A Memphis Parable
April 12th, 2018
A friend once told me a story about his dad. I shared it in an early column because it struck me as more than a story about his dad but a parable about Memphis, about you and me. This week, and in light of the last few weeks as our city reflects, I’m sharing it again.
Meet Howard and Bill.
As published in The Memphis Daily News, April 13, 2018, and in The Memphis News, April 14-20, 2018
HOWARD AND BILL
One of my first columns was this very Memphis story. It’s time to tell it again.
In the 60s, Howard Robertson was a black postal carrier moonlighting as a waiter at the capital of white money dining in Memphis, Justine’s, housed in an antebellum mansion. Bill Loeb was a successful white businessman, owner of ubiquitous laundry branches about town, and the brother of Henry Loeb, mayor during the 1968 sanitation strike. Loeb lived in a home literally bordering the Memphis Country Club. Robertson lived in the other Memphis those of us who grew up white then never really acknowledged.
They would meet amid crisp white tablecloths set with crystal and crabmeat, one hosting, the other serving.
One evening at Justine’s, Robertson did something that displeased Loeb. In front of his guests and the entire restaurant, Loeb wore him out. Loud and personal. Putting someone “in his place.” But that wasn’t Robertson’s place. He returned the verbal fire, shot for shot, then returned to the kitchen and quit. That took the kind of dignity and courage that comes from deep inside. The kind that says even though this will cause sacrifice for my family, even though that kind of behavior was the norm, I will not take it. Loeb’s brother, Henry, would later see that sentiment expressed on posters, “I am a man.”
This is when this becomes a different story. This is when Loeb would show his own dignity and courage. As he talked with his guests, he realized he had been in the wrong. He invited all of them back the following evening, and asked for Robertson. When told he had quit, Loeb asked Justine if she could please try and get him there. It took some doing, but she did, and for the second night in a row, Loeb and Robertson became the center of attention for the restaurant. Except, this night, Loeb apologized. Man to man. They talked. They decided to meet again.
And they kept meeting for the rest of Loeb’s life. They watched games together. When Loeb converted his laundries to very popular barbecue shops, he brought Robertson on as a partner in two of them.
That was then, and that is now. The sense of two cities in one, a tale like Dickens’ “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is not only still with us, it divides and defeats us. What Robertson and Loeb did, when it was much more difficult to do, is the common ground we must all find.
Bill Loeb’s children have continued to show leadership in the business, arts and causes of our city. Howard Robertson’s son – Howard, Jr. – is an involved citizen, business owner, and friend. His wife, Beverly, headed the National Civil Rights Museum. He once told me, “A father is how a son learns to be a man.”
Good job, guys, you taught them well, and there’s a lesson in it for us.
I’m a Memphian, hopefully, like Howard and Bill.