The West Tennessee Historical Society is the umbrella heritage organization for the Western Grand Division of Tennessee. Within its twenty-one counties, it supports historical programs, archives, publications, preservation, markers, museums, and other historical collections. Thus, the society promotes all aspects of state and local history.
The West Tennessee Historical Society traces its ancestry back to the 1857 founding of the Old Folks of Shelby County. This group held monthly meetings and published a journal called the Old Folks Record. James D. Davis, author of the first “history” of Memphis, was for a time the Old Folks’ historian and the editor of its journal in the 1870s.
The Old Folks activities were absorbed by the Confederate Relief and Historical Association, which was founded in 1866 and reorganized in 1869 as the Confederate Historical Association and again in 1884 as Camp 28, United Confederate Veterans. Captain J. Harvey Mathes served as its historian and in 1889 published The Old Guard in Gray.
In 1900, the Memphis Historical Society superceded the existing historical group. Judge John Preston Young, who had been a leader in the Confederate Association, was its principal organizer. Young published a Standard History of Memphis Tennessee in 1912, the last extensive treatment of the city’s whole history.
In 1935, the Memphis Historical Society broadened its scope to include the rest of West Tennessee. Three years later, Dr. Marshall Wingfield became the West Tennessee Historical Society president and served almost continuously until 1961. During this time Judge Lois Bejach exercised strong influence in the affairs of the society. On September 28, 1950, the society incorporated, keeping the same leadership and extending charter memberships to all West Tennessee Historical Society members in good standing within the first year of incorporation.
Under the state charter, members have held monthly meetings and outings during the academic year, usually with a paper being read or an audio visual presentation being made. Initially, the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers were published as an annual journal and distributed each October. The WTHS Papers are still published, but articles are no longer limited to papers presented before the membership. The quarterly West Tennessee Historical Society “Newsletter” serves as a clearinghouse for historical happenings of West Tennessee and the state at large.
The Society has also reprinted, published, and supported the publication of numerous books on West Tennessee history. Among these are Davis’ and Young’s Memphis histories, Metropolis of the American Nile, by Dr. John E. Harkins, and Paul R. Coppock’s MidSouth. When the Memphis State University Press went under, the Society purchased its inventory of area histories to keep them available for local history lovers.
Until 1989, the WTHS had played little part in preserving landmark structures. Starting then, however, it was instrumental in saving a tiny antebellum, brick home from destruction. With the widening of U.S. Highway 64, the Gray House was slated for demolition. President Joanne Moore worked hard to secure state support for relocating the building. WTHS member David P. Halle secured both a suitable site and got the structure donated to the city of Germantown. WTHS members William Gaskill (architect) and John Hopkins (art historian) supervised the building’s restoration. Through their efforts and with the support of the WTHS membership, a fine example of a Federal Period “hall and parlor” building has been saved for future generations of West Tennesseans to study and enjoy.
The WTHS has also been a major factor in the fight to save the Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island from cannibalization by promoter Sidney Shlenker to make space for bars and food service. The membership twice voted unanimously to vigorously oppose dismantling the Museum. The WTHS Executive Board voted unanimously to use legal measures, if necessary, to stop the museum’s destruction. An ad hoc committee led by John W. Spence has coordinated WTHS efforts with that of the Mud Island Foundation to secure maximum effect in opposing certain changes on Mud Island. Former Mayor Hackett, during his administration, indicated that the Museum would not be revamped for commercial purposes.
The WTHS has for many decades collected historical documents and books on the history of West Tennessee. Its collections and archives, once housed at the Pink Palace, have been deposited with the Special Collections Department of The University of Memphis library since 1974. These rare materials are available for use by researchers, irrespective of society membership.