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  • John Elkington and the Remaking of Beale Street
  • Cathryn Stout (bio)

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“Beale Street was a segregated street in the 1950s. Totally. It was the only place where blacks could shop. It was the only place they could socialize. The only place they could drink. The only place they could hear music. Well, that all started breaking down in the fifties and sixties.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (left) and A. W. Willis Jr. (backseat) ride down Beale Street on July 31, 1959. Photograph by Ernest Withers, courtesy of the Miriam DeCosta Willis Collection / Memphis Public Library and Information Center.

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John Elkington moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to start law school in 1970, a year after urban clearance claimed its first building on Beale Street. The twenty-two-year-old student walked down Beale Street trying to imagine what it was like in its heyday, before the crumbling buildings and bulldozers. In the first half of the twentieth century, Beale Street was a popular destination for African American southerners who came there to support the musicians and shop owners located on the segregated strip. It became known as the “Home of the Blues” because of its lively nightclubs and frequent appearances by blues greats like W. C. Handy, B.B. King, and Memphis Minnie. But the music ended downtown around the late 1960s. Two main factors contributed to Beale Street’s demise: the decline of the city’s downtown business district in the era of rapid suburbanization and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, just a few blocks away. The riots that ensued damaged buildings on Beale and resulted in more than eighty arrests and twenty-eight injuries. Although Beale was largely deserted when Elkington arrived in Memphis, he saw something “magical” amongst the ruins and later dedicated his career to showing others that magic as well.

Issues of race, class, culture, urban planning, and authenticity arise in Elkington’s history with Beale Street, and his lengthy relationship with the historic district makes him one of the most significant figures in twentieth-century heritage tourism. In 1982, the lawyer turned real estate developer landed the ultimate deal—a fifty-two-year contract to redevelop and manage Beale Street. Under the extraordinary public-private partnership, Elkington transformed four blocks of city-owned property from wasteland into a thriving tourist and music district. While successful in reviving Beale, lawsuits over profit distributions marred the last few years of Elkington’s management, and, in early 2013, a federal judge approved a settlement between Elkington and the City of Memphis that began the process of transferring Beale Street to new management. Despite this legal conflict, no one was more pivotal in the redevelopment of Beale than Elkington. In this interview, taken from segments of an oral history recorded in his Memphis office in 2011, Elkington reflects on the racial and economic politics of restoring Beale Street in the 1980s, and the perils and possibilities developers face when balancing the demands of locals with the expectations of tourists.

In His Own Words

How did a lawyer, raised in Florida, stumble onto Beale Street?

I got a job working in a law firm in Memphis, Apperson Crump Duzane & Maxwell, and that’s really where I first got involved in understanding Beale Street because we were involved in a number of cases that were eminent domain cases. As you know, right after Dr. King was killed in 1968, basically, six months later, the [End Page 104] Memphis Housing Authority began a real serious program of gentrification—and they had a number of cases where they took property by eminent domain. When they took those properties, a lot of time people didn’t agree on price, so the most famous case was . . . the Peabody Garage Case. It was a block away from Beale Street, and it was the leading case in the whole body of law. And that law firm I worked for was the lead plaintiff in that.

So I really would go down to Beale Street a lot—it was empty, it was all boarded up—and I really grew a real appreciation for...


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