A fascinating history of early Memphis—back when vice was civic duty.— From Slade
The vivid history of Beale Street—a lost world of swaggering musicians, glamorous madams, and ruthless politicians—and the battle for the soul of Memphis.
Following the Civil War, Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, thrived as a cauldron of sex and song, violence and passion. But out of this turmoil emerged a center of black progress, optimism, and cultural ferment. Preston Lauterbach tells this vivid, fascinating story through the multigenerational saga of a family whose ambition, race pride, and moral complexity indelibly shaped the city that would loom so large in American life.
Robert Church, who would become “the South’s first black millionaire,” was a mulatto slave owned by his white father. Having survived a deadly race riot in 1866, Church constructed an empire of vice in the booming river town. He made a fortune with saloons, gambling, and—shockingly—white prostitution. But he also nurtured the militant journalism of Ida B. Wells and helped revolutionize American music through the work of composer W.C. Handy, the man who claimed to have invented the blues.
In the face of Jim Crow, the Church fortune helped fashion the most powerful black political organization of the early twentieth century. Robert and his son, Bob Jr., bought and sold property, founded a bank, and created a park and auditorium for their people finer than the places whites had forbidden them to attend.
However, the Church family operated through a tense arrangement with the Democrat machine run by the notorious E. H. “Boss” Crump, who stole elections and controlled city hall. The battle between this black dynasty and the white political machine would define the future of Memphis.
Brilliantly researched and swiftly plotted, Beale Street Dynasty offers a captivating account of one of America’s iconic cities—by one of our most talented narrative historians.
About the Author
Preston Lauterbach is the author of Beale Street Dynasty and The Chitlin’ Circuit, a Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe book of the year. He is a former visiting scholar at Rhodes College and a Virginia Humanities Fellow. He lives in Virginia.
Adds a fascinating chapter to civil rights history. But for all the hatred it depicts, this gracefully written book never loses sight of the fun that made Handy exalt that stretch of dirt road.
— James Gavin
All aspects of this complex, fascinating history are told . . . with verve and vivid erudition.
— Tom Nolan
— David Kirby
Preston Lauterbach has conjured a fascinating demimonde
that’s dead and gone. . . . Deftly paints a portrait of the one
improbable millionaire who towered over this vibrant world.
— Hampton Sides, best-selling author of Hellhound on His Trail
[A]n engaging, surprising, at times edifying tour of a civic past. . . . Beale Street Dynasty is both good history and a good yarn. . . . [A] Southern answer to Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York or HBO’s similarly titled Boardwalk Empire.
Preston Lauterbach takes readers on an uproarious, sometimes shocking jaunt through Memphis history by way of Beale Street, the remarkable thoroughfare that has hosted the likes of W.C. Handy, Ida B. Wells, and Richard Wright. Beale Street Dynasty is a compelling, witty, deeply researched, and always enlightening book.
— Gary Krist, author of Empire of Sin
Lauterbach has become one of my favorite people to read on 20th-century popular music.
— John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead