Not even a century ago, Memphis was a prosperous city on par with Atlanta and Dallas. Today, it ranks first among major metro areas in both overall and child poverty, with Black poverty rates above the national average. A new piece examines Memphis’ history—from the Civil War to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assasination to now—and the disastrous racist housing policies that sunk it. 

Memphis Burning” is the first story in Places Journal’s “The Inequality Chronicles,” a series that examines inequity in American cities. In it, historian Preston Lauterbach links the roots of discriminatory housing policy in Memphis to its present as urban revitalization efforts and federal and private funds reshape the city. 

A few key quotes illuminate the decisions that lead to Memphis’s current state. For instance, Lauterbach describes the destruction of a political coalition between White Democratic political boss Edward Crump and Black Republican leader Bob Church as follows:

In the 1920s, they led a bipartisan, biracial coalition that controlled Memphis politics and elected most of its officials. Crump encouraged the Black vote, and in return Church used his sway with Republican presidents to help place friendly officials in federal posts, while protecting the Crump machine from federal investigation. Together, they helmed Memphis through a time of exceptional growth, until the Great Depression hit.

But the period of biracial cooperation would prove short-lived. In the late 1930s, Boss Crump turned on his counterpart. In the span of a few years, the Democratic machine banished Bob Church, seized his property, broke the family fortune, and dismantled his Republican organization, crushing the most vital arm of Black enfranchisement in the city.

Lauterbach later describes the “slum clearance” of a middle-class Black neighborhood to replace it with housing projects: 

Their grievances were ignored. The Memphis Housing Authority—established in the mid-’30s, part of the wave of local authorities begun under Roosevelt’s New Deal—leveled a 46-acre area and replaced the single-family homes with a low-rise, 900-unit public housing complex. As justification, the Housing Authority cited statistics showing that the city’s Black population had doubled in less than thirty years. Densifying an existing Black neighborhood was a racist strategy to prevent African Americans from encroaching on predominantly White areas. The complex, known as William H. Foote Homes, opened in 1940—directly across the street from the Robert Church house. 

Poignantly, he also analyzes how a recent Department of Housing and Urban Development head used federal funds for big projects (including a stadium) rather than investing in disenfranchised neighborhoods: 

The city may no longer have a boss, but nearly a century after it was founded, the Memphis machine is alive and kicking. Here, in the nation’s poorest major city, powerful local developers and corporations are siphoning off federal anti-poverty subsidies that should go directly to stimulate the economic progress of poor neighborhoods. That’s pretty much the definition of inequality. Boss Lipscomb will be remembered for tearing down the neglected housing projects that symbolized the overt racism of earlier leaders, but he will also be remembered for controlling the purse-strings of a city government that provided a wealthy elite with resources that the poor majority desperately needed. 

Click here to read “Memphis Burning” in full.