Black History in Memphis – Soulsville & South Memphis

Home of Legendary Stax Records – Soulsville and South Memphis

Soulsville U.S.A. was a nickname coined by Stax Records to emphasize their impact on the music industry and was reutilized by the Soulsville Foundation in 1998. Soulsville has grown beyond its original strip of East McLemore Avenue to form a neighborhood within a larger area, collectively referred to as South Memphis.

In 1840, entrepreneurs John McLemore and Robertson Topp helped found the town of South Memphis, around present-day Beale Street and Union Avenue. In the mid-19th century, South Memphis and nearby Fort Pickering competed with the City of Memphis. Riverboat travel and trade supported the towns’ businesses, and strict rules and wharf charges in Memphis made South Memphis and Fort Pickering attractive alternatives. In the mid-19th century, Memphis annexed South Memphis and Fort Pickering, spurring Memphis’ growth in the 1860s.

Historically, South Memphis was economically and racially diverse. During and after the Civil War, refugees fleeing slavery poured into the area. Working class and poor Irish immigrants often lived in close contact with these migrants. South Memphis expanded further south and east as more people moved in, but not without racial tension.

By the end of the 19th century, the black community had rebuilt businesses, churches, and schools. Black middle and upper classes, which included Robert Church, Sr. and T.O. Fuller, grew along with wealthy white counterparts. The neighborhood was home to Memphis’ first black public school, known today Booker T. Washington High School.

The early and mid-20th century were marked by attacks against black-homeownership, and white flight shifted the area to a mostly black, working-class neighborhood. By the 1960s, South Memphis, particularly around Soulsville, experienced a renaissance, spurred by LeMoyne-Owen College, churches, businesses, and Stax Records, which rivaled Motown but closed in 1975 after bankruptcy. Efforts to revitalize the area focus on education, employment, food access, and the arts, including Soulsville Foundation, Stax Museum, Memphis Rox, South Memphis Farmers Market, Knowledge Quest, and Memphis Slim House Collaboratory.

Image courtesy of Memphis Public Library and Information Center.