Beale Street Dynasty

The vivid history of Beale Street—a lost world of swaggering musicians, glamorous madams, and ruthless politicians—and the battle for the soul of Memphis.

 

Following the Civil War, Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, thrived as a cauldron of sex and song, violence and passion. But out of this turmoil emerged a center of black progress, optimism, and cultural ferment. Preston Lauterbach tells this vivid, fascinating story through the multigenerational saga of a family whose ambition, race pride, and moral complexity indelibly shaped the city that would loom so large in American life.

Robert Church, who would become “the South’s first black millionaire,” was a mulatto slave owned by his white father. Having survived a deadly race riot in 1866, Church constructed an empire of vice in the booming river town. He made a fortune with saloons, gambling, and—shockingly—white prostitution. But he also nurtured the militant journalism of Ida B. Wells and helped revolutionize American music through the work of composer W.C. Handy, the man who claimed to have invented the blues.

In the face of Jim Crow, the Church fortune helped fashion the most powerful black political organization of the early twentieth century. Robert and his son, Bob Jr., bought and sold property, founded a bank, and created a park and auditorium for their people finer than the places whites had forbidden them to attend.

However, the Church family operated through a tense arrangement with the Democrat machine run by the notorious E. H. “Boss” Crump, who stole elections and controlled city hall. The battle between this black dynasty and the white political machine would define the future of Memphis.

Brilliantly researched and swiftly plotted, Beale Street Dynasty offers a captivating account of one of America’s iconic cities—by one of our most talented narrative historians.

“Preston Lauterbach has conjured a fascinating demimonde that’s dead and gone. After reading this, I dreamed all night about street hustlers, hoodoos, and snake oil salesmen on Beale Street, the Main Street of black America. Here Lauterbach gives us Beale in its heyday—the chitlin joints, the rough-and-tumble politics, the fecund music—and deftly paints a portrait of the one improbable millionaire who towered over this vibrant world. Read Beale Street Dynasty and you begin to feel you’re communing with ghosts.” — Hampton Sides, bestselling author of Hellhound on His Trail

“In his last book, The Chitlin’ Circuit, Lauterbach shone light into obscure, all but unknown rooms of the rock-’n’-roll story. This time he turns to a chapter we thought we knew well—Beale Street, one of the grounds zero of American culture, with Tin Pan Alley and Congo Square and Concord—and the result is every bit as illuminating. Lauterbach has become one of my favorite people to read on 20th-century popular music.” — John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead

“You may know about Beale Street, W. C. Handy, and the Memphis Blues, but chances are you’ve never heard of the Church family and its achievements. Could an African-American political dynasty, against all odds, have managed real power in a Southern city a century ago? Preston Lauterbach tells the tale authoritatively and with flair.” — Luc Sante, author of Low Life

“Preston Lauterbach takes readers on an uproarious, sometimes shocking jaunt through Memphis history by way of Beale Street, the remarkable thoroughfare that has hosted the likes of W.C. Handy, Ida B. Wells, and Richard Wright. Beale Street Dynasty is a compelling, witty, deeply researched, and always enlightening book.” — Gary Krist, author of Empire of Sinbealecover

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