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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Mama and Boss Crump

E.H. “Boss” Crump was the major power broker in Memphis and, ultimately, Tennessee, for nearly 50 years. He was first a successful businessman who then stepped into the political arena and started building his machine. He was twice a delegate to the Democratic State Convention and served on a couple of county commissions before running for mayor. He only chose to serve three two-year terms before stepping aside when he could hand-pick the next couple of successors.

Crump was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, was elected to Congress, served on the Democratic National Committee, and was a regent of the Smithsonian Institute – all the while keeping a hand on the running of Memphis and the rest of the state as he “chose” a couple of governors. Crump always had "Big Shelby (county)" to roll in the needed votes. He decided to “run” for mayor again, but purportedly said that he preferred behind-the-scenes operations.

His rise to power made more than a few people uncomfortable, including the legislators in Nashville. They passed a bill, “The Ouster Law,” in an attempt to bring him into line -- unsuccessfully. The bill was intended to remove elected officials who did not enforce State law. The target was Boss Crump who had a rather lax hand in upholding Prohibition.

Although Crump ruled with absolutism, his influence on the city was primarily positive. Utility services were combined for efficiency; streets were clean; the Fire Department was improved; crime rates were in control; and he kept taxes low, even reducing property tax a few pennies each year. His government was modest and frugal because cheap government was good politics.

Many of these benefits still exist in Memphis, but there was a dark side. Criticism and public opposition were not allowed. Here’s a piece from a paper on Memphis history of that era:
“All were forced to pay homage to the boss. Newcomers learned how the system worked. A jeweler opening a business on Main Street, for instance, learned that city inspectors would not approve his building unless he purchased an insurance policy from E. H. Crump and Company.”

The city honored his reign with E.H. Crump Stadium, the first major football stadium in town, and by erecting an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of him at the entrance to Overton Park

But that’s not the real story. That’s the prequel for the non-Memphians so they’ll understand the reality of Boss Crump.

The Real Story

My mother was the daughter of a minister/evangelist and was raised in a pretty sheltered environment, but steeped in the welcoming, good nature necessary for the preacher’s family. The day after she graduated from high school in small Danville, Kentucky, she was put on a train to the big city of Memphis to enter nursing school. Yes, that’s cute student nurse mom in the photo above.

One night as she was doing floor duty at Baptist Hospital, one of the R.N.s instructed her to go down to a patient room and tell the folks that visiting hours were over. Mother obediently marched down the hall, into the room and politely explained that visiting hours were over and that they’d need to leave.

The distinguished-looking gentleman across the room rose from his chair and announced, “My name is E.H. Crump.” True to her nature and newness, Mother strode across the room, extending her hand and said, “My name is Martha Petroff and I’m pleased to meet you, but you still need to leave now.” My mama and the Boss.

Well, if I were making this up, Mr. Crump and his friends would leave with heads hung low. In fact, he completely ignored her and she had to go back and report her failure to the R.N. who – aghast – explained to Mother that Mr. Crump could, and would, stay as long as he pleased. I guess it was Mother’s introduction to big city politics.

1 comment:

Jenni Sinkiewicz said...

Beautiful picture of Aunt Martha. She and Granny favor each other so much!
I love reading the blogs. They are very entertaining.

Thanks for sharing,