12, 2020

In the early 19th century, British explorer, Captain James Weddell, voyaged into the Antarctic. On his third journey, Weddell broke the record for the southernmost exploration, a title previously held by Captain James Cook. This important explorer went on to become the namesake of the sea that he travelled through and the unique seals that scientists now research at McMurdo station: the Weddell seals.

Weddells are part of the Animalia kingdom, the Chordata phylum, and the Mammalia class. This means that they are animals with backbones who are warm-blooded, have live births, nurse their young, breathe air, and have hair. They are mammals like us! In fact, Weddell seals are the southernmost mammal in the world.

Within the Mammalia class, Weddells also belong to the pinniped family. Pinnipeds are a group of marine mammals who live both on land and at sea. Some of their family members include walruses, other seals, and sea lions. All pinnipeds are mammals, carnivores, and have webbed flippers which help them swim and move on land. Actually, the word pinniped means “fin-footed” or “feather-footed,” referring to these unique appendages. When seals move out of the water onto land, it is referred to as “hauling out” onto the ice.  In the warmer (but still cold) Antarctic summer, they haul out to breed on ice shelves, and it is during this time that scientists are most able to study the Weddells.

Scientists have been studying Weddell seals at McMurdo station for over 50 years. The main reason for this is because it is so easy study them. Pregnant Weddells consistently haul out on the ice in the same place every year to give birth. The specific area that they choose is near McMurdo station, so scientists have a front row seat to observe the mothers and their pups. The ice where these mothers haul out is called “fast ice” which is a frozen layer of the ocean that is several feet thick. This allows researchers to drive vehicles across the ice to get an even closer look at the early development of Weddells. Not many species can be observed this completely, so it really is important for scientists to take advantage of this opportunity.

Weddells are not only easily accessible for researchers to study, they are also very friendly and easy to work with. Weddells do not have any natural predators at their breeding site so they do not feel concerned when the scientists approach them. This greatly improves the amount and kind of research that scientists can undertake.

When working with the friendly Weddells, scientists measure their length and weight. When measuring the length of a Weddell, scientists take two measurements called the standard length and the curve length of the seal. The standard length is calculated by holding the tape measurer in a straight line directly above the seal, from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. The one thing to keep in mind is that the tip of the tail is not actually the very end of the seal. A Weddell’s hind flippers extend out from the tip of the tail, which means the full length of the seal is actually greater than the measured length.  

The curve length is calculated by measuring the curvature of the seal’s body, from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. To do this, scientists measure individual sections of the seal, say from the tip of the nose to the ears and then the neck, and so on to gather the complete curve length. Because the curve length is measured directly onto the seal rather than above like the standard length, the curve length is always longer than the standard length. Seals usually measure somewhere between 8 and 11.5 feet long.

Measuring the length of a seal is easy enough because the Weddells are so friendly, but regardless of how friendly, measuring the weight of a seal can be challenging. Many Weddells weigh over 1,000 pounds! Because scientists cannot simply ask the seals to hop onto a scale, weighing Weddells is very tricky. However, to battle this obstacle, scientists use a sling to lift the seal onto the scale.

In some ways, humans could not be any more different from Weddells. The average height and weight of a human is around 5.2-5.6 feet tall and 137 pounds. Our population sizes are also dramatically different. There are around 7.5 billion people in the world and only around 800,000 Weddell seals. The life span of a seal is also unlike ours. Humans on average live to be around 71 years old while Weddells live to be between 22 and 30 years old.  Despite these differences, Weddells are very much like us. We both have strong group ties and have adaptions that help us thrive. Studying Weddell seals teaches us more about surviving harsh ecosystems like the Antarctic.  

Our next entry will delve more into the unique features a seal possesses which have allowed them to adapt to Antarctica’s frigid, windy, and dry continent including their fur, blubber, fins, and sensational senses.






Living at the End of the Earth - May 7, 2020

The Antarctic is one of the harshest regions on our planet, and while there are many animals born with what it takes to survive there, humans are not naturally suited to this climate. However, scientists often travel to the Antarctic, and to survive there they use equipment and behavior that mimics some of the natural adaptations of Antarctic animals. Before we can learn about some of the scientific projects that are underway, we must prepare for life at the ends of the Earth.

In 1841, Sir James Clark Ross was on an Antarctic expedition. The British naval captain had served on several voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic, and in 1841 he discovered an island. This island, named Ross Island after the captain, is the southernmost island reachable by sea.  

Ross Island is home to the largest settlement in the Antarctic, McMurdo Station. McMurdo Station was originally built as an air base by the US Navy’s SeaBees but is now a purely scientific operation in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty. Just miles from where Robert Falcon Scott began his journey across the continent, McMurdo Station is the primary first stop for anyone headed to the South Pole and is home to around 1,250 people in the summer.  Pink Palace educator Alex Eilers was one of these visitors during three different Antarctic summers. 

In order to keep these residents warm, McMurdo Station requires a huge amount of power. For about a decade in the 1960s, the station relied on a small nuclear reactor to supply its heat and electricity!  In 1972, the reactor was dismantled, and the station turned to diesel generators to keep the power coming.  In 2009, three wind turbines were added, which cover around 11% of the station’s power.

Survival in the Antarctic requires more than just a good heating system, though.  Animals are protected from the cold thanks to some incredible adaptations. Seals and orcas, for instance, have a thick layer of blubber all around their bodies which can be several inches thick. To mimic adaptations like this, humans really have to bundle up. When bundling for cold weather, it’s not enough just to wear a lot of clothes, you have to get the order of layers right. If you sweat too much you can become dehydrated, or even make yourself colder!

To avoid this, it’s important that you start with a layer of lightweight, breathable material, like long underwear, as your innermost later. This helps wick moisture away from your skin so it doesn’t get trapped there. For your next layer, use an insulating material like wool to keep you warm. This is the layer that will trap the most heat. Finally, on the outermost layer, Antarctic scientists must shield as much of their body as they can from the wind and snow. Goggles, gloves, thick boots, and a waterproof jacket help make this shield complete. In Antarctica, almost every scientist wears one of the bright, puffy coats you see in this picture, referred to as a “Big Red.” Produced by Canada Goose, these distinctive coats are some of the best cold weather equipment and are one of the unofficial symbols of Antarctic science programs today. 

Moving around these heavy layers and working all day long in the hostile conditions of the frozen continent takes a lot of energy. On top of the exertion from work and wearing so much weight, the body also burns calories staying warm. This means that if you’re in Antarctica, you have to eat much more food to keep your energy up. While most of our daily diets are recommended to be around 2,000 calories, in Antarctica this doubles to around 4,000. A full-size chocolate bar has a little over 200 calories, which means you could eat an additional ten chocolate bars each day! 

While this is great news for foodies living at McMurdo station, the cooks in the station face a unique obstacle. Antarctica is too cold and dry to grow crops or keep livestock, and the Antarctic Treaty forbids hunting or fishing, so no seals or fish can be caught for McMurdo’s mess hall. Once a year, a ship arrives with the station’s food. This ship arrives in the early year, during the Antarctic summer when seas are still navigable, and delivers huge quantities of frozen and dried food. The 2016 shipment contained 800 crates of food, totaling close to one million pounds!

It takes a lot of packaging to move and store this food, but the Antarctic Treaty forbids waste disposal on the continent. That means the same lucky ship that brought the food picks up any trash or waste that isn’t recycled at the station and takes it back to the United States. Before loading this ship, waste is screened and processed into small biosolid cakes by machines like the big green “Muffin Monster” in the picture.  

While the supply of food brought by this ship will keep the station stocked all year, there are sometimes deliveries of fresh food, too. During the summer, there are weekly flights from Christchurch, New Zealand, bringing equipment, people, and food.  These flights are frequently delayed by harsh weather, but when they land and have space for fresh food, it’s a much-anticipated treat.

McMurdo station, like most of the continent, lies largely dormant for half of the year. Once the dead of Antarctic winter sets in, the landscape is plunged into perpetual darkness. Winds pick up and temperatures drop. In August, the coldest month of the year for McMurdo, temperatures have an average low of –25 degrees Fahrenheit. With these extremes, few people stay the winter, and from February to August, McMurdo’s population drops to around 150 people. This skeleton crew overwinters, keeping the station safe through the coldest months of endless night. When light returns, it brings 24-hour sunlight instead.

In this eternal summer, seals heave themselves onto ice shelves to breed, young penguins plunge into the warmer seas to feed, and scores of research teams make their way to McMurdo station. The station springs to life as the home base for some of the most groundbreaking science being done today.

In our next entries, we’ll dig into some of the research being done in Antarctic, including a project studying Weddell Seals that Alex Eilers from the Pink Palace has traveled all the way to Antarctica to work on!

A Closer Look at the End of the Earth - May 5, 2020

Over a hundred years ago, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott led the first two expeditions to reach the South Pole.  With dog sleds, fur coats, and compasses, it was a grueling journey that claimed many lives, including that of Scott himself, who succumbed to the devastating cold of Antarctica on his return journey from the pole.

Today, exploration and science in the Antarctic looks very different.  Join us this month to take a closer look at the harsh continent, the life that flourishes there, and the techniques scientists use to conduct experiments to learn more about it.

A Superlative Continent

Antarctica is the southernmost continent on our planet, and that’s far from the only title it holds.  It’s also the coldest, windiest, highest, driest, and iciest continent. 

At the South Pole, it rarely climbs above –14 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the middle of summer when the sun never sets, and it can dip down to –71 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter! This frigid air is whipped around by knifelike winds, which pull snow off the polar plateau and barrel towards the coast at up to 185 miles per hour, causing massive snowdrifts and blizzards like the one that killed Robert Scott. Despite all this snow blowing around, very little falls as precipitation. The entire continent only receives an average of 6.5 inches of water falling from clouds each year. Compare this to Memphis, which receives over 54! This classifies Antarctica as a desert, even though it is covered in a nearly solid layer of ice and snow. This icy layer sits on a rocky landmass, unlike the ice at the North Pole, which covers the Arctic Sea. This landmass is about the size of the United States and Mexico combined, and the ice spreads into thick sheets over the ocean as well, shrinking in the summer, and growing exponentially in the frigid cold of winter. This layer of ice can be miles thick stacked on the surface of Antarctica, which is already rippled through with jagged mountain ranges and high plateaus, making Antarctica’s altitude an average of 8,200 feet above sea level. The entire continent is thousands of feet higher than the Appalachian Mountains.

With a landscape that sounds and feels like something from an alien planet, it’s a wonder that any life can survive at all!  The life that does is full of adaptations that are wonderful and strange and very different from life in our region. Most of this life depends on the Antarctic Sea, which remains a balmy 28-50 degrees year round. This sea is teeming with all kinds of life, from krill to orca whales, to the animals like penguins that live some of their life on the icy sheets above water, but depend on the sea for food.

The Antarctic Treaty

One animal that is particularly ill suited to life in Antarctica is the homo sapien.  This hairless ape has neither the blubber of seals nor the insulating feathers of penguins. Humans cannot hold their breath long enough to dive for food, and farming on the continent is impossible. Human eyes are not able to adjust to the harsh light of the 24 hour summer sun reflected off the snow or the 24 hour darkness of winter. Thus, despite the hopes of imperial powers at the time of early Antarctic exploration, it is not suitable for the expansion of national territory. 

This led twelve nations to draft the Antarctic Treaty sixty years ago.  Many treaties and government documents stretch on until they’re the size of a small book, but the Antarctic Treaty is a mere 12 pages. In this surprisingly short amount of text, the treaty establishes a mode of governance for a landmass that makes up around 9% of the Earth’s surface! It also shows an amazing amount of global cooperation towards an aim of peaceful scientific understanding, including comprehensive environmental protections and bans on territorial claims, military activity, and nuclear weapons and waste. This was effectively the first nuclear arms ban in history and has helped preserve the continent for scientific research.

Its preamble states “It is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord [and] acknowledging the substantial contributions to scientific knowledge resulting from international cooperation in scientific investigation in Antarctica.” This noble aim was first agreed upon by the twelve nations that had either laid claim to or are closest to the continent: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, United States, and USSR (now Russia).  By 2020, more nations have signed on to the treaty, bringing its count to 54. The treaty has since been expanded, to include even stricter environmental regulations and bans on mining of mineral resources for reasons other than scientific research.  This treaty has inspired more recent agreements outside of Antarctica, such as the Outer Space Treaty that was signed just eight years later.

In the sixty years since the treaty was signed, Antarctica has been the temporary home to many scientists, who have pushed the boundaries of their fields to discover more about both the continent and our world.  Sometimes these scientists look back into time, researching the ancient warm jungles that existed when Antarctica was home to dinosaurs like the “Elvisaurus” (named for its distinctive head crest), and at other times they look to the future, studying how the melting of these massive ice sheets might have dire consequences for life all around the globe as the planet warms.

In the words of Jill Mikuci, a microbial ecologist at the University of Tennessee, “There's just something about the rigor and the way science is done down there. I love the collaboration and I love the energy of making impossible projects work. It's just a really exciting, powerful thing to be a part of...The research that they're doing is really important, it's really interesting, and it's critical. These are fundamental questions about how our planet works.” (Lucibella)

Through the month of May, we’re diving into some of the work being done in Antarctica today to take a closer look at both the life that lives there and how conditions in Antarctica can help us learn about life worldwide.


Lucibella, Michael, and Antarctic Sun Editor. “50 Years of Women in Antarctica.” The Antarctic Sun Science News, 2019, antarcticsun.usap.gov/features/4407/.

Photo Credits

Volcanic Ice Tower -  Alex Eilers

Mount Erebus, Earth’s Southernmost Volcano - Alex Eilers

The Flag of the Antarctic Treaty -  Alakasam

Snowmobiles are the best way to get around Antarctica -  Alex Eilers

April 2020 - Yellow Fever

April 2 - A Brief Introduction to the American Plague 

April 7 - First Responders – Organizations in Motion

April 9 - Help from Unlikely People

April 14 - The Disease – Spread, Symptoms, Treatment

April 16 - Evacuation & Quarantine

April 21 - Economic Effects 

April 23 - Assessing the Toll

April 28 - Reform & After-Effects

April 30 - Discovering the Cause

Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 30, 2020

Discovering the Cause

Discovering causes to epidemics and pandemics has always been important to the scientific and health communities. In the case of Yellow Fever, there were many speculations as to what caused the disease and how it spread. It was not until 1900 that the truth was revealed. Let’s talk history.

The Conquest of Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever had been prevalent in Cuba and other tropical islands long before it came to the United States. Many men and women helped in discovering the cause of Yellow Fever through the Yellow Fever Commission which was tasked with definitively discovering the cause of the plague. They conducted the majority of their experiments in Cuba.

Carlos Juan Finlay 1833 – 1915

Carlos Finlay was the Cuban doctor who first proposed that mosquitos were the carriers of Yellow Fever and Malaria. He presented his theory at the 1881 International Sanitary Conference in Havana and a year later identified a mosquito of the genus Aedes as the organism responsible for transmitting Yellow Fever. He recommended reducing the mosquito population to control the spread of the disease. His hypothesis and proofs were confirmed 20 years later by the Yellow Fever Commission of 1900. Although Dr. Walter Reed received much of the credit in history books for “beating” Yellow Fever, Reed himself credited Dr. Finlay with the discovery of the Yellow Fever transmitter, and how it might be controlled.

Major Walter Reed 1851 – 1902

During the Spanish-American War of 1898, more American soldiers died of Yellow Fever, Malaria, and other diseases than from combat. After the war, these illnesses continued to sicken both the Cuban population and American occupation forces. The US Army Surgeon General appointed Major Walter Reed, M.D. to head a Yellow Fever Commission to investigate the cause of the disease and identify ways to prevent it. In a series of experiments beginning in 1900, the commission proved that Yellow Fever was not caused by poor sanitation but by the female Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes which carried the virus from person to person through their bites.

To confirm their conclusions, the commission disproved theories that yellow fever was caused by a bacterium or was transmitted by direct contact with soiled clothing worn by infected patients. In a letter Reed wrote to his wife, he describes the building designed to test the mosquito theory. Reed and his team also demonstrated that mosquitoes only picked up the Yellow Fever virus if they fed on a person during the first three days of the infection and could then pass it on to another human after a period of incubation.

Dr. Jesse William Lazear

Dr. Lazear conducted research about Malaria and Yellow Fever at Baltimore’s John Hopkins Hospital before joining the Yellow Fever Commission as a specialist in infectious diseases. The team investigated how the disease was transmitted by examining three possible routes—transmission of bacteria through the air, direct contact with infected clothing or bedding, or by bites of infected mosquitoes. Lazear allowed himself to be bitten by an infected mosquito, became very ill and died from the disease.

Lena Angevine Warner 1869 – 1948

Lena Angevine Warner recovered from Yellow Fever as a child, trained in Memphis to become a nurse and assisted Dr. Walter Reed with his experiments. Lena was born in Grenada, MS and as an 8-year-old, was the only member of her immediate family to survive the 1877 epidemic there. In 1889, she was part of the first class to graduate from the Memphis Training School for Nurses. She studied further in Chicago and in 1898 became the first superintendent of nurses at the new City of Memphis Hospital. She led a team of Memphis nurses to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, became the chief executive nurse of the island and the first woman with an officer’s rank in the US Army. She returned in 1900 to join the Yellow Fever Commission as the nurse in charge of the experiments. Afterwards, she returned to Memphis to serve a long career in public health and community service.

Clara Maass 1876 – 1901

Clara Maass was an American nurse who cared for sick and wounded soldiers on the battlefields of Manila and Cuba. While in Havana, she volunteered for the Yellow Fever Commission experiments. She was bitten by a mosquito infected with the virus and came down with a very light case of the disease. It was such a mild case that the doctors did not believe she would be immune. Six months later, she volunteered to be bitten a second time, became seriously ill and died.

Major General William Gorgas, M.D. 1854 – 1920

As a young Army physician in Texas, William Gorgas suffered a serious bout of Yellow Fever, and thereafter was called upon to fight outbreaks of this and other infectious diseases throughout his career. After the occupation of Cuba in 1898, Gorgas became chief sanitary officer of Havana, where Yellow Fever had existed for three centuries. When the Yellow Fever Commission proved that mosquitoes were the carriers of the fever, Gorgas fought to eradicate mosquitos from Havana. He ordered fever patients to be quarantined, had every building in the city fumigated and drained collections of water where mosquitoes might breed. By 1902, there were no further reported cases. He went on to direct a campaign against Yellow Fever and Malaria in Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal.

While Memphis and Havana would see fewer and fewer cases of Yellow Fever, it wasn’t until 1951 that Max Theiler created a vaccine, winning the Nobel Prize.  Yet there is still no cure, and Yellow Fever can be found in many warm, humid areas throughout the world.  We hope you have enjoyed this closer look into the Yellow Fever Epidemics. Let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!

Let's Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 28, 2020

Reforms & After Effects

The Start of Something New

Once the dust settled after the 1878 epidemic, a sense of urgency for much needed reforms spread over the city.  Memphis newspapers called on city officials for change on a daily basis. While the cause for yellow fever would not be discovered until 1900, the city leaders understood that part of the problem and what aided the spread of Yellow Fever in 1878 was poor sanitary conditions.

One of the major aftereffects to come out of the 1878 epidemic was the understanding that strong local, state, and national boards of health were needed. The National Board of Health was established during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. Its purpose was to stop the introduction of contagious and infectious diseases into the US. Its work continues today within the CDC and FEMA. The National Board of Health would order a sanitary survey of the city of Memphis. Dr. Robert W. Mitchell was a member of the special committee that was authorized to make house-to-house inspections. The report would list a few recommendations that would need to be carried out by the local Board of Health.

A New Form of Government

On January 31, 1879, Tennessee Governor Albert S. Marks signed an act abolishing the charter of the city of Memphis because the population had dropped to less than thirty-five thousand. He then signed a second act establishing the Taxing District of Shelby County, a commission form of municipal government, with D.T. Porter as its president. Under the same act that established the new government of the Taxing District, the Tennessee legislature organized a permanent Board of Health in Memphis with the authority to initiate health reforms and enforce health ordinances.


The city of Memphis is the first community in the US to have a separate collection system for sanitary sewage and surface drainage. After the epidemics in the 1870s, Memphis recognized the need to separate their sanitary sewage from their water resources. The National Health Board hired Col. George W. Waring, Jr. as the civil engineer tasked with designing a system that would provide separate drains for sewage and surface water runoff. By 1900 Memphis had 152 miles of working sewer lines.

Memphis also worked on creating a safe source of drinking water.  In 1883, Bolen-House Machine and Lake Ice Company began experimental drilling in the Memphis area for ice production. In May 1887, the company’s well on Court Street “suddenly gushed forth clear, cool, good-tasting water.” After a study confirmed the underground source held an ample supply of water to sustain Memphis’ needs, the city contracted with the newly formed Artesian Water Company to provide its municipal water supply. By 1890, thirty-two Artesian aquifer wells supplied the city with clean, pure drinking water—one of the purest sources anywhere in the US. An aquifer is a natural geographic layer of porous and permeable material through which water flows and is stored. An artesian aquifer is a confined aquifer surrounded by layers of impermeable rock or clay

In 1868, eleven miles of city streets constructed of Nicholson pavement, wooden blocks coated with creosote, rotted in less than a decade and were unsafe for travel after less than a decade of use. By order of the new Board of Health, the Nicholson pavement was taken up. 

By 1886, 22.5 miles of streets were laid using rubble stone, gravel, and granite. By the early 1890s, the city had paved 50 miles of streets in commercial and affluent residential areas. While these efforts to overhaul the terrible sanitary situation helped the overall health of the city, it did not stop Yellow Fever from hitting the city again. It did help to lessen the breeding grounds of the mosquitos, however, so the city would never see epidemics as deadly as the 1870s again.You are invited

You are invited

For the last Yellow Fever post on April 30, you are invited to decide what the topic should be. Is there something or someone you want to know more about from this time period? Were you just so fascinated by a single topic you have to have more information as soon as possible?  We look forward to hearing from you.

Also, let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!

Let's Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 23, 2020

Assessing the Toll

Due to poor sanitation, limited health knowledge, and the nature of Yellow Fever in general, a lot of people passed away during the 1878 epidemic. Today, we are lucky enough to have better amenities, better health standards, and a better understanding of the world around us. But for now, let’s talk history.

The Daily Appeal ran a column listing the previous day’s deaths. Readers at home could compare the listings to that of the 1873 epidemic. It was listed under the title “Comparative Mortuary Table.” It was clear to anyone keeping track that the 1878 Fever was by far the worst epidemic to ever hit Memphis. The Howard Association commented in their notes, “…the Association, on the 14th of August, 1878, was once more summoned to work, this time to face an ordeal, compared with which all previous epidemics were but a brief agony. Between that day and the fourth of November - nearly three months - they were to see 70 per cent of a population of about 19,000 sicken of the fever, and of that number 5,150 die.” This time Yellow Fever spread faster than it had ever before. By the end of the first week, 1,500 people were sick and the mortality averaged 10 a day. By the end of the second week, 3,000 people were sick and the mortality rate jumped to 50 a day. Those numbers only increased as the weeks went on.

There are stories from this time period where in as little as a week, entire families were wiped out, leaving not even one person alive to carry on the family name or legacy. The police department was severely affected as well. Out of a force of 48 officers, 43 had fallen sick, and 10 of them passed away.

Bodies started piling up in the streets and alleys. When the cemeteries could no longer keep up with the amount of fallen Memphians, the bodies were sent to the train station to be transported to St. Louis, home of the nearest incinerator.


Elmwood Cemetery

During the 1873 and the 1878 epidemics, people were dying at an alarming rate. While there were many cemeteries being tasked with dealing with the dead, Elmwood Cemetery is home to many of the Yellow Fever victims.


The Daily Appeal, October 2, 1878

“Sunday some heart-stricken citizens went to Elmwood Cemetery to visit the fresh-made graves and to spread flowers on the hillocks that marked those sacred spots. The graves could not be found, notwithstanding patient searches. Hundreds of coffins have been unloaded at Elmwood during the few three weeks, and owing to the scarcity of gravediggers, burials fell far behind. Those who did not own family plots purchased private graves and were assured that proper burials would take place. However, the gravediggers could not keep up with the death toll and because of the health menace the coffins were interred in long trenches, notwithstanding that private graves had been bought and paid for…”

When you visit Elmwood Cemetery today, there is a large open field with a single marker that reads, “No Man’s Land.” No Man’s Land is home to four public lots where the remains of at 1,400 victims of Yellow Fever lie in mass burial graves.

People such as Annie Cook, Sister Constance, Dr. Armstrong, and many others now find Elmwood Cemetery to be their final resting place.

No Longer a City

Due to the loss of population in Memphis from those who passed away and those who never returned after the epidemic, the city lost its charter and became a taxing district of Nashville. We will talk about that more in our next post so make sure to check back soon!

You are invited

For the last Yellow Fever post on April 30, you are invited to decide what the topic should be. Is there something or someone you want to know more about from this time period? Were you just so fascinated by a single topic you have to have more information as soon as possible?  We look forward to hearing from you.

Also, let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!


Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 21, 2020

Economic Effects

There is never a convenient time for something like Yellow Fever or COVID-19 to happen and when it does, it always comes at a cost. Let’s talk history…

Economic Effect Across the Epidemics

Throughout Memphis history, Yellow Fever seems to always follow a trend of occurring in times of economic hardship. The first outbreak occurred in 1855 and the city was caught completely unprepared because they believed they were too far North to ever be infected. That year, somewhere between 85 and 220 people died from the fever, giving the city of Memphis its first glimpse of what was to come.

1867 Yellow Fever Outbreak

In 1867, the fever struck again. Still reeling from the economic and social fallout of the Civil War, the city was not prepared for another attack of the mosquito-borne illness. Beginning on the Gulf coast, the fever struck Galveston, New Orleans, and slowly crawled up the river. The city’s medical board was hesitant to establish a quarantine; many doctors believed the disease was airborne and no quarantine could contain it.


The city’s physicians and business leaders expressed concern over what establishing a quarantine, and broadcasting Yellow Fever to the public, would mean for the city’s economic future. In a city that relied on the movement of goods along the river and rail lines, quarantine meant economic collapse. A great deal of money was at stake, and if Yellow Fever were proclaimed to be at epidemic levels in the city, many businessmen could be ruined. Indeed, notices of the Fever in the city’s papers frequently brought on an anxiety over what it would mean for business. The fever had struck at a critical time for the region’s cotton growers and cotton factors. With Memphis on lockdown, how could the vital commodity be sold?

The physicians of the city could not agree on what was happening. Some blamed the sudden rash of deaths on intermittent or malarial fever, while others reported the clear symptoms of “Yellow Jack” in their patients: jaundice and black vomit. The quarantine had done little. Warm temperatures, as sometimes prevail in Memphis well into the fall months, enabled mosquitoes to continue to spread the disease.

By late October, the city's papers began to report that the fever was decreasing. The editor of the Appeal attempted to calm the anxiety of planters and cotton merchants. But the death toll had only subsided slightly; deaths were down to 36 for the week from October 20-27.

On October 30th, the long-awaited shift in the weather arrived. Winds came out of the northwest, bringing cool, bracing air to the bluff. The night of the 30th was clear and chilly, and many expected that a frost would soon arrive. On October 31st a frost came, one strong enough to kill green plants still growing in the city’s kitchen gardens. The anxiety of the city’s merchants and journalists began to subside, as it seemed the epidemic would soon end. Despite the dropping temperatures, deaths from Yellow Fever continued.

The following days were cold and wet. Still more frost settled on the muddy streets of the city. Mosquitoes, unable to survive in the increasingly chilly weather, began to die off. The disease was persisting in the built-up parts of the city where mosquitoes continued to live in warmer, indoor environments. The Fever had decreased but was very much still one of the primary causes of death in the city. It was not until early December that the city experienced its last death from Yellow Fever. The epidemic of 1867 had finally come to an end.

1873 Yellow Fever Outbreak

1873 was a bad year for Memphis, and for the United States. The country was in the grip of a financial panic and cotton prices were collapsing. Before the events of the 1930s, the period from 1873 to 1877 was known as the “Great Depression.” To make matters worse, Memphis would be hit by Yellow Fever worse than ever before.

In August, Dr. Nuttall, city health officer, reported to the Board of Aldermen that Yellow Fever had appeared in New Orleans and "it behooves us, therefore, to observe the utmost vigilance and precaution." Though the disease was not yet epidemic, Nuttall remarked, "we may reasonably expect that it will assume that form." The editor of the Appeal was dubious; at the forefront of his concerns were the potential damage that could be done to commerce. Concerned that another panic would "cost not only Memphis, but New Orleans, Nashville and other cities hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars," the New Orleans Picayune was wired to make a comment on the matter. In response, the editor of the Picayune wired back, commenting that there were no deaths from Yellow Fever reported for the week ending August 5th.

The editor of the Appeal, seeking to reassure his readers, responded: "There is no yellow fever in New Orleans, the official statement to our health-officer to the contrary notwithstanding. He has been misinformed, or else the health-officer of New Orleans writes one thing to him and prints another in the papers of that city. Let us not raise the cry of "wolf, wolf," when the ravenous creature is nowhere near. The yellow fever has visited Memphis just twice in her history, and may never visit us again, very likely never will” (Aug. 7, 1873).

A week later, a report from New Orleans brought news of six Yellow Fever deaths. News of cases appearing in Galveston also reached the Bluff City. By September 13th, reports of an outbreak in Shreveport had reached the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff. The New Orleans papers denied the disease had become epidemic; rather, they were sporadic cases, no different from the usual bilious fevers that predominated in the environs of New Orleans during the warmer months. The Appeal reprinted an account from New Orleans explaining these cases away. The situation was not dire; commerce could continue to transpire unimpeded.

The disease spread very rapidly. On September 15th and 16th, Memphians began falling ill with symptoms of the disease. By September 19th, over fifty Memphians had already succumbed. It had been just over a month since the Appeal and the New Orleans papers reassured Memphians the Yellow Fever posed no immediate threat.

Ultimately, the 1873 epidemic killed 2,000 Memphians.

You are invited

For the last Yellow Fever post on April 30, you are invited to decide what the topic should be. Is there something or someone you want to know more about from this time period? Were you just so fascinated by a single topic you have to have more information as soon as possible?  We look forward to hearing from you.

Also, let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!


Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 16, 2020

Evacuation & Quarantine  

“All industries have ceased. The stores are closed, the factories are not running, wharves and depots are deserted, for boats and trains neither arrive nor depart, so that means for earning their daily bread is taken away from those who are not stricken with fever.” ~Public Ledger September 20, 1878

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? While we are not under a complete shutdown and quarantine under Covid-19, we are asked to stay at home as much as possible. Thankfully, today we have things like online shopping and essential stores still being open and work from home options. Let’s talk history…


Memphis, like many cities, was facing an epidemic of epic proportions. The city had some warning in 1878 as Yellow Fever struck New Orleans first. The city tried to shut down all major entry points into the city, blocked the ports, and checked people coming in and out of the city. It was too late though; the city was already riddled with the disease. It came to a point where the city urged people who could to flee to the country or to Northern cities as they were not affected the same way.

Unfortunately, this was only feasible for the well-off in Memphis. Many of the prominent families of Memphis who lived on Adams Avenue and downtown fled the city, packing only the essentials and leaving their servants to look after things. It came to a point, however, where even evacuation was becoming a problem. The following is an excerpt from the journal of Henry Sieck who detailed his travel experiences.

August 15, 1878

“…as we were approaching the train, we could see in the distance another train approaching from Little Rock. Necks were craning and happiness was reflected on faces everywhere, while everyone shouted. They’ve come to take us to Little Rock! The train was greeted with loud hurrahs as it stopped alongside of ours….but, what bewilderment for us all, when five minutes later we were told that under NO circumstances dared ANY passengers from our train leave for Little Rock! However, all those who would care to return to Memphis could change over to the other train and ride back.”

The Citizens Relief Committee also set up camps for refugees and evacuees to help alleviate the population stress in the city. Camp Joe Williams, the largest camp, was located approximately five miles outside of town. It had access to fresh water from nearby springs. It was placed under the command of a former Union cavalry commander John F. Cameron. He was not impressed with the refugees there, saying, “very few worthy people inhabited the tents of Camp Williams.” The camp was filled with working class people, mainly laborers, some of who Cameron described as being of "industrious habits," but others were of "indifferent morality, Catholics in faith ..." Cameron ran his camp along military lines, blowing reveille at 5:00 and requiring camp residents to be in bed by 10:00. Two local militia units, the Bluff City Grays and the McClellan Guards (an African American militia company) kept order here. Camp Morris Henderson (named for the minister of Beale Street Baptist Church), established nearby, was created specifically for African American Memphians. This camp was placed under the command of officers from the McClellan Guards. Another African American militia company, the Memphis Zouaves, under the command of Raphael T. Brown, a barber by trade, set up their encampment on Court Square, where they served as guards at the CRC's commissary. The Zouaves also helped keep order in the streets. These militia units were placed under the command of Luke Wright.


When people could no longer flee the city, a state of emergency was enacted, and quarantine was enforced. People were asked to stay home, only those who had essential jobs were allowed out. The police utilized African American militia men to help keep the peace as hundreds of houses filled with family valuables were left behind and people were beginning to go stir crazy.


Many accounts tell of people’s daily life in quarantine where they would read books, write letters to loved ones, and perform other house chores to the best of their abilities. In the unfortunate cases where a household was infected, they would spend their days nursing the sick and praying for their wellbeing.

The overall idea of quarantine has not changed over history, but how people react to it and how technology has advanced us as a civilization has made it more bearable.

You are invited

For the last Yellow Fever post on April 30, you are invited to decide what the topic should be. Is there something or someone you want to know more about from this time period? Were you just so fascinated by a single topic you have to have more information as soon as possible?  We look forward to hearing from you.

Also, let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!

Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 14, 2020

The Disease – Spread, Symptoms, Treatment

“Many of the scenes in the districts afflicted with the Yellow Fever scourge are of a sad and heart-tending character. Strong men and women and little children are sick and dying... in the same house, often in the same room, presenting a pitiful sight well calculated to affect the heart of the most callous. Many of the poor people who are stricken are suffering for supplies and necessary attention. These dreadful sights are not soon to be erased from memory.” ~ The Memphis Daily Appeal August 21, 1878

It is said that history repeats itself. Today, we are lucky to know how to slow down the spread of Covid-19 and take care of ourselves. Let us be better than those who came before us so that we might not repeat their mistakes. Please wash your hands, stay inside, and let’s talk history…



Originally, people thought the fever spread through contact with others, or “miasmas” in the air that were released from the deceased who suffered the illness. It was not until 1900, when a doctor by the name of Walter Reed confirmed the theory that the disease was actually transmitted by a very specific type of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti.

The origin of Yellow Fever is most likely Africa. From there, it spread to the West Indies due to colonization and slave trade. The first recorded outbreak was in 1647 on the island of Barbados. Another outbreak was recorded the next year by Spanish colonists in the Yucatan Peninsula, where the indigenous Mayan people called the illness xekik (“blood vomit”). From there, it spread into Central and South America, until it finally came to America.


Yellow Fever is a viral disease. In most cases, symptoms include fever, chills, loss of appetite, nausea, muscle pains and headaches. The symptoms usually improve within a five-day period; however, there is a chance that within a day of improving, the fever returns. If this happens, severe abdominal pain, jaundicing of skin, and black vomit appear as the next set of symptoms. In the 1870s, once this “second fever” occurred, it was very unlikely the person would survive.



Physicians went to the homes of Yellow Fever patients to treat them. They traveled by horse or buggy and carried their equipment in medical bags. The standard medical bag included a box of surgical tools, lancets for drawing blood, and a variety of medicines and bandages. Unfortunately, many drug stores were closed at this time, so keeping stocked on medical supplies was difficult.


Treatment for Yellow Fever included induced vomiting, laxatives, leeches and other methods.

Belle’s Diary

Belle Wade was only 14 years old when Yellow Fever struck Memphis in 1878. She wrote almost daily in her diary about how the fever affected her family. Here, in her own words, is Belle’s Story…

September 6, 1878
Papa is sick. Whether he has Yellow Fever or not I don’t know. Mr. Boggs came here and is going to send the doctor out, but he hasn’t come yet. …The doctor came just at night. He said Papa had the fever unmistakably and we were all likely to have it. Oh! I do hope and pray we won’t any more of us have it.

September 7, 1878
Mama fainted last night – was sick afterwards and had to go to bed. Miss McKain and Susie sat up all night. Papa is still comfortable. The doctor said he would have a light case. There were 100 new cases and 100 deaths yesterday. The doctor came today about 12 o’clock and said Papa is getting along splendidly, but tonight he is not so well.

September 8, 1878
Papa is not so well today. He didn’t sleep a bit last night and cannot get to sleep now. Mrs. Anderson died at Hernando yesterday of Yellow Fever. Oh! How I feel for poor Katie. There were 137 new cases and 97 deaths yesterday.

September 9, 1878
Papa is better this morning and his fever is leaving him. A woman died across the street this morning. All the Dry Goods stores are shut up and all the grocery stores on Main Street but one. The doctor says Papa’s fever has left him and he is getting along nicely. It rained.

September 15, 1878
Papa is getting on very well. Today is my birthday. I am 15 years old. Mama said these are very sad times to be having birthdays, and I think so, too. Mama said I was a great comfort to her, and Papa said he hopes my next 15 years would be a great deal happier. There were 117 deaths yesterday.

September 17, 1878
Papa is very weak but he sat up in bed two or three times today and said he felt very well. There were 231 new cases and 96 deaths. The fever seems to know no abatement.

September 21, 1878
It has cleared off but is very cool. Papa walked across the floor several times by himself this morning. I think he is doing very well. There were 96 deaths yesterday. Susie and I went to get some butter this morning.

September 22, 1878
It was very cold last night, but I don’t think there was a frost. There were only 39 deaths yesterday. Miss McKain had a chill this morning and has had a fever ever since. Mama sent for the doctor this evening.

September 24, 1878
Miss McKain is real sick. The doctor came just at night. He said there weren’t but seven doctors left and he could not come any sooner.

September 30, 1878
Dear Papa went to the breakfast table this morning but says he doesn’t feel as well as he did yesterday. I wrote a postal to Willie this morning. She is in Clarksville. I think they went away the day we came out here.

October 12, 1878
I have been sick with the fever for 12 days. I had a very light case. My fever lasted only 48 hours, but I had to stay in bed. I got up the 10th day, dressed and went in the next room – staid about 10 minutes and fainted, so of course, I had to go back to bed. I sat up a good while yesterday and I wrote a letter to Willie whom I got a letter the day before. I have been up nearly all day today. I was taken (ill) Tuesday, the 1st and dear little Henry was taken the 4th. Oh! He was so sick. His fever was very high indeed and after that left him, he has the black vomit, but through the blessing of God and good nursing he is now better – though not out of danger. The dear little darling was at the point of death for several days. The doctors didn’t think he could possibly get well, but I am thankful he is better now. We had two nurses for him – a man and a woman. The latter is a splendid nurse and thinks a great deal of Henry which is a good thing. We had two doctors for him too – Dr. Alex Erskine and Dr. McFarland of Savannah, GA. Poor Lily was taken last Sunday. She has been very ill, also. There was one night they thought she would die, but she, too, is better now, though not out of danger. I feel so thankful that I had a mild case, that I can hardly express my gratitude to God for being so merciful to me.

October 14, 1878
I staid up all day again today and went outdoors. I am so thankful I am able to go out. Henry was worse last night. His pulse went down so low Mama surely thought he would die, but he is better this morning. Papa went up town today for the first time since he’s felt better.
(This is the last entry in Belle’s diary of 136 pages)

First-hand accounts like Belle’s help us get an important glimpse into what it was like to live through the Yellow Fever crisis of 1878.  In the late 1800s, these primary sources take the form of journals, letters and newspaper articles, but those media change over time.  What kind of records will you leave behind to help us understand how it feels to live through the big moments of crisis in your lifetime?

You are invited

For the last Yellow Fever post on April 30, you are invited to decide what the topic should be. Is there something or someone you want to know more about from this time period? Were you just so fascinated by a single topic you have to have more information as soon as possible?  We look forward to hearing from you.

Also, let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!


Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 9, 2020

Help from Unlikely People

Today, we are going to focus on some key figures who lent a helping hand during the yellow fever epidemics. While I wish there were some way to thank all of you on the front lines who are helping make our lives easier today– doctors, nurses, police, Kroger shelf stockers, etc. – there just is no way. So, thank you for all you are doing, you know who you are. Now, let’s talk history…

Annie Cook – 1840 to 1878

Annie Cook, whose real name is unknown, was one of the most unlikely, unexpected heroes that emerged from the yellow fever epidemics. Originally from Ohio, she worked in Kentucky for a family aiding smallpox victims. After the Civil War, Annie moved to Memphis where she operated the Mansion House, an upscale brothel on Gayoso Street. She was listed in the city directory as “madam” of a “palatial resort” for “commercial affection.” In 1872, her house was one of eighteen in the city.

When the fever hit Memphis in 1873, Annie dismissed her girls and opened her house to the sick so that she could help nurse them back to health. By the time the 1878 epidemic rolled around, Annie had gained the reputation for being an expert in the field of caring for victims of the disease. This time around, two of her “ladies” decided to follow her example and volunteer as nurses. Unfortunately, Annie Cook contracted yellow fever on September 5, 1878 and passed away a few days later. The Howard Association paid Annie Cook their respect by moving her grave to the association’s plot in Elmwood Cemetery. On September 17, the Memphis Appeal commended her in high Victorian fashion calling her a converted sinner saying, “Out of sin, the woman, in all tenderness and fullness of her womanhood, merged, transfigured and purified, to become the healer, and at last to come to the Healer of souls with Him to rest forever… the woman who, after a long life of shame, ventured all she had of life and property for the sick.”

Dr. William J. Armstrong – 1839 to 1878

Dr. William J. Armstrong was born in Maury County, Tennessee. He studied medicine at Stephenson Academy until the Civil War. He served as a sergeant under General Gideon Pillow. While Armstrong was in Memphis with the army in 1863, he met and fell in love with his wife Louisa Caledonia “Lula” Hanna. He would marry her later that year on her sixteenth birthday. When the war ended, Armstrong moved back to Maury County with his family where he worked as a county doctor until 1873. In 1873, he and his family moved back to Memphis just before the yellow fever outbreak that year. When the fever started to spread, he immediately sent his family away back to Maury County while he stayed behind to help. When the fever passed, his family returned to Memphis.

Unfortunately, when the fever returned a few years later in 1878, he sent his family off again. He wrote many letters to his family sending descriptions of the sickness, and near the end of the epidemic, how he hoped the cool nights would bring an end to the epidemic. Sadly, for Armstrong, he did not live to see the end as he contracted the fever from his patients. He died on September 20th, 1878.

Mattie Stephenson – 1855 to 1873

Mattie Stephenson was an eighteen-year-old girl who left her family and the safety of central Illinois to help the sick. While her intentions have been lost to time as to why she made the decision to “serve the sick and suffering” in this “sorely stricken city,” Stephenson was hailed as a “martyr to the cause of humanity” across the nation. When she arrived in Memphis, she immediately started volunteering as a nurse to help the sick and dying, and eventually died from the fever herself.

After her death, a monument was erected for her in Elmwood Cemetery. The Elmwood book of 1879 said of Mattie, “The name of this poor unknown girl who today sleeps in Elmwood belongs not to Memphis; not to the little village which so recently knew her; it belongs to the world, to the records of heroism to which that of the conqueror of empires seems the merest devotion to duty.” The Memphis Appeal newspaper said, “She came here a stranger, but by her heroic courage in thus giving life for the benefit of suffering humanity, she gained immortality, and her deeds will go down to posterity as equaling those of Florence Nightingale.”

Sister Constance & her Companions

Sister Constance and her companions, also known as the Martyrs of Memphis, stayed to help not only during the 1873 epidemic, but the 1878 epidemic as well. Originally, in 1873, a group of sisters of the Sisterhood of St. Mary came to Memphis to establish a school for girls near St. Mary’s cathedral. They were almost immediately confronted with a yellow fever epidemic and began to care for the sick.

When yellow fever returned to Memphis in 1878, the sisters were traveling in New York, but rushed back to Memphis while others fled the city.  The Sisters of St. Mary not only cared for the sick, but held soup kitchens for the many Memphians unable to purchase food, and even opened up an orphanage for children whose parents fell victim to the fever. Sister Constance would pass away September 9th 1878 from the fever, and three of her fellow sisters would follow soon.


While there are many others, these are just a few of the heroes of the yellow fever epidemics. If you would like to find out more about the heroes mentioned in this post or about others in general, let us know on Facebook or Instagram @memphismuseums!

Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 7, 2020

First Responders – Organizations in Motion

Before we jump into today’s topic, we just wanted to take a second and say thank you to all of our First Responders out there who are helping keep everyone healthy and safe every day and especially during crises. Now, lets take a look at how different organizations responded to the yellow fever epidemic of 1878.

1878 - The First Victim

Kate Bionda and her husband owned a “snack-shop” (19th century diner) on Front Street in downtown Memphis. On an average day, their customers comprised of boatmen, draymen, and others who worked at the landing. Despite Memphis authorities having already stopped travel from the South where the fever had taken root, an infected boatman who escaped quarantine entered the Bionda’s shop in early August. By August 9th, Kate had taken ill and doctors pronounced her symptoms as consistent with yellow fever. She passed away August 13th, 1878. From there, the fever spread wildly throughout the city and would claim more than 5,000 lives.

City Health Department

City health officers took quick action. The rooms of the Bionda's restaurant, the apartments above, and the premises were fumigated and disinfected. Dr. Erskine, a city health official, blocked off access to the Bionda’s house and put men to work sprinkling carbolic acid all around the exterior and surrounding streets and sidewalks north of Jefferson. The smell was stifling. Erskine and his men sprinkled chemicals all over the streets and sidewalks north of Jefferson. This was believed to disinfect "miasmatic exhalations."

The Howard Association

Howard Associations were established in many American cities prior to the Civil War. New Orleans established a Howard Association in 1837 to provide aid during a yellow fever epidemic. Another association was formed in Norfolk, Virginia in 1855. By the 1870s, Memphis had its own Howard Association supported by funds donated by businessmen and other benefactors; it existed primarily to assist the victims of epidemics. A.D. Langstaff, a hardware store owner, helped establish Memphis' Howard Association in 1867. Langstaff led the association through the 1873 epidemic and began organizing volunteers, doctors, and nurses in the summer of 1878. Their headquarters was located at Main and Court street. Their teams of volunteers were easily identified by yellow silk armbands. These "visitors," as they were called, identified homes where people were sick with Yellow Fever, then summoned doctors and nurses to care for patients in their homes. Volunteers also delivered medicine and food to the homes of the sick as needed.

The Citizen’s Relief Committee

A group of local businessmen met on August 16th and published a notice in the city papers calling on citizens to meet at the Greenlaw Opera House the following day. Benjamin Babb, a former resident at the Mallory Neely home on Adams Avenue, was among the signatories calling for the mass meeting. The following day, a large crowd of men gathered there. The assemblage elected Cotton merchant Charles G. Fisher and Luke Wright to leadership positions. Fisher later died from the fever and Wright succeeded him as acting chairman of the Citizens’ Relief Committee.

The CRC helped citizens evacuate the city, made appeals for aid, and organized the distribution of supplies. The CRC also organized several camps for refugees a few miles outside Memphis. Luke Wright oversaw the selection of sites for refugee camps; these sites were on high ground and the brush around them was burned. Unwittingly, the CRC had situated their camps in areas that were largely free of mosquitoes. To provide refugees with shelter, the CRC wired the Secretary of War (G.W. McCrary) for tents. The War Department responded by sending 1,000. The War Department also sent food, dispatching 40,000 army rations, including beans, flour, rice, coffee, and 10 tons of bacon.

Make sure to check back later this week to find out more about individuals like Annie Cook and Sister Constance and the actions they took in helping save lives during yellow fever. Let us know what you think about out online content and ask us any questions you have by reaching out to us on Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!

Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 2, 2020

A Brief Introduction to the American Plague 

For many of us today, living in a time of social distancing and facing an international pandemic might be new, but the city of Memphis has seen its fair share of epidemics – So, let’s talk… The 19th century was riddled with epidemics that caused great concern for many Tennesseans. From cholera to smallpox, contagious diseases put the people of Memphis, especially the urban poor, at risk. Then came Yellow Fever, the deadliest of them all. 

Prior to the Civil War, many people assumed Memphis was too far north to be affected by the disease. They believed it was limited to the hot, low-lying areas around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. But in 1855, Yellow Fever struck Memphis for the first time. It was an indication of what could and would happen with a mild winter, a wet spring, and a long, balmy summer. 

Effected areas of Memphis

While the cause of Yellow Fever was unknown until 1900, we now know the disease spread from person-to-person by mosquitoes. It is believed sailors from the Caribbean or West Africa brought the disease to America when they docked in New Orleans. Through river trade, it spread up the Mississippi River to Memphis. Transmission of the disease lasted until the first frost wiped out the infected mosquitoes. 

The epidemics during the 1870s were by far the worst the city had ever seen and brought nothing but devastation to Memphis. In 1873, approximately 2,000 people fell victim to the fever, the largest number an inland city had ever seen. In 1878, after a mild winter, Memphis tried to get ahead of the disease when New Orleans began suffering from Yellow Fever. City officials established checkpoints at all major points of entry, but it was too late.

Yellow Fever cases were springing up. With the 1873 epidemic still in the minds of the citizens of Memphis, 25,000 people fled the city within a two-week period. From August to October, the fever ran rampant in the city, infecting over 17,000 and killing 5,150.

When the cold weather finally came, relieving Memphis of the fever, the effects were still felt. Due to the loss of population, and facing a strained economic situation, the Memphis city charter was revoked by legislation in 1879. The city became a taxing district of Nashville.

In spite of the devastation, there were a few positive impacts to come from this epidemic.

1. For the first time in its history, the city police force used African American men as patrol officers.

2. Memphis leaders started an extremely ambitious sanitation reform program, including a new sewer system and better water supply.

That is all for today’s post. Our next topic will be about the first responders and how they helped save countless lives. Let us know your thoughts or if you have any questions about Yellow Fever on our Facebook and Instagram!

Suggested Reading:

An American Plague by Jim Murphy

The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever by Molly Caldwell Crosby

Fever Season by Jeanette Keith




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