Closed Handy House at center of Beale contract talks

By Published: April 04, 2019 4:00 AM CT

The Downtown Memphis Commission is negotiating with the tour company it forced out of the W.C. Handy House in February. And the goal of the talks is to return Heritage Tours to the landmark at Beale and Fourth streets in a new role aimed at more visibility for Handy’s place in history as well as the modest home he and his family lived in before World War I.

Heritage Tours has managed the house and conducted tours of it for 24 years. But Handy’s family has been critical of the upkeep of the house and began a renewed push for a change during a 2017 visit to the city.

Dr. Carlos Handy, Handy’s grandson and president and CEO of Handy Brothers Music Co. Inc., said the family is looking for “clear evidence that he’s not being taken for granted and that he’s being promoted.”

“It’s sitting there out of sight, the police park on it,” he said. “To me there’s no visible sign or notice that the house exists. People are oblivious to the fact the house is there.”

The house was moved from Jennette Place in South Memphis to a parking lot on Beale in the 1980s for the opening of the renovated entertainment district between Second and Fourth streets. It now sits behind several fences.

Handy is known as the “father of the blues” for the songs he composed as the leader of bands that played Memphis and the region with a new form of music known as the blues. Handy’s music and publishing business was on Beale Street. A statue of Handy is the centerpiece of Handy Park.

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Handy left Memphis in 1917. The next year he and his business partner, Harry Pace, formed a music publishing company in New York that is today Handy Brothers Music Co. The publishing company marked its centennial last year.

Heritage Tours founder Elaine Turner said she was surprised to receive letters from the Downtown Memphis Commission late last year instructing her to leave the house in advance of major renovations to be done on the structure, and to not return.

The Downtown Memphis Commission has run the entertainment district for the city of Memphis since 2014. The DMC intended to contract with a new historian who had begun recording oral histories of blues musicians as part of a new presentation of the home’s history and Handy’s relevance.

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DMC president Jennifer Oswalt told Memphis City Council members this week that the forced exit by Heritage Tours was “extremely poor communication” on her organization’s part. But she said negotiations are underway with Turner.

A sticking point is an advisory committee to oversee the house that would include a city representative, Turner and a member of the Handy family.

Handy wants a better look at the finances – the revenues and expenditures over the years, as well as any money due from licensing Handy’s image and music. Council members also pushed for a more complete accounting. Another update is scheduled in April 16 council committee sessions.

“We want to make the home an active part of Beale Street. We want the family’s estate to have some say, some leverage in what goes on with that house,” Handy said. “And we want whatever parties might continue with it to be responsible. … I’m not going to go out of my way to be critical of Heritage Tours. But they dropped the ball, just to be honest about it.

“If they don’t have the power, what’s the point of continuing with them? If they do have the power, they dropped the ball.”

Turner said her hands have been tied by major repairs the city should have undertaken that cost more than the house took in. She also said she wants the independence she had during the 24 years Heritage Tours oversaw the house and for the city to follow through with the physical renovation the house needs.

She also wants a longer-term lease than the 18 months the DMC is offering. Oswalt told council members that is the longest term she can offer and that only the council could approve a longer lease.

“It’s trying to find some common ground where the city is protected, the family is satisfied and there is opportunity for Heritage Tours to continue to use the home,” Oswalt said of the talks.

Past repairs, Turner said, have been done at her company's expense, limiting its ability to do anything beyond that.

“Whatever needs to be done – the air conditioning, the heating system – you name it, it has been done over the years with no assistance from the city,” she said. “We’re not asking for them to pay any salaries. We are just asking them to maintain the museum. It’s a Memphis treasure.”

The Handy estate and family operate the house in Florence, Alabama, where he was born and grew up. Florence is also the site of the annual W.C. Handy Blues Festival. 

“We get to reconfigure and to promote his legacy in a way that will enhance his historical significance,” Handy said. “We were looking for a similar involvement with the Memphis home. In the immediate aftermath of meeting with the mayor, it didn’t look like we were successful. But when this recent stuff came about we said maybe something is about to change.”


Beale Street Elaine Turner Jennifer Oswalt Downtown Memphis Commission Heritage Tours
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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