January 25, 2017

Writing Memphis Historical Non-Fiction

By G. Wayne Dowdy

Every person who has trod the earth is a historical figure whose story deserves to be told. This is especially true of a place like Memphis, where creativity flows from the many cracks in its streets. I have devoted my writing career to uncovering these stories and bringing to literary life those forgotten souls whose life and work has contributed greatly to the history of our world. .

These views were shaped by the stories my parents and grandparents told around the Sunday dinner table along with one of my favorite TV shows, The Waltons. I loved the program because the life depicted was similar to the stories my family told of life during the Great Depression and World War II. As a child I identified with the main character John-Boy because I wanted to grow up and become a writer just as he did. In one episode written by Colley Cibber an itinerant author shared with John-Boy a piece of advice that has stayed with me throughout my writing life - “Don’t waste your life searching for the one big story you were born to write. Write the little stories. Who knows, the sum total of them might be the big one.”

As a narrative non-fiction author I write the small stories that try to provide readers with a bigger understanding of our collective past. For Memphis, like any other place, is populated by human beings living their lives in a variety of circumstances. I collected many of these smaller and more unusual stories in my books On This Day in Memphis History and Hidden History of Memphis where I wrote about the Memphis gangster who inspired William Faulkner to write the novel Sanctuary, the angry parishioner who bit off his pastor’s finger, the brave African American woman who refused to sit in the black section of a streetcar in 1905 and the day it rained snakes.

I also chronicled the rise and fall of the Crump political machine and the success of the Memphis civil rights movement in my books Mayor Crump Don’t Like it and Crusades for freedom. In a Brief History of Memphis I attempted “to cover the major events in Memphis history, from its early days as a raucous river town through it emergence as a major Southern metropolis in the final decades of the twentieth century.” In order to understand the role of youth organizations in the development of Memphis I wrote my most recent book, Scouting in Memphis:a History of the Chickasaw Council, BSA.

I see each of my books as a piece of a mosaic; telling a specific story but part of a larger whole. Taken together it is hoped that when I am done the volumes left behind will be a kind of grand narrative that touches on all the major themes of Memphis history. In that way, without sounding like I am too big for my britches, I will have completed the big story I was born to write.
G.Wayne Dowdy is the senior manager of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center’s history department and Memphis and Shelby County Room.  He holds a Master’s Degree in history from the University of Arkansas and is a certified archives manager. Dowdy is a contributing writer for the Best Times magazine and is the author of a Brief History of Memphis; Mayor Crump don’t like it: Machine Politics in Memphis; Hidden History of Memphis, Crusades for Freedom: Memphis and the Political Transformation of the American South, Scouting in Memphis: a History of the Chickasaw Council, BSA and On This Day in Memphis History which was awarded a Certificate of Merit by the Tennessee Historical Commission. Dowdy is the host of the WYPL-TV 18 program the Memphis Room, has served as a consultant for the NBC-TV series who do you think you are?, PBS’s History Detectives Special Investigation and the Cinemax/HBO drama Quarry. He has appeared on C-Span, WKNO-FM, NOS Dutch Public Radio, WKNO-TV’s a Conversation With, WHBQ-TV’s Good Morning Memphis, WREG-TV’s Live at 9 and in the documentaries Overton Park: a Century of Change, Memphis memoirs: Downtown and Citizens not Subjects: Reawakening Democracy in Memphis

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