By Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell, Special to the New Tri-State Defender
Heritage Tours, which principal operator Elaine Turner describes as the state’s first African-American-owned tour company, no longer is overseeing the blue-and-white shotgun house that reflects the meager beginnings of W.C. Handy, renowned as the “Father of the Blues.”
Situated on the east end of the Beale Street Entertainment District, the house is where a young William Christopher Handy lived at the turn of the century. A letter from the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC) informed Turner that the operating services of Heritage Tours would not be part of the Handy home’s future. Heritage had been the operator for 24 years.
The letter – forwarded to Turner on January 2 – floored her. She had until February 2 to completely vacate the property, as possession was being taken by the DMC.
The DMC letter simply stated: “After much discussion, we’d like to inform you that we will no longer require the services of Heritage Tours, Inc., as operator of the W.C. Handy Home & Museum as of February 2, 2019.”
Jennifer Oswalt, president and CEO of DMC, told The New Tri-State on Tuesday that the changeover move was a matter of economics from Beale Street Management’s standpoint.
“For the significant capital investment we are making in repairs of the house and courtyard, we felt that it was the best decision going forward as we work on devising plans to increase awareness of the house and visitors,” said Oswalt.
“Also, we are responsible for reporting on the condition of the property to Mr. Handy’s grandson, and we felt we could best do that if we were in possession of the property.”
Jon Shivers, who sent the letter to Turner, also informed her that DMC was in compliance with the 30-day notice for terminating the agreement with Beale Street Management. The letter advised Turner to acknowledge receipt. Turner said she made numerous calls to Shivers and left messages, with no indication of a response.
Turner also was instructed to make an inventory of everything inside the museum, determining what belonged to Heritage, what the Handy family owned, and which items belonged to Beale Street Management.
Turner reached out for two Memphis City Council members: Martavius Jones and Joe Brown.
“When Mrs. Turner called me, I told her to write them a letter,” said Brown.
Why, and why now? It’s the same way sharecropping is done. Black people are used like animals to work the land, but they get no reward from it. Mrs. Turner initiated that whole project, and now, it’s just being taken away. Just, ‘get out and we’ll take it from here.’ It’s just not right.
Turner wrote Shivers on January 29.
“I have made several attempts to reach you by phone after the receipt of your letter,” her letter read. “This letter (to vacate) comes as a total shock since we have been in frequent communication with you, and there was no indication that you had other plans that did not include Heritage Tours.”
She ended her letter with a request for a meeting that she never got.
For Councilman Jones, the issue of respect – and the manner in which Turner and Heritage were dealt with – matters.
“I don’t know how or why the Downtown Memphis Commission feels they can run Handy House better than Elaine Turner and Heritage House,” said Jones. “I was talking about Beale Street Management from the first day I got here (on the council). They have no experience whatsoever in running an entertainment district.
“They are learning on the job just like anybody else. And then, was it done in a respectful way? I think that’s a very good question to ask the Downtown Memphis Commission. Do they feel this process was done in a respectful manner?”
In a timeline detailed in her letter to Shivers, Turner asserted that in 2017, DMC reached out to offer assistance with upkeep. In November 2018, DMC informed her that they had received money from the city and would send a contractor to begin work on repair of a busted water pipe behind a wall and the resulting water damage, Turner wrote in her letter.
In December of 2018, DMC sent a photographer to Handy House for photos to add to the Beale Street website. On January 2, two weeks later, Turner received the vacate letter with the notice that the DMC was taking over the operation.
“That’s what the plan was all along,” said Brown. “All of this construction and new projects downtown don’t include us. Black businesses get 22 percent set-aside for contracts when we are 76 percent of the population. …They are taking everything we’ve got. Look at what they’re doing to Tom Lee Park.”
Oswalt said Beale Street Management is not cutting Turner out all together.
“We look forward to collaborating with Heritage Tours and other tour companies on how we can move forward together.”
Heritage Tours moved out of the W.C. Handy Home & Museum property on February 10.
“We’ve tried to keep Handy’s legacy alive,” Turner said. “We have the W.C. Handy Heritage Awards every year at Handy’s birthday. …We’ve tried to keep that name in the forefront.”
The date Heritage was given to move out fell during African-American History Month.
Said Turner: “Can you believe it?”
(TSD Associate Publisher/Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku contributed to this report.)