By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — Several books have been written about Beale Street, but none perhaps as concrete, definitive and thoroughly researched as “Beale Street Unforgotten: A Business and Landmarks Directory and Gallery of the 1960s Beale Street Area.”
Published by GrantHouse Publishers (2021), authors George C. Grant and Mark Stansbury gleaned from various sources a bevy of facts about the Memphis landmark – including “personalities and places” – and cobbled them together into a timeline that captures the essence of the street’s glorious past.
Grant said the idea for such a book derived from a discussion with the late Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis about five or six years ago. DeCosta-Willis was a scholar, author, educator, historian and Civil Rights activist.
“She was telling me about the new Beale Street and that much of the old Beale Street wasn’t there,” he said. “I said, ‘We ought to do something about it,’ and then she shared with me a history.”
Grant said DeCosta-Willis had in her possession a manuscript that she’d written and titled “The History of Beale Street from 1850 to 1950.” It was never published.
“The family has given me permission to publish it,” said Grant, a retired university library dean, and founder, co-owner, and CEO of GrantHouse Publishers.
Grant said he read DeCosta-Willis’ manuscript. “It occurred to me that there was a void in the information about the old Beale Street,” he said, and added: “It had all been forgotten.”
Then he began working with DeCosta-Willis on her manuscript but felt there needed to be something to reintroduce the old Beale Street.
Grant had published several books by DeCosta-Willis, who died in January. His interest in Beale Street had never waned.
He believed then that a thorough examination of Beale Street’s glory days was ripe for publishing – so did his coauthor, Mark Stansbury, a longtime WDIA Radio personality, retired assistant to the University of Memphis president, and eminent photographer.
Stansbury, in fact, contributed several historic photographs from the era, from his vast collection.
“I think it’s very important for the younger generation that’s coming up who have not been exposed to Beale Street. Or may have been to Beale Street now, but they aren’t aware of what used to be there,” Stansbury said. “The book kind of covers that.”
He added: “Back in the day when I was a going to Beale Street that much, most of the places on Beale Street were owned and run by people who look like you and me. But now it’s not.”
Grant said, “It’s a critical element of history of the African American community in Memphis and the role of Beale Street in it, and I thought it just needed to be documented for young people.”
To the connoisseurs of Beale Street and those who can trace the street back to its heyday, “Beale Street Unforgotten” is a welcome addition on library shelves about Beale Street that other authors over the years sought to capture and preserve what had been a mecca for Black people.
“Well, mine is a more thorough and detailed treatment of the whole Beale Street,” Grant said. “The other books, I think, tell a portion of the story. They all do a good job. So, I thought that I would try to give the reader a sense of the whole Beale Street from mainstream to the mansions.”
For those who are unaware of the glory days when the street was bustling with Black pride, entrepreneurs, entertainment, and wailing bluesmen, “Beale Street Unforgotten” is a compilation of people and historic places that a younger generation should embrace for educational purposes.
“I would like to see it come back and be more inclusive of us,” said Stansbury, delineating the difference between the Beale Street of old and Beale Street today.
Much of the iconic street – known by its monikers, “Home of the Blues” and “Birthplace of Rock n Roll” – had been a retreat for African Americans, Grant and Stansbury concluded.
The spiral bound edition of “Beale Street Unforgotten” is priced at $20. A new hardcover edition will be available soon for $25. For more information or copies of the book, contact GrantHouse Publishers at 901-218-3135.