MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis’ past has its share of troubling economic times, like after the Civil War and during the Great Depression, but the city found a way out of those hardships: through partying.
Memphis in May International Festival is a staple of Memphis and the biggest tourism event all year in the city, bringing in $137.7 million in economic impact in 2018. But it was born out of a time when Memphis was struggling to uplift its economy.
After the Civil War ended, Memphis suffered economically. So in 1872, city leaders needed something to boost its economy, and they decided to throw a Mardi Gras festival. At its peak, Memphis’ Mardi Gras became the largest event for the holiday in the surrounding area.
Shelby County Historian Jimmy Rout III said the city had a population of about 40,000 people at the time, and the Mardi Gras festivals drew about 20,000 people—about half the city.
“They would do parades and had floats, had coronation parties and would have balls,” Rout said. “The Civil War had been such a tragedy for everybody, so it was kind of an uplifting thing, economically and spiritually and emotionally.”
The Mardi Gras festival went strong for about 20 years, and it was limited to secret, wealthy societies. For reasons still unknown, it ended. It wasn’t for about another 40 years that Memphis would throw another festival to boost its economy.
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“In 1930, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce needed money,” Rout said. “The stock market had crashed in October of 1929, and they were about to enter into the 10-year Great Depression.”
Memphis’ biggest export of the time was cotton, so city leaders decided to go all-in to promote everything about cotton. They threw a festival to promote the use and buying of cotton, and it was called the Cotton Carnival.
Just like Mardi Gras, the Cotton Carnival was limited to exclusive secret societies. When R.C. Vincent, a black dentist on Beale Street, asked if he could join the Cotton Carnival, he was declined. He then started his own festival that would be for the black community.
“He got some businesses friends of his, other black leaders, and they started the Cotton Makers Jubilee,” Rout said. “They had parades down Beale Street, and it was an important thing for the African American community to have something they could claim as their own, and that was it. They did a great job producing it.”
Both festivals were very successful and took place at the same time of year, and both had similar events like art shows, children’s parades, petting zoos and cotton parades.
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In the 1980s, the two groups merged and became Carnival Memphis, which still exists as a society but does not have the huge annual festivals, instead they benefit children’s charities. They dropped the festivals likely because another large event had taken over by that point.
“May has always been the month in Memphis to celebrate,” Rout said. “Maybe it’s because of the weather; it’s not quite as humid. A slight chance of rain, but it’s usually not very cold.”
Because of these reasons, many events already took place in May like the Cotton Carnival, the Cotton Makers Jubilee, the New York Metropolitan Opera, the Danny Thomas Golf Classic, horse shows and open house shows.
Rout said the Chamber of Commerce was, again, almost bankrupt in the ’70s and looking for something else to boost Memphis’ economy.
“Lyman Aldrich had been on the board of the Cotton Carnival, and he had seen the things the carnival could do,” Rout said. “But he had that international vision for it. He got a group together of leaders, black and white, in Memphis, and he put together a group called the Memphis in May International Society. Then after about two years, in 1975, they dropped the society.”
The Memphis in May International Festival was created to encompass all the events already happening in May in Memphis. The Cotton Carnival was not part of the official Memphis in May, but Rout said it’s likely they used the carnival’s blueprint to see how their festival would work.
“It was created because of a lack of funds, and we needed to have funds brought into the city and given some positive reinforced images of how great Memphis really was,” Rout said.
Memphis, along with the rest of the country, celebrated the United States’ bicentennial in 1976, and the Chamber of Commerce had money left over. So they decided to throw their own festival the next year—the first real Memphis in May festival.
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A founder of Memphis in May decided to make it an international festival with hopes that it would draw overseas businesses into Memphis, and Memphis in May Marketing Director Robert Griffin said it worked.
“The first country that was saluted was Japan,” Griffin said. “As a result, some people say the state of Tennessee has more Japanese businesses than any other state in the country, and perhaps that can be traced back to the number of times that we’ve saluted Japan and the fact that Japan was the very first country that we saluted.”
As Rout said, directors of the festival wanted to highlight the good things about Memphis, and the most known of those were music and barbecue.
Griffin said for that reason, the Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest are the main events of the month.
“Initially, [Beale Street Music Festival] was all about the blues,” Griffin said. “It was held on Beale Street. In some cases, it was held in the clubs that had been closed, and it was held in open lots. Many of the clubs on Beale Street had been completely razed, so they would throw up a stage and have a blues concert in an empty lot.”
When the music festival expanded beyond only blues, it also expanded beyond Beale Street and moved to Tom Lee Park, where it has been for nearly 40 years.
“One of the reasons it survives is simply because of the strength of the lineup year after year,” Griffin said. “The larger the crowds that come down here, the larger the money we make from that to afford bigger name acts the next year.”
The barbecue contest was started the second year of the festival. Because barbecue was so big in Memphis, organizers wanted it to be the mecca of barbecue.
“It wasn’t called the world championship at that time, and it was held in the empty lot that is now a parking lot next to the Orpheum Theatre right there at Front and Beale,” Griffin said. “I think it was less than two-dozen teams that showed up, and the grand prize winner won a check for $500. Just a local Memphian who had come down with her grill and cooked up some great ribs and won the contest.”
The contest has grown since then, and Griffin said they expect 250 teams at this year’s contest. He said it has been recognized as the most prestigious barbecue contest in the world.
With efforts to redesign Tom Lee Park ramping up after this year’s festival, Griffin said Memphis in May has no plans to leave the park for another location.
“It’s important to stay in Tom Lee Park because of the views, because of its iconic representation of Memphis,” Griffin said. “Just like those two events (Beale Street Music Fest and the Barbecue Contest) are iconic representations of Memphis, too.”