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5 Books About Memphis Black History

There is nothing I love more than a great coffee table book. I use them as a way to explore and travel the South without leaving my home. Today I was inspired to explore the history of Memphis. A city bursting with deep roots of music, history, and culture. One of the hotbeds of the Civil Rights movements still influencing so much of African American culture today, here are 5 Books About Memphis Black History. These books would be great additions to any library or a gift to any history lover in your life. Check them out below and be sure to share your favorite coffee table books with us using the hashtag #blacksouthernbelle

5 Books About Memphis Black History

African Americans in Memphis (Images of America) 

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Memphis has been an important city for African Americans in the South since the Civil War. They migrated from within Tennessee and from surrounding states to the urban crossroads in large numbers after emancipation, seeking freedom from the oppressive race relations of the rural South. Images of America: African Americans in Memphis chronicles this regional experience from the 19th century to the 1950s. Historic black Memphians were railroad men, bricklayers, chauffeurs, dressmakers, headwaiters, and beauticians, as well as businessmen, teachers, principals, barbers, preachers, musicians, nurses, doctors, Republican leaders, and Pullman car porters. During the Jim Crow era, they established social, political, economic, and educational institutions that sustained their communities in one of the most rigidly segregated cities in America. The dynamic growth and change of the post–World War II South set the stage for a new, authentic, black urban culture defined by Memphis gospel, blues, and rhythm and blues music; black radio; black newspapers; and religious pageants. Link to purchase: https://amzn.to/2GdGMSG

Photographs from the Memphis World, 1949-1964

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Long considered lost, these photographs from one of Memphis’s leading African American newspapers, the Memphis World, published from 1931 to 1973, chronicle the complexity and variety of its readers’ lives. In marked contrast with the reporting in white newspapers, which selectively focused on poverty, violence, and civil rights protests, the World, like many black newspapers, celebrated the accomplishments and documented the challenges faced by the city’s diverse population. The paper regularly published photographs by Ernest Withers, Mark Stansbury, Hooks Brothers Photography, and R. Earl Williams, among others. Behind these seemingly ordinary images, however, is evidence of the courage, dignity, and ingenuity of African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

Photographs from the Memphis World, 1949-1964 is published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. It includes essays by Marina Pacini, the museum’s chief curator and exhibition curator; Deborah Willis, New York University professor and internationally recognized authority on African American photography; and Russell Wigginton, historian, Rhodes College. Each of the fifty-six photographs reproduced is elucidated by a short essay. Many of the images are accompanied by newspaper accounts or interviews with the people pictured or with their families to further explore the history of the photographs. Link to Purchase: https://amzn.to/2IounyF

An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee (Civil Rights and Struggle)

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In An Unseen Light, eminent and rising scholars offer a multidisciplinary examination of Memphis’s role in African American history during the twentieth century. Together, they investigate episodes such as the 1940 “Reign of Terror” when black Memphians experienced a prolonged campaign of harassment, mass arrests, and violence at the hands of police. They also examine topics including the relationship between the labor and civil rights movements, the fight for economic advancement in black communities, and the impact of music on the city’s culture. Covering subjects as diverse as politics, sports, music, activism, and religion, An Unseen Light illuminates Memphis’s place in the long history of the struggle for African American freedom. Link to Purchase: https://amzn.to/2IkzkbX

Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown

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The fabled city of Memphis has been essential to American music–home of the blues, the birthplace of rock and roll, a soul music capital. We know the greatest hits, but celebrated author Robert Gordon takes us to the people and places history has yet to record. A Memphis native, he whiles away time in a crumbling duplex with blues legend Furry Lewis, stays up late with barrelhouse piano player Mose Vinson, and sips homemade whiskey at Junior Kimbrough’s churning house parties. A passionate listener, he hears modern times deep in the grooves of old records by Lead Belly and Robert Johnson.

The interconnected profiles and stories in Memphis Rent Party convey more than a region. Like mint seeping into bourbon, Gordon gets into the wider world. He beholds the beauty of mistakes with producer Jim Dickinson (Replacements, Rolling Stones), charts the stars with Alex Chilton (Box Tops, Big Star), and mulls the tragedy of Jeff Buckley’s fatal swim. Gordon’s Memphis inspires Cat Power, attracts Townes Van Zandt, and finds James Carr always singing at the dark end of the street.

A rent party is when friends come together to hear music, dance, and help a pal through hard times; it’s a celebration in the face of looming tragedy, an optimism when the wolf is at the door. Robert Gordon finds mystery in the mundane, inspiration in the bleakness, and revels in the individualism that connects these diverse encounters. Link to Purchase: https://amzn.to/2Gg2rK8

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Michiel Perry

Michiel is a Black Southern Belle living a lowcountry life. I love all things fashion, home decor and southern! When I am not running around doing fun stuff for Black Southern Belle, I live in antique stores and have a minor obsession with historic homes 🙂

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