Friday, October 03, 2008

New Book Recalls & Highlights Memphis' Rich Black History...

‘Notable Black Memphians’ Lists Residents Who Made A Difference

Memphis, like the rest of the nation, has benefited from the prodigious toil and enormous talents of its African Americans citizens. Some of its residents who contributed to the betterment of the city, as well as other places across the nation and around the world, are well known. But some others could hardly be identified except by a select few with a more than passing interest in the city’s history. This is bound to change with the publication of “Notable Black Memphians,” the new book by Miriam DeCosta-Willis, that features biographies of 223 people and capsule information about 122 others. Knowledge of the people in the book, DeCosta-Willis contends, “provides a context for understanding civic and political activities and for interpreting social and cultural history.”

The author gives credit to those who enriched American life in the fields of business, education, the arts, law and politics—to name a few—for being committed to their goals. She also acknowledges they did not succeed totally on their own in stating, “Their lives bear witness to the support they have received and to the struggles made on their behalf: the labor of grandparents and single mothers, the encouragement of teachers and ministers, the cautionary tales of village elders, and the sacrifices of those who preceded them.”

Among those who march through the pages of the book, that features people born from 1795 to 1972, are Benjamin L. Hooks, Maxine Atkins Smith, Isaac Hayes, Joe Brown, Bishop Gilbert E. Patterson and Willie W. Herenton. Benjamin Franklin Booth, Georgia E. L. Patton, Harry Herbert Pace, and Georgia Rodgers Woodruff also are included. Booth, born a slave, became one of the outstanding black lawyers in Memphis early in the 20th century. Patton, a Meharry graduate, was “The first African American woman licensed to practice medicine in Tennessee and the first to practice medicine in Memphis.” Pace, an insurance executive and Solvent Savings Bank cashier, was managing editor of “The Moon Illustrated Weekly” and he and W. C. Handy were partners in a music publishing company. Woodruff sang in King Vidor’s movie “Hallelujah!” shot in Memphis in 1928. The film “was the first all-Black musical and the first sound film to use an all-Black cast.”

DeCosta-Willis, continuing her work as an author after retiring from a distinguished career in academia, is familiar with the challenges the subjects of her book faced in a nation with race-based laws that restricted their progress. Her life has seamlessly merged the roles of scholar and activist. As a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wellesley College, DeCosta-Willis was denied admission to graduate school at the University of Memphis because of her race. Later, with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, she became the first black professor at the University of Memphis.

Besides the career surveys there is interesting sidelight information about many of the book’s subjects. The urbane C. Eric Lincoln—professor, author, theologian and public intellectual—was nicknamed “Lard” by football players “because of his girth” and he composed country and western music. The artist DeWitt W. Jordan Jr. “liked to paint in the nude while drinking Scotch and listening to classical music.” Jordan was once accosted by a sheriff who had been told Jordan was working outdoors au naturel. Arriving on the scene, the sheriff seemed unperturbed. He told the farmers who had complained that Jordan was “a little kooky” and bought three of the artist’s paintings.

There are familial and professional relationships between many of those profiled in the book: Robert R. Church Jr. is featured along with his daughter Sara Roberta Church. Florence Cole Talbert McCleave, the classically trained soprano, taught Vera Little who forged a stellar operatic career in Europe. B. B. King is profiled along with Ford Nelson—one of the “Other Notables” briefly sketched—who was hired as King’s pianist before Nelson became an enduring radio personality at WDIA. Ernest C. Withers and his son Dedrick “Teddy” Withers are featured. Augustus Arvis “Doc” Latting, the “Dean of Black Memphis Lawyers,” studied under Benjamin F. Booth and was the mentor of George Henry Brown Jr., the first black member of the Tennessee State Supreme Court.

“Notable Black Memphians” illuminates the lives of many whose contributions have been documented and rescues from obscurity the names of some others whose accomplishments are little known.

(George E. Hardin worked as a photographer, reporter and editor, and in public relations during a long career before he retired. His column appears every other week.)

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