Thursday, December 27, 2012

My Year In Books: 2012

These are the books I read this year. I won't rate them or suggest certain books over others. Instead, I suggest you read them all, or read something – everything you can – in 2013.

Join me over at Goodreads!

  1. Deaf Sentence: A Novel by David Lodge
  2. The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper
  3. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  4. Ghost: A Novel by Alan Lightman
  5. How To Talk To A Widower: A Novel by Jonathan Tropper
  6. This Side Of The River (manuscript) by Jeffrey Stayton
  7. Plan B by Jonathan Tropper
  8. Enchanted Night: A Novella by Steven Millhauser
  9. The Saturdays (The Melendy Family, #1) by Elizabeth Enright
  10. Every Night's A Saturday Night: The Rock 'n' Roll Life Of Legendary Sax Man Bobby Keys by Bobby Keys
  11. North River by Pete Hamill
  12. The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern
  13. The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo
  14. We Are Billion Year Old Carbon: A Tribal-Love-Rock-Novel Set in the Sixties on an Outpost Planet Called Memphis by Corey Mesler
  15. Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut
  16. The Story of a Marriage: A Novel by Andrew Sean Greer
  17. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
  18. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
  19. The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley
  20. The Four-Story Mistake (The Melendy Family, #2) by Elizabeth Enright
  21. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (re-read) by Michael Chabon
  22. One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty
  23. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
  24. One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper
  25. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  26. The Simplest Pattern (manuscript) by Richard J. Alley
  27. The Zero by Jess Walter
  28. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
  29. Then There Were Five (The Melendy Family, #3) by Elizabeth Enright
  30. Elsewhere by Richard Russo
  31. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  32. In the Night Season: A Novel by Richard Bausch
  33. Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze (The Melendy Family, #4) by Elizabeth Enright
  34. Junior Ray by John Pritchard
  35. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
  36. Franny and Zooey (re-read) by J.D. Salinger

Friday, December 21, 2012

Because I Said So: Good deeds can help get us through tragic times

I wrote yesterday's Because I Said So column one week ago today. I had in my head a silly idea where I would come to the defense of Christmas carols, those ditties that become stuck in our heads from Halloween until sometime in early March. I love them, but I know there are others who avoid them at all costs. It's a shame, many of them are good, simple songs with a common denominator and nostalgic flavor we can all take comfort in. My hope was to make you laugh, a little Christmas gift from me to you. When the news started rolling in about the violence in Newton, CT, though, I lost my taste for funny. As the numbers climbed, I lost my voice for singing. I walked up the street that day to meet my kids after school and seeing them walk towards me was like hearing those first few bars of Nat Cole singing "The Christmas Song." It lifted me up, but only for a time, there were too many parents - both in Newton and around the country - grieving. So I sat down and wrote this version in about five minutes, it just poured out of me like a song.

Merry Christmas. Peace on Earth.

Helping out can allow us to reclaim holiday spirit
This being the last column before Christmas, I had this funny little bit planned, in the defense of Christmas carols, that much maligned music genre that pops up earlier and earlier each year.

I walk my kids to school in the mornings, and during this, the most wonderful time of the year, we sing on the way there. My youngest daughter has been leading the caroling lately with favorites "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or "O Hanukkah" from her school's holiday program.

The column was going to be funny and light and possibly a little off key.

And then last Friday, after walking and singing them to school, I went on the Internet to learn that two Memphis police officers had been shot and that one, Martoiya Lang, a mother of four, had died. About the same time, news started coming in about a school shooting in Connecticut that would eventually leave 26 dead, including 20 children.

All of the funny went out of me. All of the music left my voice. What was left was a void and the indescribable urge to see my children, so that I practically ran up to the school at the end of the day.

The acts, of course, are senseless. The fact that they were perpetrated on a mother of four, on the children of so many, is unforgivable. It throws a pall on the most wonderful time of the year, doesn't it?

That day, though, my kids hadn't heard the news. We walked home, and while one daughter prattled on about her class' Christmas party, I heard my 6-year-old, bringing up the rear, singing "Silent Night."

Silent night, holy night.

Mister Rogers, everyone's neighbor, once said that when the news was scary, his mother told him to "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping," and urged us to tell our children the same. And we have, my generation, through Columbine and 9/11 and Virginia Tech and every other unthinkable tragedy that comes to us within seconds through today's technology.

As adults now, and parents, we shouldn't just look for helpers, but we must also be the helpers. There are people in our community who need help, whether from a sudden, inconceivable act of violence, or through a long season of neglect. This is the time to begin helping, during this most wonderful time of the year.

All is calm, all is bright.

If your child is safe at home today as mine are, sitting on the floor beside the tree in anticipation of next Tuesday, watching SpongeBob, eating a Pop-Tart, making a mess, all of the things I make light of here in this space, be thankful and be gracious. Hold them tightly, and do your best to put that music back into their lives.

As I write this, news is still pouring in fast and furious, and things could change, though not necessarily for the better. More bad could happen between now and the day this runs.

But also a lot of good could happen. That's up to you, and it's up to me.

Sleep in heavenly peace, and Merry Christmas from my family to yours.

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Because I Said So: Blood pressure numbers go up with math homework

A couple of years ago I started going for regular checkups with our family doctor. There, among a maze of beige hallways, waiting rooms, exam rooms and bathrooms, various fluids are extracted, body parts are handled and questions are asked. It's like some sort of safe and sterile torture chamber with a copay.

That said, I'd rather go through having blood drawn and urinate in a cup once a day rather than deal with homework time around this house. There are some kids who take to it easily and urgently, almost aggressively. And then there are others who need ... prodding. The first graders at Richland Elementary School are given a packet of homework to be completed by week's end. That makes for a busy Thursday evening. The idea, of course, is to do a little each night, but a little each night would, indeed, cause my blood pressure to skyrocket dangerously.

She's a smart little girl, my first grader, and Procrastination is her favorite subject. It's difficult for me to be too upset by this, however, because the idea for today's Because I Said So column on the misery that is first-grade homework, came to me as I begrudgingly sat down to write the column at the last minute.

Don't get me wrong, I love writing for a living. It's just that I hate writing for a living. Eudora Welty said, "I like to have written." Being finished with writing is the greatest feeling in the world as is, I'm sure, being finished with homework. The trick is to get to that point, to pull yourself (and your first-grader ... or third-grader ... or sixth-grader) up over that mountain of textbooks, worksheets, pencil shavings and projects, to the other side. That's the side where serenity lives, the side where my blood pressure dips down to a normal, healthy measure.

Please enjoy this week's Because I Said So column:
The hardest thing about kids: Math homework
A word to the wise today for new parents out there: Take your eyes off your sleeping baby just long enough to read this column. She'll be fine; they rarely up and roll out of a crib or burst into flames. And she'll still be just as precious when you return,
What you should know is that there is a time coming that will make you forget who that sparkling newborn come forth to brighten your lives ever was. My fellow veteran parents know what it is and I apologize now for any post-traumatic stress you may suffer when I tell these new mothers about the mother of all headaches: a first-grader's homework.

Is there anything more dispiriting, more threatening to our blood pressure, than sitting at the dining room table trying to induce a 6-year-old to focus — please focus! — on this next math problem? The induction of labor might be a more pleasant experience.

Walking? Piece of cake. Talking? It's only natural (though be aware that once it starts, it will not stop). Learning to ride a bike? The worst you might end up with is a broken bone, and it won't be yours. Even the teens and puberty, driver's license and prom have nothing on that half-hour … hour? … You'll lose all track of time trying to teach your child about time.

The table, normally the site of tranquil family dinners, becomes a battleground, the only weapons a stubby pencil, wrinkled worksheet and a fleeting grasp of the most basic in mathematic fundamentals. I point, again, at the problem at hand and read it aloud to my daughter. She's there with me, physically, but her mind is across the house with her siblings, or in a pineapple under the sea.

When I finish reading, she looks up as though surprised to find me there, and then she answers: "Four?" No. "Eight?" No. "Three." An exasperated look. "Two. Twelve. Four?" When it becomes too much, when the intensity over these integers becomes more than I can bear, the answer is, at long last, shouted: "Five! It's five!"

And then we both just sit and stare at each other because, once again, it's I who blurted it out.

Our homework session ends when I stand to leave the room as she writes an "S" in the wrong blank.

I love my daughter. Perhaps I don't say that enough in this space. I love all of my children just as much as you new parents cherish that ball of drool and gas sleeping in its crib beside you (I know you haven't even left the nursery), but this one might not be cut out for academics. She's more Frankenstein than Einstein these days.

But we're working on it together, and throughout first grade I expect her grades to rise as steadily and as high as my systolic pressure.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Because I Said So: Thankful for times past, memories of family

Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours.

Thankful for times past, memories of family
It's the most nostalgic time of the year. There are memories everywhere today, in each shaker of spice, in the clatter of silverware and carried in on the aromas from the oven. Who doesn't equate the myriad scents and sounds of Thanksgiving with childhood and the kitchen of a grandparent or great-grandparent?

Today is one of remembrance, a main course of sentimentality simmered over years past when, as children, we looked on from the kids' table to where the adults ate, wondering if the food there just out of reach wasn't sweeter and more plentiful, the talk more substantial and promising.

Time's crawl seemed interminable then, as though it would never get us to the grown-up table. And then one year it did; chairs were shuffled, and a place was made beside a favorite aunt or uncle. We began to look back almost immediately, spending this time each year remembering what it was like to be so carefree and, hopefully, thankful for that time past.

It's been a tough year for our family. My father died in the spring, and just last month we lost my grandfather. Such happenings make the gatherings we're having today, surrounded by family but with an obvious empty chair, a bit more melancholy.

We give thanks for those in our lives today as well as those no longer with us for whatever reason, for those we knew and who enriched our lives for having known them. Look to the kids' table, to that island of innocence, a refuge with its spilled milk, half-eaten turkey leg and discarded cranberry sauce where nothing unforeseen could touch you, where no concerns from the adult world, never more than a few feet away, would ever be seated.

Give thanks for your children who still believe that nothing will ever change, that sickness and sadness are ghouls to be stopped at the doorstep of the family home.

As my grandfather's illness progressed, it was his seven children who came together to look after him, and my grandmother to care for him and wrap him up in their memories.

My aunts and uncles, my mother, have had to act the adult more than ever in the past year. Yet they've also, I believe, spent some time at the kids' table, whole meals of nostalgia eaten with their mother at one end of the table, and their father at the other.

I gave the eulogy at the funeral and, in it, talked of how my grandfather could fill up a room with his very presence. In the absence of his physical presence this Thanksgiving, he is still here with us, the dining room filled with his family and his memory.
Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Because I Said So: Kids so far unscathed by ravages of nature

I was in Panama City, FL, for several hurricanes in 1995, one of the busiest seasons for the storms on record in the Gulf of Mexico, and recall Hurricane Opal, in particular, a massive Category 5 that would be downgraded to a Category 4 just before coming ashore near Navarre Beach, some 70 miles from where we were. It was the only storm for which we evacuated, traveling 90 miles north to Dothan, AL, just ahead of the storm. It took us hours and hours, creeping along Highway 231, to reach a Ramada Inn where my family was already hunkered down.

That night was spent with no electricity while rain, wind and tornadoes raged outside. People milled about in the lobby and, full to capacity, sat in darkened hallways with their belongings and their family pets. It was a communal spirit that took over in the face of unrelenting nature as always seems to happen. Catastrophic occurrences, whether man-made or the wrath of Mother Nature, tend to bring out the best of the human spirit in survivors, neighbors, and those from across a continent. We've seen it time and again, and we saw it just last week when Hurricane Sandy landed upon the northeast.

I ran across this piece in The Paris Review, written by Spencer Woodman, on his thoughts as the storm raged outside his window and he read by candlelight from The Last Gentleman by the great Walker Percy:
For Percy, the transformative power of a hurricane lies not just in the immediate excitement, the break in routine it brings, but more so in a storm’s capacity to limit the range of human choice, its ability to deliver a whole city from the chaotic realm of the Possible back the unquestioning mode of the Necessary.
It's the Necessary that brings us all together, it's the common denominator in being alive, in staying alive, and it's what we will come together to provide for one another, as best we can, when times call for it.

The "Because I Said So" column this week is on natural disasters and my family's disastrous state of preparedness for such events. I make light, maybe because humor is part of the Necessary, but I also urge you to help the victims of Sandy, the recent earthquake in South America, and anywhere else people struggle at the hands of that which is out of our control.

Kids so far unscathed by ravages of nature
Other than last week's tremors sent across the river by an Arkansas earthquake that didn't even register on their sugar-addled seismographs, my children have, thankfully, never known a natural disaster. So when the windswept farmhouse of reality landed on them in the form of news coverage and classroom discussion about Hurricane Sandy last week, they were properly awed.

I can recall accounts of 1992's Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 that hit South Florida, where my kids' grandmother now lives, and of Floyd, which struck North Carolina in 1999. I was there for Hurricane Opal when it devastated the Gulf Coast in 1995 and was amazed by the brutal force of Mother Nature on those small coastal towns where so many Memphians vacation.

Even without experience, my kids are ready. Their bedrooms are natural disaster preparedness zones. Several years ago, I witnessed a search-and-rescue planning exercise conducted by the city of Memphis and the Medical Education Research Institute in which a nondescript office was transformed into a panic-stricken site of destruction. The scene had nothing on my kids' rooms. Watching them pick among the ruins for an errant shoe or long-lost textbook is like watching Tennessee Task Force 1 brave shards of concrete and fire to find survivors. I'm thinking of leashing some kids and leasing them to the rescue team.

The weather-related catastrophes of my children so far have been limited to heavy rains and lost electricity when they've had to suffer through an evening of no television or Internet access. The candles amuse them for a while, like tiny torches in a cave; the flashlights entertain them longer, until the batteries run out.

We have only the rudiments of a survival kit in our home for when the big quake that the experts promise us is coming finally does arrive. We have 6 gallons of fresh water stockpiled and, as of this writing, half a box of Pop-Tarts, one working flashlight, five Bud Light Limes bought by mistake, an untold number of plastic Kroger bags we keep forgetting to return for recycling and a closet full of board games to keep us entertained or to burn for warmth.

Hurricane Sandy was mild compared to some, but the area she hit is densely populated, and much havoc has been wreaked. Though I kid here, the hardships and loss felt by those in her path are real, and should you be inclined, I urge you to contact, or another relief agency of your choosing, to make a donation and help those in need today, and those who will certainly need help in the future.

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Telegraph Avenue

I’m not a writer with a set time of day to work on fiction. I’m more comfortable letting the mood strike me and putting down what I want to say, though I do try to touch on it each day, whether it’s writing a new piece or revising something previously written. A lazy writer, the mood does nevertheless tend to strike me at the same time each day, in the late afternoons and early evenings. It’s not an ideal time for someone with a house full of people, dinner to tend to, laundry, dishes, homework and bedtimes. I should be more disciplined, perhaps, I should set my clock for sometime deep in the a.m. or burn the midnight oil well into a new chapter. I have friends who write each day at the same time and I envy them their discipline. I’ve done this before, but only when I’m near the end of a project and want to push through, when the light at the end of the tunnel flutters my eyelids and wakens me before the alarm clock.

I’ve read that Michael Chabon, if he’s near the end of a novel, or on a particularly difficult portion of whatever he’s working on, will say goodbye to his wife and four kids for a stay in a hotel where solitude and peaceful working conditions help him realize his goal. I can’t imagine even suggesting such a thing in my home. Then again, I don’t have a Pulitzer, or any bestsellers, (or a published novel) to back me up. Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue (Harper, 2012), is more evidence for why the man should have his own suite at the Chateau Marmont.

The book is the story of Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings, longtime friends who are struggling to keep their record store, Brokeland Records – a haven for the denizens of Telegraph Avenue, for the hip, the has-beens and the policy makers of pop culture – open in the glare of a corporate megastore, Dogpile, threatening to take up residence in the neighborhood. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are partners in a midwifery practice and face their own struggles for acceptance in a world of ever-increasing medical convention. Archy’s estranged father, Luther Stallings, a one-time kung fu champion and blaxploitation film star, is a source of concern for his son like a migraine sneaking up from the back of the skull. And there are so many more, a whole, colorful cast of characters carrying the backbeat of plot like Parliament Funkadelic or the MGs.

In Telegraph Avenue, I imagine Chabon takes to heart the old adage “Write what you know.” Maybe he did a lot of research for his story based in Berkeley and Oakland, and the worlds of vinyl soul albums, 1970s film noir, leisure suits and all manner of vintage and pop culture from the late 60s and 70s. But maybe, when he had a question, he simply walked across his office to a wall-length bookshelf and took down a comic book or album to peruse, read, listen to and study. He loves this world he inhabits and wants nothing more than to give us a tour with a soundtrack provided by his very own mix-tape.

All Chabon books will forever be compared to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier &Clay (Picador, 2000), which is unfair, but it is a book I carry with me; not physically, though I probably could the way Nate Jaffe’s son, Julius, carries his portable, plastic eight-track player, but inside me where it hums just as Nat keeps a constant beat in his head. It is a book that astounded me the first and second time I read it. The characters of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay live in a real world swirled within the magic and fantasy that their dreams, fears, relationships, and lives are hinged upon. Telegraph Avenue isn’t so different, though the nostalgia – and there is nostalgia, to be sure, try not to overdose on it – takes us back, not to pre-World War II Prague, but to post-Vietnam San Francisco, and into the bedrooms of every 14-year-old boy ever, replete with the sloppy experimentation in music, sex, pop culture, and the independence they all precipitate.

There are small, insignificant issues I have with a storyline or two, but I’m willing to let those go because of the writing. There is nothing quite like a Chabon sentence. It’s like a steak dinner or a chocolate cake dessert, not just a slice, either, but the whole damn thing eaten in one sitting, with some ice cream on the side, and maybe a glass of ice cold milk.

Regarding writing sentences, Chabon told NPR’s Fresh Air:
“Sentences are the purest, simplest, most pleasurable part of writing for me. And it's the part that comes the easiest to me. … I love that aspect of it: the shaping of sentences, the crafting of sentences, that's the fun part of writing for me.”
And it shows. He packs so much into one sentence that I tend to read a page or two and then back off, lean back on the sofa, loosen my belt and digest it all. There is, of course, Part III, “A Bird of Wide Experience,” with its single, 12-page sentence, but that’s just showing off and, frankly, unnecessary. It’s more a testament to Chabon’s standing in the publishing world, and an overeager editor, than his writing ability. Can you imagine an unknown author including that bit in a query letter to an agent? “Oh, and in the middle I include one single sentence that goes on for a dozen pages. People will love that.” The rejection letter would be much more brief and written immediately after reading that queried sentence.

But that’s nitpicking because the writing is beautiful, all of it, every adjective (plenty), comma (many), clause, phrase, digression and aside. Chabon hooks his words together like train cars to take us on a journey through descriptive lands peopled with fanciful citizens, all dressed to the nines in their flamboyant Aztec numbers, and all strutting to their own brand of funk.

Monday, November 05, 2012

A Tale of Two Cemeteries

Back in September, I took C over to Elmwood Cemetery where he and some friends, having read The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby, were making a documentary on the Yellow Fever Epidemic for school. I stopped in the main office to get a map of the grounds and take my other three kids on a tour of Memphis’s past. I’d been there as a kid many times but it had been a while since my last visit. I was immediately impressed by the offices, the architecture, the old-world feel and the contemporary use for such a space. I asked a few questions of a staff member and later pitched Phillips Cottage as a Hidden Memphis story to my editor at The Commercial Appeal.

The idea was for a story, to run the Sunday before Halloween, not on Elmwood itself, which has deservedly received much press over the years, but on this one, 146-year-old, continuously used structure within the cemetery. She liked the idea, but didn’t think there would be enough for a whole feature and suggested finding something else to go along with it. My immediate thought was the Crystal Shrine Grotto in Memorial Park, the elaborate, cave-like shrine built in 1938 by Mexican artist Dionicio Rodriguez. It’s another place I visited as a kid.

Grave of cemetery founder Rev. Morris Henderson

As I sat around searching the internet from home, I came across this great story on Zion Christian Cemetery by Paulene Keller in the October issue of The Downtowner magazine. Surprisingly, I’d never heard of this cemetery on South Parkway founded by a group of former slaves in 1876. The more I read, the more intrigued I became.

I spent a morning interviewing Kim McCollum, the executive director of Elmwood, complete with tour of Phillips Cottage and the cemetery, then I drove over to Zion, not far away, and was struck by the stark difference. Elmwood is orderly in its own way, historically cited everywhere you turn and seems intent in its orderliness on preserving and educating. Zion, on the other hand, is overgrown, unwelcoming, mostly neglected and, well, sad. The headstones, where they still exist, are crumbling or leaning or have fallen over. They bear names and dates of death, but in many cases there are no dates of birth or, if anything, only a year. I walked the grounds, interested in the gravesite of Dr. Georgia Patton Washington, one of the first female African-American physicians. She died in 1900 at the age of 36 after giving birth to a son. She asked that a magnolia tree be planted to mark her grave and it towers now, surrounded by other markers, and its growth and size has knocked to the ground an ornate obelisk marking where she, two of her young children who died within their first years, and her mother, all lie. Looking back at my notes from that day, I wrote that “much of the 15-acres is unused” but that is a misconception as I later learned. While there are relatively few grave markers, there are nearly 40,000 buried there. Elmwood holds 75,000.

I visited Memorial Park that day as well and toured the Grotto, and I spoke later with Ken Hall and Rhodes professor Milton Moreland, both of whom have worked extensively on the Zion Community Project and were enormously helpful. As I began writing the story, it quickly became unwieldy. Our initial thoughts were wrong and it turns out there was enough for a feature on Phillips Cottage alone. There was more than enough for a feature on Zion, and all of these places deserve their own write up. I decided to focus on the Cottage and Washington’s magnolia, and to save the Grotto for another day. (During the time of the initial story pitch and near-publication there had been some upheaval at the CA and my longtime editor had, unfortunately, been one of those laid off. My new editor, understandably, had a full plate made even more so and this confusion is in no way her fault.)

 I sent in my 1,500-word story and had to leave town unexpectedly the next day for a family matter. I returned on a Saturday and the next day opened the newspaper to find a shortened, 600-word, single-source feature on Phillips Cottage alone (Hidden Memphis: Elmwood Cemetery's caretaker cottage endures as treasure-trove of history, Oct. 28, 2012). My editor was out of town so I couldn’t find out what happened until today. Turns out there were only photos of Elmwood to run with the story, so they went with that portion instead of both. Any issue with a story I’ve written has had to do with photos and never with the copy I’m hired to write.

But these things happen. I just hate it for Zion which deserves some recognition. The  40,000 souls there, many of them former slaves themselves, deserve their dignity. To learn more about the Zion Community Project, visit

Below is the version I wrote.

The Cottage and the Magnolia
There are 95 acres in the heart of Memphis, two disparate plots of land that are nevertheless equally important to the city, reverent to the families of those entombed there and meaningful to any who seek to understand how a city is built and nearly destroyed, who its staunchest defenders, outlaws, leaders and healers were, and how such information might be saved or lost over time. 
Elmwood Cemetery was founded in 1852 and has maintained Phillips Cottage on its grounds as a memorial to its history, and the history of Memphis, for nearly that long. Zion Cemetery was founded in 1876 and has deteriorated over time through neglect, lost records and a lack of attention, its greatest monument now a towering magnolia tree planted at the grave of a forgotten, though remarkable, woman.

Phillips Cottage - Elmwood

A picture tells a thousand words, and the black-and-white images decorating the interior of Phillips Cottage in Elmwood Cemetery are no exception. But the plaster walls of the cottage have more stories to tell than just those captured in the earliest days of photography; stories of grieving loved ones remembering their dead, of a fever that spread and threatened to eradicate the population of Memphis, of generals, mayors, and the men and women whose final journey, whether on horse-drawn carriage or by automobile, passed by its front door.

Phillips Cottage was built as a one-room structure for Samuel Phillips, the cemetery’s second superintendent, in 1866, 14 years after the founding of the cemetery, as a place to conduct the business of overseeing funeral arrangements and tending to the grounds. Despite its utilitarian use, the cottage was designed in the ornate Victorian Gothic Carpenter style, popular at the time with its gingerbread trim and church-like windows. A steeple-shaped finial decorates the northern peak of the original standing seam metal roof.

Phillips Cottage has been used consistently since its construction, but is much more than mere office space today. It is a living, working museum with records and artifacts dating back to the 19th Century. The small staff welcomes the public to peruse and take a trip back to that Victorian era when the cemetery itself was outside the city limits and only the first of its 75,000 bodies were interred. “We are a repository of historical information,” said Kimberly McCollum, executive director of Elmwood. “We have lot books that go back to the founding of the cemetery, we have an amazing collection of archives. Anybody is welcome to come inside the cottage and look at it. In fact, we encourage people to.”

In those first years there were two entrances to the cemetery – one at the south end and the second, the only entrance still used today, at the north end of the 80 acres just off of Dudley St., is where Phillips Cottage stands.

Circa 1900, a second room and a walk-in vault were added to the existing cottage, as was a full-length front porch, altering the shape of the original gothic-style windows along the front. The added room is now an office and communal space with worktable, furnishings and floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with volumes on Memphis history for use by genealogists and researchers. The vault, brick-lined and left open to the public, holds old city directories, more photographs and a small gift shop.

In 1998, more space for offices and an archival-grade vault to the east was added. “We are interested in historic preservation and keeping everything with the same feel, and Jack Tucker was very specific that he wanted to honor that tradition,” McCollum said. To that end, the late architect Jack Tucker kept strictly to the design and style of the original cottage so that no matter where a visitor goes, the woodwork and sense of the old is seamless.

Above the 1900-era vault, attached to the roof and hung from scaffolding, is a bell that was used to call the students to class at the State Female College on McLemore, donated in 1885 after the school’s closure. That bell has rung for every funeral procession that has passed over the narrow entrance bridge for the past 127 years.

Inside, one will find the cottage’s cat, Howard, with its half-tail, walking among a hall tree once belonging to Robert Church, landowner and Memphis’s first black millionaire, donated by his family in 1983; a desk that once belonged to Alfred Jefferson Vaughan Jr., confederate general and Shelby County criminal court clerk in the late-1800s; and a refurbished sofa once owned by Mayor E.H. Crump.

“I think that I might have one of the most beautiful offices in Memphis,” McCollum said. “I am very fortunate to be surrounded by this beauty, and this history.”

Washington’s Magnolia - Zion

Just over two miles from Phillips Cottage and Elmwood, on So. Parkway East, there is no ornamental bridge leading to ample parking. There is no parking at all to speak of. Arching from stone feet, a metal, paint-flecked sign above the rutted entryway reads: Zion Christian Cemetery. A nearby historical marker denotes its importance as having been founded in 1876 by a group of former slaves known as the United Sons of Zion Association, as “ … a respectable burial site for African-Americans.”

For decades, the private cemetery, inherited by descendants of the founders and eventually given over years later to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, has languished in disrepair and neglect, at the mercy of the elements, vagrants and crime in the neighborhood. At one time, though, “it was by far the most active African-American cemetery in Memphis during the postbellum period, the period of Reconstruction and so forth,” said Milton Moreland, Chair of the Archaeology Program and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.

In recent years, a group of individuals and organizations, including Rhodes, has begun the Zion Cemetery Project, leading tour groups and volunteer clean-ups to restore the cemetery itself and to instill pride in the surrounding neighborhood. “If we can revive that cemetery as a major tourist destination, then that helps the community,” Moreland said. “The success of Zion will also be the success of the South Parkway and South Memphis community along with it.”

“The first day I stepped foot in there in 1999, the brush and bushes were six or seven feet tall all the way up to the fence at the road,” said Ken Hall, who, as executive director for the volunteer organization HandsOn Memphis at the time, was contacted by neighbors to the cemetery tired of the rodents and crime the lot harbored. “We’ve gone in foot by foot, yard by yard, with machetes, axes, hoes and knocked that back.”

On a recent crisp, fall day when the leaves were turning from green to gold, and beginning to cover the plots, a crew worked to clear weeds and brambles, to tend to the resting place of those who tended to others while alive. The most notable detail in the cemetery, other than the headless angel leaning over the grave of Rev. Morris Henderson, one of the founders, and the myriad other toppled stones, is the lack of exact birthdates. In some cases there are only birth years given to further infuse the facts with uncertainty, but in most cases, there is only a date of death.

Dr. Washington's magnolia
A ledger full of those buried there, as well as the records of T.H. Hayes Funeral Home, closed in 2010, but which conducted some 5,000 funerals at Zion, have been obtained and scanned by Rhodes College. The ledgers can be viewed at, a site built and maintained by the school.

It is difficult to believe there are upwards of 40,000 buried underfoot as you walk among the 1,000 or so markers still standing. The last burial in Zion Cemetery was in the late 1960s, Hall said, though most of the plots were filled by the 1920s.

The scattershot and weather-worn headstones are monuments to history and, among the sweet gum trees, oaks and vine-choked maples, on a rise midway within the cemetery, soars a stately magnolia. It’s not a man-made, chiseled monument yet it marks the resting place of Dr. Georgia Patton Washington, born in 1864 and died in 1900, who was one of the first female African-American physicians. “She’s talked about extensively in Ida B. Wells’s Memphis Diary,” said Moreland. “In her day, she was quite an active person, missionary and practicing doctor.” Washington asked that a tree be planted at her grave and now, in the shade of those waxy leaves, her official obelisk lies on its side, still readable, yet marking little.

While Elmwood has been a resting place for well-maintained and detailed records since its beginning, Zion is having to play catch up to cobble its history together. Any cemetery, first and foremost, should be a dignified place for those laid to rest there, a place where family can visit to remember and pay homage, but it also acts as a city’s memory where the names and dates act as plot points on the timeline of our people’s history.

“You kind of forget what was happening in the 1880s or 1890s unless we can memorialize them in one way or another,” Moreland said. “Cemeteries really are part of a living community, and when you have a vibrant cemetery, you actually have a vibrant living community.”

For more information on these cemeteries, Phillips Cottage or Dr. Georgia Patton Washington, visit and

All photos by the author

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Because I Said So: We all scheme for ice cream

I guess it started with my mother, if such a thing needs an origin. My mom had her nightly bowl of ice cream and now I need mine. My dirty little secret, though, is that I wait until the kids are in bed so that I don't have to make many extra bowls, so it will all last longer. Indeed, I do not want to share. I'm not alone in this, I've talked to other parents who do the same thing. It's a relaxing part of our hectic days when we get to sit alone with no one clinging and asking for anything, for everything, and eat that sweet, sweet no-kids-allowed ice cream.

Today's Because I Said So column is all about that, all about that time of the day that is just for us. Maybe it's not ice cream for you, so what is your escape? Perhaps it's a brownie or cake (but why would you have cake without ice cream?), or a burrito or a few fingers of good scotch. Whatever it is, it's all about you and that's nothing to be ashamed of because doing this – raising and worrying over kids – is the toughest job we'll ever have.

I hope you enjoy reading today's column as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Jig is up on ice cream secret
Every parent has the shared experience of that first time a child walks into the bedroom unannounced. You know that moment well — the humiliation, the embarrassment of it all. You thought you locked the door, were sure you did, but the knob turns, a hinge squeaks, and before you realize what's happening, you've been caught.

There, in front of your innocent child, bathed in the blue glow of Conan O'Brien or Stephen Colbert, you've been caught with an enormous bowl of after-the-kids-have-gone-to-bed ice cream.

It feels like the jig is up, doesn't it? Innocence lost. Will you ever get that time to yourself again? The fear is that you'll have to do as Daddy says, not as he does, and share your late-night treat. Who among us hasn't told our children that, no, sorry, there isn't any ice cream left, only to dish the last heaping scoops for yourself?

And who among us hasn't told a spouse the same thing?

Me neither.

Young people may not understand the importance of such a dessert. That pitiful bowl of ice cream is our all-night dance club, our favorite indie band at the Hi-Tone, our last call. It's an escape, oftentimes our only one, a Fortress of Solitude in an icy carton. We recognize each other when we pass on the street, that dribbled spot of chocolate on our shirts is our club's badge, the glow in our eyes on the frozen dessert aisle a secret handshake. We don't scream for ice cream, but whisper about it under the cover of darkness.

When little Jimmy walks through that door to find your face smeared with Neapolitan, a mountain of cream cradled in your arms, it's the first time he suspects that he is not the apple of your eye; that the apple of your eye is actually a cherry on top of a banana split you spent more time planning and putting together than you did his dinner earlier that evening.

It's the best-tasting dessert there is, isn't it? There is no more delicious frozen treat — not Baskin-Robbins, not YoLo, not a Jerry's Sno Cone. My personal favorite flavor is whatever happens to be in the freezer at 9:05 p.m.

We have so little as parents, and it all revolves around food. There's that coffee in the half-hour before the kids wake up for school, the trip to the Kroger alone for that one thing forgotten on the last shopping trip (and more ice cream), and that bowl after bedtime.

Give it up? They'll have to pry that spoon from my frozen, chocolaty fingers.

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Because I Said So: Grade-school lunchtime a real eye-opener for dad

While dropping G off this morning, I was called out by the principal of Richland Elementary School because of today's "Because I Said So" column. It seems she began the day with phone calls about it. I wrote about having lunch with G in their cafeteria last week - the smells, the food, the ominous silence.

Mrs. McNary took it all in the manner it was intended, laughing along with my desperate attempts at humor, but she also wanted to explain. Richland was built in 1957 by the progressive architect team of Bill Mann and Roy Harrover in a style that must have looked as futuristic then as TV dinners. Mann and Harrover were also responsible for the Memphis International Airport and Memphis College of Art among other well-known buildings. As contemporary and cutting edge as the school certainly was 55 years ago, things change. I don't know if the walls, floor and ceiling of the cafeteria became more acoustically cantankerous or if children have become louder since then, but Mrs. McNary told me this morning that a parent once took a decibel meter into a lunch and the needle was off the charts. They had an architect come in to study it for possible sound dampening measures and were told that it would cost close to $100,000. In lieu of spending that kind of cash, they opted for making half the lunch period silent.

This seems reasonable. I'm sure there is concern for the children's hearing long term and we've all been to too-noisy restaurants, that's never a pleasant dining option. G told me that day that they weren't allowed to talk while they eat because they might choke and I laughed out loud at the reasoning (I was shushed). A certain amount of control needs to be had at all times to prevent chaos and, I'm sure, once it gets beyond a certain point, there is no returning to normalcy.

The kids seemed happy and ate well in their antique/futuristic school, and that's what is ultimately important. I had a good time at lunch with G and her friends. Kids are funny in groups and for a limited amount of time. I hope you will find a quiet place to sit and enjoy today's column.

Grade-school lunchtime a real eye-opener for dad
I had a lunch date with my youngest child at her school last week. She was Star of the Week for her first-grade class, an exalted position that affords her, along with acting as emcee of her own daily show-and-tell, the honor of eating in front of me.

It's an interesting thing, sitting with a table full of 6-year-olds. I recommend you all try it at least once. One time should just about do it.
Walking into an elementary school lunchroom, for me, is like walking through a portal back to my youth, such is the power of the sense of smell to memory. It's that mixture of food smell with feet smell; that oddly comforting yet nauseating scent that is anything but appetizing. Lack of appetite was not a problem as it was only 10:15 a.m., lunchtime for Memphis City Schools.

Also not a problem because these kids were not sharing. The lunch box buffet laid out in front of me offered a tempting, yet off-limits feast of lunch meats, tubes of yogurt, grapes, cookies, cheese sticks, potato chips, mayonnaise, apple slices, crackers and juice boxes; I provided my own hand sanitizer.

The first-grade students were required to eat in total silence for the first half of the allotted lunch period, a policy I'm not on board with. Lunch should be the one place, after recess, when kids are allowed to socialize and laugh and cut up with each other. I understand the need for control of small children; I have four of my own. Without control there is chaos and possible mutiny, but I found the apron-clad wardens walking the line to be a bit much.

The kids I ate with last week were a chatty bunch, too. When, at the halfway point they were released from their shackles of shushes, we discussed summer vacation plans, loose teeth, tofurkey, big sisters, throwing up and middle names.
I asked the kids around me if they ever trade lunches the way I used to.

"We're not allowed to," my daughter said. "We'll get moved to another table."

What we have in the lunchrooms of local elementary schools is a failure to communicate, and solitary confinement is the preferred deterrent. It seems that a lunch spent in the box for these tiny Cool Hand Lukes is what keeps the room quiet.

"But only if we're caught," piped up one of her friends who shall remain nameless, but who will surely be at my table for our next lunch date.

Such hushed hegemony isn't exclusive to Richland Elementary, where I dined last week. It was the same scene when our kids were at Downtown Elementary several years ago. I'm not sure whether it's a Memphis City Schools policy or a practice the principals share at their regular district meetings. I picture them sitting around an enormous conference table, bottles of ibuprofen in front of them, popping them like Chiclets and sharing trade secrets for ways to infuse their schools with sweet, sweet silence.

Can we blame them? I just described the post-bedtime ritual at my house, and possibly yours, assuming you're also washing down the Advil with a glass of wine and soaking in a bath of antibacterial soap.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Because I Said So: Season of transition a fashion nightmare

My mother will take great pleasure in this week's "Because I Said So" column because I mention that my sons wear jackets to school regardless of the temperature. I did the same thing as a boy and it drove her crazy. I know it drove her crazy because it drives me crazy to see them leave the house with them on and then return home, when the mercury is hovering in the 90s, still wearing them. They say their schools are cold, but I've been in both of their schools in the past week and did just fine without an extra layer of fleece.

Today's column is about the transition from summer to fall, and the requisite lengthening of sleeves and pant legs that comes with cooler weather. For the smallest children, it's as though I'm asking them to hunt and kill a caribou, skin it, tan the hide and fashion their own winter wear.

I'm almost certain I've written a very similar column before, maybe last fall if not the fall prior, but that's what being a parent is, isn't it? It's that endless repetition of seasons and laundry and fits and tempers. For some reason, with each change of the season, I think it's going to improve. I really believe that this year I'll say, "You should wear long pants and a sweater" to whomever the youngest might be and they'll say, "Good thinking, sir, I'll go change into that right now." It's folly to think they'd ever call me "sir." And it's the blind optimism – or shortness of memory – that makes parenthood work. We have to think each year, each season, every day, will get better and easier because if we didn't we'd go mad; or madder.

So pull on your woolen socks, slip on your favorite cardigan, have a seat and enjoy this edition of "Because I Said So."

Season of transition a fashion nightmare

I just returned home from walking a few of my kids up to school, and there was something in the air this morning. It wasn't the apprehension of a looming quiz or the incomplete homework stuffed into backpacks, not this time. I walked on one side of my daughter, holding her hand, while the crispness of autumn touched the other. The sun was lower in the sky at that early hour, and we all remarked on the temperature difference from the previous day's walk.

It isn't cold, not by any stretch, but the thermometer does herald cooler days, days when we'll be donning coats and hats and gloves for the two-block walk each morning.

For now, though, it's simply cooler out, a refreshing respite. Perhaps a light jacket or sweater will suffice; a pair of long pants, certainly. Not for my daughter, though, not yet. For a 6-year-old, these are the days (weeks?) of transition. This is the end of the shorts and short sleeves, the end of sandals and skirts, but it's going to take some time to get used to such a sartorial shift.

Genevieve refused leggings worn beneath a skirt this morning, based solely on color. Navy blue? Not school sanctioned, according to her. The same jacket she wore every day last winter, in and out of school, is suddenly not a proper uniform cover-up. Not that sweater, no, not ever. "But they actually call it 'sweater weather,'" I pleaded.

Her parents, of course, don't know what they're talking about when they assure her that she can wear blue pants, that she can wear that very same jacket she wore only six months ago, that the sweater looks cute on her. But how could we possibly know anything?

This fight doesn't apply to the boys. To be fair, though, my sons have been wearing fleece jackets to school all school year — a year made up mostly of the month of August — as if their first class of the day is Intro to Igloos. It burns me up, literally, to see my son walk in at the end of a school day wearing an admittedly school-appropriate jacket, when the heat index is 103.

I've asked my sons not to wear jackets when it's still so hot outside, but they say their classrooms are cold. I tell my daughter she should wear one because it's cold in the morning, but she says it will be hot at dismissal. I stop talking. I need to have faith that somewhere, maybe in the pockets of that coat, they carry with them the common sense to stay warm or dry, to not succumb to heat stroke in the name of — or the profound lack of — fashion.

When we got to school this morning, we met up with Genevieve's friend, a little girl wearing navy blue pants who seemed comfortable in the morning air. I saw the opportunity to make a point. "See those pants, Genevieve? What color are those?"
The look she returned was chilling.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hidden Memphis: Lloyd T. Binford

For almost two years, every other month, I've written the series "Hidden Memphis" for The Commercial Appeal. It's a lot of work, which is probably why it hasn't become a monthly series. Coming up with story ideas, researching them, locating experts or descendants or anyone who might have a connection to a 60-year-old building or industry or individual takes a lot of time and research. Looking at it as a freelance writer, it probably takes too much time when you get down to dollars per hour. But I love it. I love learning about little-known characters and finding images from our city's prodigious, notorious, colorful, shameful, hopeful, ill and progressive past, and sharing what I learn with others. And, to be truthful, the amount of time spent on any one story is probably, in large part, my own fault. When I get into the Memphis & Shelby County Room at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and the helpful librarian brings me a stack (it's always a stack, if not a truckload) of newspaper clippings, scholarly papers, letters, photos or marginalia from early last century, I just can't help but read through it all. And when Wayne Dowdy, resident historian and manager of the room, happens by, I can't help but pick his own gray matter file for information and perspective.

Such was the case with the story that ran in yesterday's paper on Lloyd Tilgham Binford, the chairman of the Memphis Censor Board from 1928 until just before his death in 1956. I'd heard bits and pieces, anecdotes, about Binford over the years as I researched Film Row or the long-gone movie theaters of the past, but he was never a major subject in either of those stories so I just filed his name away for later. When my editor suggested Binford for a "Hidden Memphis" topic, I somewhat reluctantly agreed. It seemed to me that everyone already knew about him, how hidden could he be? And how much information could there possibly be on one man who wasn't a mayor or civil rights leader in this town? So I put out a call to all of the usual suspects, and some unusual suspects, that I look up for such stories, packed up my legal pad and pencils and headed to the Memphis Room. And, of course, they had everything I might need: pages and pages of stories and obituaries on Binford. He was quite notorious in his day, and quite often quoted. Perfect.

I pieced a story together through the voluminous wordage published on the commissioner, and talked with his great-granddaughter, Tamara Trexler, and grandson, Fred Trexler. I picked the brains of movie house historian Vincent Astor, University of Memphis professor Danny Linton, film directors Willy Bearden and Craig Brewer, film commissioner Linn Sitler, Malco magnates Michael Lightman and Nancy Tashie, Google and Dowdy. I sent the story in and, as I am wont to do, spent the rest of the week rewriting it in my head. The only problem with newspaper writing, I've found, is the limited space available; this story could have easily been twice as long.

I wanted to be fair to Binford, although being fair to someone when all evidence points to the fact that he banned films from the viewing public for racial reasons, or kept adults from seeing movies he felt to be too racy, both in image and language, is difficult to do. Government censorship doesn't deserve a fair shake. But Binford's background is interesting – a self-made businessman who grew his company from nothing, built an iconic home office that is a treasure in downtown Memphis today, and all with little more than a grade-school education. He also headed the Mid-South Fair from 1928-1931, and gave more than $10,000 to farm youth organizations. He was active in politics and acted as campaign manager for E.H. Crump. He was vice president of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, a member of the board of trustees of the National Council and YMCA, on the board of Baptist Hospital; he was a Mason, Shriner and an Elk. And, according to newspaper accounts and Tamara Trexler, because of his charitable works here and in his hometown of Duck Hill, MS, there were over a hundred children throughout the south who had been named for him.

But then again, he banned movies from being seen because they deal " ... with social equality between whites and negroes in a way that is not practiced in the South." And in an attempt, seemingly, to reclaim - or dispute - his reputation, he was quoted in the Memphis Press-Scimitar on Sept. 26, 1947: " ... I'm one of the few white men in Memphis that got a six-pound fruit cake from negro friends last Christmas. I also received 18 Christmas cards from colored folks – and sent out the same number."

Does that help or hurt his case? Wayne Dowdy and I had discussions theorizing that Binford banned all-white or mixed-race audiences from seeing all-black or mixed-race casts for fear that the white audience members would riot and not for any danger from the black viewers. I looked for any evidence of this, for Binford simply mentioning it in one of the copious interviews he said he disliked to do, yet gave at the drop of a hat, apparently. I couldn't find anything concrete, so it remains a theory.

Regardless, it's the perceived fairness held in his own mind that makes Binford a complex and fascinating person; a real-life movie character himself who was, perhaps, stranger than fiction. The very fact that Memphis had a Board of Censors is strange enough until you place it in context, in a time when blacks and whites couldn't use the same water fountain or bathroom, when people were openly discriminated and physically assaulted for their beliefs. Strange times, indeed, and worthy of study so that they are never, ever repeated.

Banned or 'Binfordized

"Brazen." "Rowdy … unlawful … raw." "Salacious and risqué."

All adjectives that might be used to sell a movie to today's viewing audiences. You can just imagine such adjectives in big, bold letters plastered beneath the title or across the screen of a coming attraction. From 1928 until 1956, however, these were scathing words used by Lloyd Tilgham Binford as he edited films or banned them outright from being shown in Memphis.

Recently retired from the company he founded, Columbian Mutual Life Insurance Co., Binford wasn't looking for work in 1928 when he was appointed chairman of the Memphis Board of Censors. He awoke one morning to learn from the newspaper that he'd received the appointment from newly elected Mayor Watkins Overton. Binford accepted the position on a temporary basis for only 90 days "as a favor to the mayor," his obituary reads.

It was a title he would hold for 28 years, retiring at age 88 in 1956.

Born in Duck Hill, Miss., where he would eventually have a high school named after him, Binford had a simple, religious upbringing that would one day help to inform his decisions when it came to film censorship. He quit school at 16 and went to work as a railway mail clerk for the Illinois Central Railroad. As a clerk, his train was once held up by the famous train bandit Rube Burrow; as a film censor, he would outlaw films depicting train robberies and the like, including "The Outlaw," the serial "Jesse James Rides Again" and "Destry Rides Again." Though opposed to violence of any sort in films, he did allow that "if we stopped every movie with a murder in it, there wouldn't be any left."

Lloyd T. Binford
He went to work for various insurance companies, eventually starting his own in 1917. That company was moved over the course of a weekend from Atlanta to Memphis, where Binford would build a new headquarters, an iconic monument on the Downtown skyline, the Columbian Mutual Tower on the northern edge of Court Square. It was one of the first skyscrapers in Memphis; Binford ran his insurance and censorship empires from a top-floor office. The building would be sold years later and renamed the Lincoln American Tower, but the visages of Binford's children can still be found carved into the building's facade.

A millionaire when he retired from insurance, he accepted the chairman position for $200 a month. As a civil servant, he upheld the standards of the state, the city and the Hays Code, a set of guidelines used to govern studio film releases from 1930 to 1968, and named for Will Hays, a Presbyterian elder enlisted by Hollywood to improve the image of its studios. The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was used until 1968 when the Motion Picture Association of America adopted the rating code in use today.

As chairman of the Memphis Censor Board, Binford enjoyed free rein to edit films — known as having been "Binfordized" by Hollywood — or ban them outright. A moral gyroscope in the Crump political machine, he passed judgment on pictures that were "immoral or inimical to public safety, health, morals or welfare."

"The Little Tramp" did not pass muster with Binford. All Charlie Chaplin films were banned from Memphis theaters, Binford telling The Associated Press upon banning "Monsieur Verdoux" in 1947 that "we don't have to give our reasons" before adding that "(the film is) a comedy that makes murder a joke."

But the reasons weren't always found within the frame of a particular film; the character of the actor or actress mattered to Binford as well. He thought Chaplin a "London guttersnipe" and expounded to the Memphis Press-Scimitar in 1952 that "America has been good to Chaplin and has made him rich, but he has not been a good American … (Chaplin) is a traitor to the Christian American way of life, an enemy of decency, virtue and godliness in all its forms, a reputed endorser of the Communist Party."

Ingrid Bergman fell into his cross hairs as well with 1950s "Stromboli" being banned from cinemas. "It would be inimical to the public morals and welfare to permit the public exhibition of a motion picture starring a woman who is universally known to be living in open and notorious adultery," Binford told The Commercial Appeal in February of that year. Bergman was having a public affair with the film's director, and married man, Roberto Rossellini, at the time.

Binford's reach and notoriety stretched as far as Hollywood and New York, and screenwriters would send him scripts and scenarios ahead of time to get his approval and keep their product from being "Binfordized" after the fact.

In an era when movie theaters were segregated between the races with balconies reserved for African-Americans, if at all, or special days when they could attend movies, Binford sought to ban those movies with all-black or mixed race casts. Famously, Binford banned Hal Roach's "Curley" — a re-imagining of his "Our Gang" series — in 1947 for depicting white and black children in school together. United Artists would appeal and the case would ultimately make it to the Tennessee Supreme Court which, in 1949, stated that "the Memphis Board of Censors has no authority to disapprove a picture because there are Negro actors appearing in it."

"We'll just have to pass these pictures," Binford told The Commercial Appeal, though that same year he banned "Lost Boundaries," stating, "It deals with social equality between whites and Negroes in a way that is not practiced in the South. We banned it for that reason."

These are reasons that Binford's great-granddaughter, Tamara Trexler, wishes had not been. A film producer herself ("Charlie's War,"2003; "Dear Mr. Cash," 2005), she also was the Nashville Film Commissioner from 2000 to 2002, and would begin speeches in that capacity with anecdotes of her notorious ancestor. Her great-grandfather was an intelligent man who, though he left school as a teenager, wrote several volumes of his own encyclopedia with information on science, philosophy, religion and politics. And though she might agree with his notion that there is too much violence in films, on the racial issue, she says "that hurts that he did that."

Binford married Hattie Nelson of Memphis in 1895, and the couple had four children listed in his obituary as Mrs. Tom Thrash, Mrs. Fred Trexler, Mrs. Elizabeth Moon and Lloyd T. Binford Jr. Hattie died in 1927, and he married Jennie May McCallum in 1937, living at 1723 Peabody.

Trexler's father, Fred Trexler, is a Southern Baptist minister who recalls visiting Binford in his Midtown home. He remembers his grandfather as "very much an individualist with a very strong personality, that's why he did what he did." More exciting than those home visits, though, were the perks that went along with being Binford's grandson. "My mother and I would be invited on occasion to the Paramount where he previewed his movies."

Though movies might be banned from local theaters, it didn't mean they escaped the eyes of film buffs completely. "His iron thumb saw plenty of movies miss the Memphis market altogether," said Daniel Linton, a professor with the Communications Department at the University of Memphis. "Some of the 'scandalous' movies he banned were screened in West Memphis instead, and so a little booming film market was created in a place that doesn't even have a theater these days."

"It was the Joy Theatre in West Memphis, so I've been told, that showed the movies he wouldn't let play in Memphis," said local movie theater historian Vincent Astor. "It made lots of money."

Linton says: "Many major cities had similar boards, though they weren't always known as 'censor boards' per se ... This all sounds like ancient history, but actually the last one finally disbanded in Dallas in 1993."

Binford died on Aug. 27, 1956, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. His legacy lives on in a city that has struggled with issues of equality and acceptance, and has, in recent years, seen a burgeoning film community take shape. From 1928 until 1956, however, Binford always had the last word on the town's big-screen culture.

"I have no regrets about the movies I've banned," he told the Press-Scimitar in 1947. "Take 'Duel in the Sun.' It was unquestionably the dirtiest movie I've ever seen. And I can't say anything too bad about that Charlie Chaplin."

Some Films or Stage Productions Banned or ‘Binfordized’

“Rope” (1948): Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; “brazen and immoral … revolting and repulsive.”

“Annie Get Your Gun” (1947): A Broadway stage musical with a mixed-race cast; the show “is not being allowed to play anywhere in the South, except Texas, and whatever those folks in Texas do doesn’t surprise me.” In addition to the cast’s ethnicity, “the musical score is suggestive, salacious and risqué.”

“Bamboo Prison” (1955): “Unpatriotic”; was to be exhibited by Malco, decision to ban later reversed after suit brought by Columbia Pictures.

“Forever Amber” (1947): “Entirely filthy.”

“Stromboli” (1950): On star Ingrid Bergman: “It would be inimical to the public morals and welfare to permit the public exhibition of a motion picture starring a woman who is universally known to be living in open and notorious adultery.”

“Lost Boundaries” (1949): “It deals with social equality between whites and Negroes in a way that is not practiced in the South.”

“The Wild One” (1954): “That was the worst, the most lawless bunch I ever saw and the most lawless picture I ever saw. There was nothing immoral in it, it was just rowdy and unlawful and raw.”

“French Line” (1954): Binford called police to keep the uninvited from entering a private preview of the movie at Malco Theatre.

“Miss Sadie Thompson” (1953): Banned for a dancing scene by Rita Hayworth; “The whole picture is a travesty on religion and everything in it is raw.”

“Tragic Ground” (1953): Play banned in Memphis that played at the Plantation Inn in West Memphis.

“Monsieur Verdoux” (1947): “a comedy that makes murder a joke.”

“A Song is Born” (1948): “inimical to the public welfare”; cast includes a “rough, rowdy bunch of musicians of both colors … there is no segregation”; “The musicians are raising the dickens … Jazz and the blues were actually born in Memphis anyway, down on Beale Street. There is too much French in New Orleans for jazz. It’s a rough, bawdy, noisy picture dealing with band musicians, in general a mixed-up jamboree.”

“Wedding Rings” (1930): “… the absolute violation of the sanctity of marital relationships …”; Shown at the Orpheum with a stretch of film bearing only the words “Cut out by board of censors.”

Others, banned unless otherwise stipulated:
“The Southerner”
“Brewster’s Millions”
“The Outlaw”
“Duel in the Sun”
“Jesse James Rides Again” (serial)
“Destry Rides Again”
“Jesse James”
“The Return of Frank James”
“The Daltons Ride Again”
“The Macomber Affair” (Hemingway novel, banned until deletions were made)
“Pursued” (censored)

This occasional series profiles people, places and things, past or present, that are quintessentially Memphis. Do you have an idea for someone or something for this series? E-mail Richard Alley at

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