DePress Run: Reflecting on 12 dates in Memphis history that rocked the world
By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Far too often events happen that stop us in our tracks.
As a nation, we mourned September 11, 2001 and the day we’ll never forget occurred December 7, 1941. Here in the Southwest corner of Tennessee is my hometown of Memphis. As a proud Memphian, I boast about our rich history in music, significant sports figures like Larry Finch and Penny Hardaway and adore our landmarks like the “new bridge,” Pyramid and Graceland. But there have been dark days in Memphis, Tenn.
The sudden and tragic events at the Collierville Kroger Sept. 23 was an awful reminder that sometimes in the news business we must cover bad news. Historians have recorded the good and the bad since the beginning of time.
The negative things like death, natural disasters and financial failure are necessary to document to tell the complete history of a town or city. Going back to August 21, 1864, Memphis became an important site in the American Civil War. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops raid Memphis when it was occupied by the Union soldiers.
This incursion became known as the second Battle of Memphis. The first Battle of Memphis took place June 6, 1862 along the Mississippi River with the Confederate troops losing. I’m sure if they had a 24-hour news cycle in the 1860s, that conflict would have made the rounds.
With a heavy heart I would like to use the platform of The Best Sellers’ List to recap some of the most impactful days in Memphis history involving tragic circumstances. Events that made the Bluff City stop in its tracks. Below will be 12 occasions that led to national news, major changes or has been documented countrywide.
12. July 19, 2010: Lorenzen Wright Murder
Beloved basketball star Lorenzen Wright came to his demise in a gruesome fashion. It has been more than a decade since Memphis Police discovered the decomposed body of the nearly 7-foot man, a bullet-riddled corpse. Wright’s body nearly melted in the heat after several days in a field. The murder of the former BTW High School, Memphis Tiger and Memphis Grizzlies center ripped the hearts out of most Memphians. Through years of investigation, Wright’s ex-wife, Sherra Wright, pleaded guilty to charges connected to the murder. Now Billy Turner faces murder charges in the case.
11. April 27, 1865: Sultana Explosion
Imagine this happening today, a commercial steamboat exploding killing 1,168 people. This was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. History. It occurred on the Mississippi River at Memphis when the boilers of the overloaded Sultana popped with 2,400 people aboard the 260-foot wooden steamboat. The tragedy’s death toll was worse than the Titanic. The Sultana was only supposed to hold 376 people.
10. March 2, 2008: Lester Street tragedy
Erica Smith discovered the bloody scene inside 722 Lester Street that fateful day. Her only son, Cecil Dotson II, was stabbed to death inside that house. Cecil was one of six murder victims at the hands of Jessie Dotson. The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a jury’s verdict convicting Jessie Dotson of six counts of first degree murder and imposing a death sentence for each of the six convictions in 2014. The Court also affirmed Dotson’s convictions of three counts of attempted first degree murder and three consecutive 40-year sentences. The events on Lester Street is one of the most popular episodes of First 48 on A&E. The reason the case gained so much attention was the tender ages of the victims. Jessie committed the crimes in the home of his brother Cecil. The murder victims included Cecil, his 2-year-old and f5-year-old sons, and his fiancée, Marissa Williams, as well as two other adults, Hollis Seals and Shindri Roberson. There were survivors despite the emergency call coming the following afternoon.
9. February 5, 2008: Tornado outbreak
Known across the nation as Super Tuesday, for two days tornadoes broke out across the Southeastern United States. Super Tuesday is known for trying to help select our nation’s next president. While voters in Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Alabama, and Tennessee tried to get out to the polls, Mother Nature was furious. The outbreak produced 87 tornadoes over 15 hours from the afternoon of February 5 until the early morning of February 6. The storm system produced several destructive tornadoes in heavily populated areas, including Memphis. The footage of a tornado ripping a shopping mall was seen all over the United States that day.
8. July 22, 2003: Hurricane Elvis
With the Super Tuesday tornadoes, meteorologists were able to give us some warning to seek safety. But the summer morning of July 22, 2003, Memphis went from a cloudy morning to pitch black in seconds. A strong line of wind just swept over the city in the matter of minutes. That storm became known as “Hurricane Elvis.” That impact was the most damaging wind storm in Memphis history. In seconds, about 340,000 homes and businesses had no power in Memphis. Trees, telephone poles and more materials littered the streets of Memphis. Memphians learned a new term called “derecho,” which refers to a type of devastating straight-line wind.
7. September 11, 1950: Georgia Tann arrest
Legend has it that iconic professional wrestler Richard Morgan Fliehr survived the Georgia Tann house. We know him as the Nature Boy Ric Flair. He once was in the custody of the infamous Tann. Tann was operating an illegal adoption ring out of a Midtown house on Poplar Avenue. Tann is known as the black market baby trafficker, making millions selling thousands of infants from the 1920s until her death in 1950. Tann took advantage of single mothers and even kidnapped children around Memphis, her “adoption” agency. Her activities have been the subject of various documentaries and segments on TV throughout the years.
6. January 11, 1983: Shannon Street Massacre
The worst night in Memphis Police Department history rewrote policies and procedures on handling hostage situations. That bitter-cold evening left even suspects dead after police stormed a North Memphis house and killed all in the house at 2239 Shannon Street. The death of police officer Robert S. Hester, 34, took place in a house in Hollywood. He was beaten to death. Police officers Ray Schwill and Bobby Hester were called to the house after which a confrontation ensued and Hester was taken hostage by men inside the house. After a 30-hour standoff, the MPD unleashed gunfire through the house taking the life of the seven captors, after which Hester was found beaten to death.
5. December 11, 1811: The Earthquake of 1811
On that night a series of strong earthquakes began to hit the area in the center of the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Centered in New Madrid, Mo., the quake was felt in Memphis. Legend says the quakes were so strong that church bells rang in Boston, Mass. And another legend included that the Mississippi River flowed backwards for several days. Supporting that theory is the creation of Reelfoot Lake from those earthquakes.
4. April 30, 1866: Memphis Race Riots
For four days, the worst race riot in Memphis took place. This multiple-day event involved Irishmen rioters whose jobs had been taken by free blacks. What triggered the riot was the shooting of a white police officer. Rumors went around that he was shot by free black men. About 50 people died with most of them being black. With two whites suffering death, the lives of 46 black men were taken by when white civilians and police officers. The rampage swept through the black neighborhoods with mobs running wild in the “Memphis Massacre.”
3. August 16, 1977: The King Dies
Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll” has passed away. The biggest celebrity in Bluff City history died in his Graceland home that day. With his music, movies and cultural impact, the death of Presley rocked the nation that day. As of today, our city has two “Elvis Week” observations. The first comes in January to honor his birth. Then in August, people from across the world endure the Memphis heat to recognize the King’s passing. Graceland is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world every year.
2. August 13, 1878: Yellow Fever Epidemic
Every pandemic and epidemic has a sudden beginning. Let’s go back to that August day 143 years ago. Restaurant owner Kate Bionda becomes the city’s first recorded victim of yellow fever. She got the disease after having contracted with a man who had escaped a quarantined steamboat. By the end of the year, just under four months, 5,000 other people died from the Yellow Fever. Now yellow fever first hit the Bluff City in 1828 taking out 150 citizens. Yellow fever first struck Memphis in 1828 causing 150 deaths. The disease stayed around for 50 years until the big breakout in 1878.
1. April 4, 1968: Dr. King Assassination
Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took place in Memphis and still making national news today. The place of the murder, the Lorraine Motel, is now a national museum. King was in Memphis to support the Sanitation Workers’ strike, which sent shockwaves through the city after two workers died.
The death of King bridged slavery and the Civil Rights Movement in one shot. The Lorraine Motel is now a National Civil Rights Museum teaching the history of the movement , the tragic events of that spring day and the lasting impact on Memphis.
The King assassination is proof a sad event can led to positive change and remind us to be strengthen from pain.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for West 10 Media/Magic Valley Publishing. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.