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VOL. 126 | NO. 22 | Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Glimpse into History

Withers museum to open as ‘daytime’ attraction on Beale

By Bill Dries

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David Simmons has seen them peering in the windows of his new storefront at 333 Beale St.

David Simmons is directer and curator of the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery at 333 Beale St. The museum will have a number of private and preview events throughout the month of February. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

Tourists and Memphians see the signs for the soon-to-open Ernest Withers Collection Museum and Gallery and are looking for old images through the new windows.

“This is going to be a daytime attraction for Beale Street that is something that is much needed,” said Simmons who is the development director and curator of the institution built around the 50-year archive of the photographer.

The museum now holds the promise of leading the second phase of the district’s renovation, which began in 1983.

“I see people walking by looking for something to do all the time and if they try to get in the museum I’ll stop and talk to them,” Simmons said. “It is going to be an attraction that will complement Beale Street and help reflect the true history of Beale Street through the photographs.”

The museum will formally open Feb. 12.

The opening is timed to coincide with a new CNN documentary that will focus on the revelation late last year that Withers had been a paid informant for the FBI. Withers’ daughter, Rosalind Withers-Guzman, is also organizing a symposium on her father’s work and to discuss the new information.

Simmons said the museum will open in three phases starting with the main gallery this month. An exhibit of Withers’ best-known works from the civil rights movement has been up for the last six months as the museum hosted a few events.

Withers had his last studio along the block between Fourth and Hernando streets right up to his death in 2007. He had other studios along the street during the 50 years before that and left a deep archive of works.

“There are five years worth of themed exhibits that I can do at two to four a year,”

Simmons said. “I can do weddings that are just jaw droppings. … He went to Africa twice and shot 33 rolls of film that have never been printed.”

The Withers collection could be the start of a new emphasis on history and culture. An interpretive center devoted to a broader history of the street and the city is a priority in the still-forming plan Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration is assembling once it has day-to-day control of the district.

Beale Street’s latest attraction, the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery, will open later this month. David Simmons is director and curator of the center that will showcase some of Withers’ work.

And the controversy about disclosures in Withers FBI file is only the most recent reminder of how complex that history can be.

A Beale Street walking tour book by Richard M. Raichelson includes the building that was once the Monarch Saloon, owned by Jim Kinnane, an underworld boss from the turn of the 20th century. The guide notes that in its heyday, the Monarch was nicknamed the “castle of missing men” because of its reputation for violence.

But those connected to the history of the street before its 1983 renovation have always been critical of the emphasis on the street’s violent nature.

Lewis Steinberg is among them.

“First, the truth needs to be told because a lot of stuff they’re telling about Beale Street – they don’t know what they are talking about,” he said.

Steinberg and members of his family gathered recently in the district’s oldest structure, the Old Daisy theater, next to the Withers museum, for the dedication of a brass note in honor of the Steinberg family.

Steinbergs played in W.C. Handy’s band in the early 20th century when the theater and Handy’s interpretation of the blues were new.

Steinberg himself played in the big bands that followed through the 1940s and 1950s. He was the original bass player for Booker T & The MGs and played bass on the band’s 1962 instrumental hit “Green Onions.”

“The family over 105 years has provided music for this whole tri-state area. They have contributed so much and received so little,” Steinberg said. “This street means so much not only to the city but to the entire world because Beale Street is known for its music. Some of the greatest musicians that performed in this country come from right here in Memphis.”

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