City moves to heart of bicentennial observance

By Updated: May 22, 2019 12:02 PM CT | Published: May 21, 2019 11:05 AM CT

It was 200 years ago Wednesday that Memphis was founded, at least by the judgment of historian James Roper. Fifty years ago, he wrote the definitive story on untangling how the city came to be.

“If one day is to be commemorated as the founding date for Memphis, May 22 is probably the best choice,” Roper wrote in the 1969 opus, “The Founding of Memphis.”

“On this day, with the town survey apparently completed, the first lots are conveyed and temporary certificates of title are issued,” he wrote.

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The first of the lots went to Judge Benjamin Fooy, who at the time already had an estate directly across the river on what is now the Arkansas flood plain. Fooy had been the local magistrate for the Spanish government when the area was under Spanish control. He became the American magistrate after the Louisiana Purchase from the French.

Fooy’s lot was on the southeast corner of Winchester Avenue and Front Street, where the Memphis Convention Center now stands. And it had been the site of a home Fooy had built on the same spot when the Spanish controlled what became Memphis.

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The city will formally mark the founding date with three events Wednesday, in addition to other bicentennial events.

  • A community clean-up of the riverfront, including T.O. Fuller State Park. It begins with a briefing at 8 a.m. at the Pipkin Building at The Fairgrounds. The “A New Century of Service” event is coordinated by United Way Mid-South and Volunteer Odyssey.
  • The 100th anniversary of the founding of Orange Mound at 10 a.m. at Orange Mound Gallery, 2232 Lamar Ave.
  • The unveiling of a 50-foot long, 10-foot-tall “Memphis” sign on Mud Island’s South Field at 3 p.m.

“We have wanted to activate that area,” said city communications chief Ursula Madden, comparing the new Memphis sign to the “I Am A Man” sculpture next to Clayborn Temple.

The sculpture was unveiled a year ago as part of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the 1968 sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Madden said the city’s “MLK50” events were “practice” for how to approach another anniversary with a broad scope.

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“It is a large scope, so that’s why we narrowed it down to the future,” she said of the city’s theme of “A New Century of Soul.”

The theme was developed by Memphis Brand Initiative, a group of organizations and individuals promoting the city through marketing and communications strategies.

“Their whole task is to basically shape the image of Memphis not only externally … but also internally – how we view ourselves,” Madden said. “This is the place where originality and soul come together to create change. … There’s no place on planet Earth where you can go and authentically be yourself and be as creative as we are here and execute that.”

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The bicentennial observances move to Tom Lee Park Saturday for the “Celebrate Memphis” gathering that includes five stages and what is billed as the world’s longest picnic table for families to bring their own picnic lunches.

Coordinated by the Memphis in May International Festival, "Celebrate Memphis" also is among the closing events of the annual month-long festival. This year, instead of an honored country, Memphis in May is honoring the city's founding.

<strong>Memphis' bicentennial observances move to Tom Lee Park on Saturday for the &ldquo;Celebrate Memphis&rdquo; gathering that includes five stages and what is billed as the world&rsquo;s longest picnic table.</strong> (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian file)

Memphis' bicentennial observances move to Tom Lee Park on Saturday for the “Celebrate Memphis” gathering that includes five stages and what is billed as the world’s longest picnic table. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian file)

The gates to the park open at 3 p.m. Saturday. The event also includes an air show, parachutists, a mural on the side of Memphis Area Transit Authority buses that those attending will paint, a family zone, a sports zone with professional athletes and a global community expo with 13 cultures represented.

The evening ends with fireworks combined with the Mighty Lights displays on both bridges as well as a drone display.

The city’s cost for the observances is $300,000, Madden said, with Shelby County government contributing another $300,000. 


Memphis@200 Ursula Madden MLK50
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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