We gladly bring you a guest blog post by Tony Kail, author of A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo: Rootworkers, Conjurers & Spirituals, who shares a few secrets he discovered about particular landmarks in Memphis during his research.
Most of us know Memphis as the home of the blues, the place where rock-and-roll was born and the barbecue capital of the world, but Memphis has a secret history that once made it famous. The city was once home to a world of rootworkers, conjurers and spiritual healers—a world that was born on the other side of the ocean in Africa and was reborn on the banks of the Mississippi, on plantations in the Delta and on the streets of downtown Memphis. From Africa to the streets of Memphis, the practices and beliefs that sought to bring about healing, love, fortune and revenge originated in the practices of African traditional religious (ATR) cultures. These cultures that birthed the art of the rootworker and conjurer survived the deadly waters of the Middle Passage in the hearts and minds of enslaved Africans, who found themselves awash on the bank of the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee.
As early as 1866 newspapers began running stories about the threat of ‘voodooism’ in Shelby County and the fear of Memphis becoming like New Orleans awashed with Voodoo and assorted pagan rites.
While doing research for my book ‘A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo: Conjurers, Rootworkers & Spirituals’ I discovered secrets behind a number of Memphis landmarks and stories that I had never been told growing up in Memphis. Let’s look at a few…
The area of Beale, Lindy, Turly & Martin were home to a number of settlements where Africans and African-Americans were housed. The settlements went by names such as ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ and ‘Rotten Row’. Rotten Row became a popular spot for police to confiscate mojo bags and rootworking artifacts from residents who were arrested for simply being ‘unemployed’. In one case police arrested a man and destroyed his mojo ‘hand’ despite his protest that the bag was providing protection from his enemies.
The Hilderbrand House, located on Airways was built by Benjamin Hilderbrand in 1838. Hilderbrand and his brother, Daniel, were the first settlers of Whitehaven. In 1818, when West Tennessee became open for settlement, the two brothers purchased land in the Whitehaven area. Benjamin purchased land around Airways Boulevard and built a large two-story house and slave quarters. The estate housed twenty-nine slaves in five separate houses in 1860. The Hildebrand family lived on the property until the death of Benjamin Hildebrand in 1879.
In 1998, archaeologists from the Memphis-based Weaver & Associates, a cultural resource management company, performed work at the Hilderbrand House. Several artifacts related to the practice of hoodoo were found on the property including coins traditionally used as amulets, a dagger containing symbols used among the Central African Bakongo people and a charm depicting a small hand. A similar protection charm had been found at a slave quarters at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville. The discovery of these artifacts dating back to the 1800’s is one of our earliest indicators of hoodoo development in Memphis.
In 1881 the bank of the Mississippi River became the location of a cleansing ritual. Memphian Sarah White who lived on Vance had been cursed or ‘crossed’ by someone that had placed a bag commonly known as a ‘trick’ in her residence. White became physically ill and sought out assistance from the local hoodoo community. A local conjurer advised White to destroy the bag which was contained hair and fragments of a lodestone. After the conjurer tried to destroy the bag in a fire, White protested saying that fire could possibly create additional problems. White is reported to have ran to the bank of the Mississippi and while uttering a cryptic prayer tossed the cursed bag into the river’s waters. There are several accounts of hoodoo related artifacts being thrown into the river to remove their power.
You may have passed by this wall mural a million times in downtown Memphis but do you know the significance of Lucky Heart? Did you know this refers to a major piece of Memphis hoodoo history? Lucky Heart Cosmetics was formed in 1933 and was located on Mulberry Street and later Huling Avenue. Lucky Heart was actually one of what would become several Memphis companies that began as manufacturers of cosmetics geared toward the African-American community and would later offer hoodoo related tools commonly known as ‘curios’. Lucky Heart offered such items as oils, powders, incense and herbs used in hoodoo. One of Lucky Heart’s employees that had been with them close to 50 years shared that at one time the company was advised by the U.S. Postal Service that they were the third largest parcel mailer in the city of Memphis. The company retained thousands of customers from around the globe. Lucky Heart Cosmetics is still in business but they no longer manufacture curios for hoodoo practitioners.
The history of hoodoo in Memphis runs deep. It is not just a history of mojo bags and conjurers but of a culture that survived through slavery and later segregation. What New Orleans is to Voodoo, Memphis is to hoodoo.
Memphis truly is the Mojo City.
A big thanks to author Tony Kail for composing this guest post for us! His new book, A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo: Rootworkers, Conjurers & Spirituals, will be released February 2017 by The History Press. You can learn more at memphishoodoo.com or follow the author on Twitter at @memphishoodoo
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