Beale Street was created in 1841 by entrepreneur
and developer Robertson Topp (1807–1876), who named
it for a forgotten military hero. The original name was
Beale Avenue. Its western end primarily housed shops of
trade merchants, who traded goods with ships along the Mississippi
River, while the eastern part developed as an affluent suburb.
In the 1860s, many black traveling musicians began performing
on Beale. The first of these to call Beale Street home were
the Young Men's Brass Band, who were formed by Sam Thomas
In the 1870s, the population of Memphis was rocked by a
series of Yellow Fever epidemics, leading the city to forfeit
its charter in 1879. During this time Robert Church purchased
land around Beale Street that would eventually lead to his
becoming the first black millionaire from the south. In
1890, Beale Street underwent renovation with the addition
of the Grand Opera House, later known as the Orpheum. In
1899, Robert Church paid the city to create Church Park
at the corner of 4th and Beale. It became a recreational
and cultural center, where blues musicians could gather.
A major attraction of the park was an auditorium that could
seat 2,000 people. Some of the famous speakers in the Church
Park Auditorium were Woodrow Wilson, Booker T. Washington,
and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the early 1900s, Beale Street was filled with clubs,
restaurants and shops, many of them owned by African-Americans.
In 1889, NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells was a co-owner and
editor of an anti-segregationist paper called Free Speech
based on Beale. Beale Street Baptist Church, Tennessee's
oldest surviving African American Church edifice built in
1864, was also important in the early
civil rights movement in Memphis.
In 1905, Mayor Thornton was looking for a music teacher
for his Knights of Pythias Band and called Tuskeegee Institute
to talk to his friend, Booker T. Washington, who recommended
a trumpet player in Clarksdale, Mississippi, named W. C.
Handy. Mayor Thornton contacted Mr. Handy, and Memphis became
the home of the famous musician who created the "Blues
on Beale Street". Mayor Thornton and his three sons
also played in Handy's band.
In 1909, W. C. Handy wrote "Mr. Crump" as a campaign
song for political machine leader E. H. Crump. The song
was later renamed "The Memphis Blues". Handy also
wrote a song called "Beale Street Blues" in 1916
which influenced the change of the street's name from Beale
Avenue to Beale Street. From the 1920s to the 1940s, Louis
Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B.
B. King, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon and other blues and
jazz legends played on Beale Street and helped develop the
style known as Memphis Blues.
In 1938, Lewis O. Swingler, editor of the Memphis World
Newspaper, a Negro newspaper, in an effort to increase circulation,
conceived the idea of a "Mayor of Beale St.",
having readers vote for the person of their choice. Matthew
Thornton, Sr., a well-known community leader, active in
political, civic and social affairs and one of the charter
members of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, won the contest
against nine opponents and received 12,000 of the 33,000
votes cast. Mr. Thornton was the original "Mayor of
Beale St." an honorary position that he retained until
he died in 1963 at the age of 90.
In the 1960s, Beale became run down and many stores closed,
although on May 23, 1966, the section of the street from
Main to 4th was declared a National Historic Landmark.
On December 15, 1977, Beale Street was officially
declared as the "Home of the Blues" by an act
of Congress. Despite this national recognition of its historic
significance, it was not until the 1980s that Beale Street
received attention from local lawmakers, which led to an
economic revitalization, with many new clubs and attractions
opening. The street is now home to a chapter of the National
Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.