Archive | September, 2011

Beale Street Stories: Sweet Willie Wine

28 Sep

I’m deep into the Beale Street story and finding much delicious dirt. I’ll share little sprinkles here and there, keeping the richest of it for the book. One of the great characters of Beale Street lore is Sweet Willie Wine. He worked the street as a booster, pickpocket, and con man, got locked up in the state penitentiary at Nashville, and returned to the street after his release in the midst of the race riot that preceded Martin Luther King’s assassination. The experience converted the crook into an activist, but he managed to keep his visibility high among both constituencies. Here’s Sweet Willie Wine’s (he is now known as Minister Suhkara Yahweh) poignant recollection, from our recent interview, of a particularly hair-curling set of circumstances that led some humble folk of Forrest City, Arkansas to believe he was the Messiah in summer 1969.

(photo of memphis police on Beale Street, March 29, 1968, the day Sweet Willie WIne came home, courtesy of Special Collections, University of Memphis)

“I was invited to come to Forrest City, Arkansas to help the people. (I had only been to one other place in Arkansas, Eighth Street. Being a crapshooter, pickpocket and dancer, it was only natural to gravitate over to West Memphis after everything closed down in Memphis.) The laborers in Forrest City were making a dollar an hour. The whole spirit of Nathan Bedford Forrest is over there. I was hesitant about it.”

A few days before the Forrest City demonstrations were to commence, Wine was hanging around the Beale district with other activists. “Right there at Fourth and Vance was a club called the Twilight Zone, which was ran by Big Daddy Leonard. The group of us were having a few beers and discussing. There was a young lady, [name omitted]. She was one of those young ladies in the street. She was naturally drawn to me because of how I treated her, like a young lady. Oftentimes I had more love and respect for them than they had for themselves. It was natural for me, it wasn’t anything I was putting on. She was in love with me, and she had a man. I didn’t know that she was  feeling the way she did. I had never experienced jealousy before. She was at the door of the club. She said, ‘Come here.’ When I got up and went up to the door, she hit me right there [below the collarbone] with a broken beer bottle, cut me across my face. Everytime I breathed, the flesh would come out. I staggered out the door, her sister pulled off of Hernando onto Vance, right out front of the place. I said, ‘you see what your sister’s done to me?’ She looked past me, to my left, and I noticed she was doing like this [shaking her head] and I threw my hand up just as her sister hit me again across the wrist. I went over on the other side of the car, and started going out. A guy was shaking me, saying, ‘Willie Wine, Willie Wine, Willie Wine.’ I come back and noticed she was standing in the doorway as they put me in the ambulance. [Coincidental siren blares outside, during our interview.] In the hospital, I began to get myself to get back together. My Father, God, has a tendency to really get my attention when I’m stressed out. The saying, ‘those He loves, He chastises’? Well, he loves me to death.

“I can tell you, a few days later I was in the pulpit in Forrest City, Arkansas, talking to the people who were demonstrating. I hit down on the pulpit and where I had throwed my hand up to stop her from cutting me, it started bleeding.”

Like Stigmata. And he’s got the scars to prove it.

Come back soon and meet Pedro Lewis, Beale Street hustler, Black Muslim, and hit recording artist.

The Stroll Then & Now: Monroe, LA

6 Sep

“We are now driving down DeSiard Street, the stroll in Monroe, Louisiana,” wrote chitlin’ circuit pioneer Walter Barnes in 1936. DeSiard buzzed back then, at least in Barnes’ infectious, up-tempo telling. “The Red Goose Barber Shop is the place where all the boys have their grooming done…Lovely Brown’s Beauty Shop is where all the ladies get their fancy waves for the dances…The Grog Cafe is the dining place of the profesh, and the Frog Pond Ballroom is the most beautiful and spacious dance palace here.”

The Stroll, hep vernacular for black Main Street, was the backbone of the chitlin’ circuit from the ’30s-’60s. While researching the circuit in Indianapolis, Houston, New Orleans, and Macon, I always checked out the stroll to see what was left, and found parking lots, on-ramps, or strip malls. I think the fact that these places were paved over is an important aspect of the circuit’s obscurity as it relates to American culture. If these places existed, we’d have a much better understanding of their history. Here’s what’s left of DeSiard Street, the Miller-Roy Building at 1001 DeSiard. I’m fairly sure this is where Barnes and his Kings of Swing played in December 1936. (Though he lists the address of the Frog Pond as 1003 DeSiard, this building has multiple entrances and it’s not unusual to find these larger buildings listed with a spread of address numbers in city directories.)

I thank Monroe photographer and historian Lee Estes for getting in touch and sharing his images of the Miller-Roy Building on DeSiard Street. He says that a venue called the Savoy Dance Club was upstairs at one time and that homeless have colonized the building. It is now condemned, and from the looks of google maps, there isn’t much else left of the Monroe stroll. Here’s another angle of the Miller-Roy.

I would love to publish images of your local stroll as it looks today, so please reach out if you can contribute something.

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