Free– But With A Price (A Memory Piece)

by Charlie Lambert

Back then, over seventy-years ago, a city bus route ran directly in front of it. And that bus system was impressively efficient. You could depend on a bus arriving at the kiosk out front every few minutes from early morning until late into the night. The “3 SUMMER AVENUE” buses, some electric and others gasoline fueled, loped along the designated route seven days a week but mostly on the five-work days, with a modified schedule on Saturday and Sunday. The old joke was that only the blacks and the Christian Brothers rode buses on a regular basis. But, back then, buses provided vital transport for all manner of our citizens. Lots of folks, both black and white, worked downtown and used the Memphis Street Railway System quite often. Considering the low fare charged, it made perfect sense to leave one’s car at home and walk a block or two to the nearest bus stop. That practice encompassed not only workers but others who went to town every week to shop or take in a movie.

Sorry, I intended to tell you about the front entrance to the Memphis Zoological Gardens as it existed in the 1950’s but ended up giving a treatise on the local bus system. Enough about buses (for now). Indeed, the two-lane concrete strip outside the front gates of the zoo, looking back, may seem to have been perilous for pedestrians arriving and departing from the Zoo. There was only one way in and out, using that front gate after walking across that little two-way bus lane. The only parking lot for visitors was on the other side of the bus lanes. Both zoo visitors and the bus drivers were aware of one another and there are no records of any tragedy occurring. Amazing, considering the potential for such an event.

In the late spring of 1953, nine-year-old “me” walked across that “treacherous” road into the zoo and became the youngest employee ever hired to work there. It was on a Sunday afternoon, as I recall. My salary for renting baby strollers on Sunday afternoons for the rest of the spring and summer would be five dollars a day. My duties included keeping the strollers clean and having the renters sign a log with their name, address, and telephone number. After paying me fifty cents, they took the stroller for as long as they needed it that day or until the zoo closed.

The circumstances of my employment involved my family’s next-door neighbor, Charlie Bell. He was a self-designated “concessionaire” in that he owned and operated several “concessions” at the zoo, in Riverside Park downtown, and at our local Fairgrounds in midtown. He had a photo booth (later two), each of which provided a sepia-toned, three-inch by five-inch picture of visitors to the zoo. The background painting of the front gate also had the date on it, was developed and delivered in one-minute, and cost only twenty-five-cents. Mr. Bell owned amusement rides (train, merry-go-round) at the Riverside Park, another photo booth and games of chance on the midway at the Fairgrounds – oh, and the stroller rental concession, my new responsibility.

My parents were only mildly reluctant to my going to work at the tender age of nine, not expecting it to last very long. They thought it would teach me the value of money, help me understand what it meant to work for someone for pay, and how to interact with the public. All that, without much risk in those days, especially, since Mr. Bell would be in the zoo all the time overseeing his enterprises while also keeping an eye on me. He had a couple of other employees with the same charge, almost like babysitting. My parents felt safe letting me try this out for the summer. A few Sundays later my younger brother, Johnny, age seven, joined me at the “work sight” and we shared my duties of cleaning, renting, and inventorying the strollers. Not a soul commented on such young people working because in those days things like child labor was pretty much ignored in places like the zoo or amusement parks. Benign, illegal activity that included rides to and from work from the boss, ice cream breaks, and a non-threatening atmosphere went on without a hitch. My fondest memory of those days was the ice-cream sundae Mr. Bell bought each of us on hot, Sunday afternoons from the food concession near our work station. A pewter bowl with a glossy paper lining that carried three, large scoops of rich, vanilla ice cream and covered in almost a cupful of delicious strawberry sauce, the likes of which I have never encountered since –that was the fifteen-cent zoo sundae in the 1950’s.

I mentioned the task of “cleaning” the baby strollers. That was an exaggeration. As I remember, we were given old pieces of cloth toweling dipped in cold water to “clean” the buggies. I never saw any kind of detergent or disinfectant. While some parents might on rare occasions request one carriage over another, hardly anyone ever commented on the hygiene or the appearance of the rentals. Certainly, “infants” like my brother and I, didn’t know anything about germs and disease so we performed our perfunctory wiping off each stroller in a matter of seconds and parked it in the rental line. We had one stack of strollers on either side of the photo booth, covered by an open area with a ceiling. The rain and weather sometimes poured down on the strollers and I thought that to be a plus re keeping them clean. But what did I know? If no babies were sickened or contaminated by our strollers it was by sheer happenstance. Nothing was done to sanitize them. I must add that even as a nine- or ten-year-old kid, I had concerns about renting such rag-tag rust-wagons to unsuspecting parents. The nineteen fifties preceded the cautionary alarms about potential illness from unclean surfaces. Today, we have social media and whole institutions charged with keeping us informed. At that time, we barely had television and that medium was devoted to entertainment as its sole purpose.

Before too long Johnny and I were working on both Saturday and Sunday, all day on each, with an appropriate increase in salary. Mr. Bell even suggested we might like to learn how to process the pictures sold in the picture booth adjacent to our rental table when not busy with the strollers. We were learning life skills (photography, sales) while still wet behind the ears. If you don’t think five or ten dollars a week in that era was a fortune, you do not know much. None of our friends worked or had any pocket money more than a quarter or fifty cents, provided by parents for specific activities like a movie or visit to the amusement park. Johnny and I did not keep all our money but knew we could ask our parents for some of it if we wanted something special. I recall buying skates and a fort of plastic miniature men to set up a battle in the backyard. Life was good.

When school was out in late May our jobs became even more frequent than weekends. We could work as many days as we liked. Business was booming at the zoo all summer. School buses of kids from all over the region unloaded all day long in the adjacent parking lot. Many times, the number of cars exceeded the available spots designated for free parking (yes, even then). Lines of cars trailed beyond the confines of the zoo in all directions on weekends and holidays. The visitor population was also enhanced by the city buses that ran in front of the zoo all day long. Our perch was right inside the main entrance so we could observe the massive crowds arriving and departing the “largest free zoo in America”. Plough, Inc. a commercial chemical company in Memphis, and its owner, Abraham Plough, had for many years pledged upward of a million dollars a year to the zoo in order to keep it free to the public seven days a week. Indeed, those were halcyon days for most of the folks who lived in our city. On Thursdays the zoo even welcomed “colored” visitors. “Colored”, not black, was the accepted form of reference at that time. None of us knew that such a derogatory word as “colored” might be offensive to black people. And blacks dared not test the status quo by raising such a suggestion. Everyone knew his or her “place” and stayed in it in those benighted times.

Lily white six days a week, the Memphis Zoological Gardens opened its gates to “colored people” every Thursday. Let me be very clear, Thursdays were reserved for “colored only”. No racial mixing was ever allowed. Since zoo hours were from about 9:30 A.M. to 5:30 PM many potential “colored” visitors were at work or in school for nine months a year. Summers allowed more of them to come to the park on Thursdays and they took full advantage of the “privilege” of being allowed admittance. As with white patrons, school buses from adjacent or far-flung counties came every Thursday loaded with enthusiastic youngsters and their teachers and chaperons. Free admittance made it even more fun for them. They particularly liked having their picture made in our booth in front of the fabricated zoo entrance. Ten, fifteen, even twenty kids could squeeze into a shot and divide up the twenty-five-cent charge among them. Our coffers overflowed on “colored day”.

In order to photograph black people using our antiquated process, we had to modify our usual lighting and developing procedures on Thursdays. Since light-skinned customers made up one hundred percent of our regular trade six days a week, the lighting was softer in order to avoid bleaching out facial features. We had six or so bulbs encased in metal covers aimed at the backdrop where the subjects of our pictures stood or sat on the bench at the center of the “set”. On Thursdays we added more lighting and used higher watt bulbs for the same purpose, to highlight facial features and not under-expose the subjects. In the dark room, the four chemicals were used to develop the negative in a certain way, six days a week. The main chemical was heated to warm by a hot plate, to shorten the time it took to start the process before we washed and dipped it into three other solutions. But on Thursdays, the first chemical was almost boiling to lighten the print quickly, without completely over-exposing it and rendering it useless. The process was a challenging one. We had more complaints on Thursdays about bleached out faces than any other day. I recall re-taking many of these accidents to satisfy patrons but in the chaos of dozens of people waiting for their turn, I fear that many of our pictures are still out there with washed-out faces. I think we tried to do the best we could but never got it exactly right.

The main thing I think of when I look back on those Thursdays is the change made to the zoo itself to prepare for (I must say) unwelcome visitors on that one day a week. The zoo employees were one-hundred percent white. That was no accident. The Zoo Director at that time had an unwritten policy of only hiring white superintendents, keepers, feeders, maintenance personnel, and others. The only non-Caucasian employees worked for the Park Commission in the dining facility (known as the main concession stand) near the front gate. These jobs were as cooks (dear Etta and Ollie), busboys, and other menial workers. Even the front-line waitresses were white. Accordingly, I never saw a black employee at any of the privately-owned concessions like the kiddie rides, merry-go-round, the pony track, or train. To all visible appearances the zoo was a white enterprise with the few blacks kept in the kitchen or on the covered patio cleaning tables and floors after people had eaten and left the remains behind.

But I must further qualify even that imperfect picture of Thursdays at the zoo. On Wednesday afternoons the black busboys and cleaners were required to move the chairs that were normally available to sit in while people ate lunch or snacks and stack them in a far corner of the patio. Consequently, Thursday’s patrons were required to stand or sit on the floor to eat. Some were innovative enough to sit on the tables themselves. Additionally, most of the outlying concessions located throughout the zoo were closed on Thursdays. Instead of being able to buy drinks, peanuts, and popcorn at a remote stand, all purchases required returning to the main concession. Many of the animals were not on display on Thursdays, keepers (probably at the behest of their supervisors) found Thursdays the perfect day to take animals off display to wash them or their cages. I often heard black patrons ask, “Where are all the animals today?” I heard a black man interviewed on a radio program recently who lamented, “We might have seen an elephant or peacock but most of the animals were nowhere to be found” (on Thursdays).

I worked at the zoo for about ten years as I attended high school and readied for college. When I left the job, my brother, Johnny, was still there as a major picture taker. Mr. Bell and his concessions continued as usual. The strollers never got any cleaner, but the pictures were still twenty-five cents during that whole period. Thousands of them were made and I have hundreds of them that are still as bright and clear as they were in the fifties and sixties. Many new employees came and went over the years. The zoo director who did not hire blacks eventually left. Over time, a few black employees filtered into the ranks, but the “colored” admission policy continued to be observed until the sixties when federal laws prohibited such restrictions. I was present in 1960 when a group of blacks protesters showed up and sought entrance to the zoo on a day other than Thursday. Some of them were arrested and fined. A small struggle ensued with police using force on protesters. Memphis, as it often did, made national headlines for its racial posture that week. The mostly white workers in the zoo agreed the protesters were out of line. The delicate balance between peace and justice meant different things to different people in those days. Over a year later the protesters appeared in court to answer charges, which were dismissed because by 1961 the zoo was integrated and the “disorderly conduct and causing an affray” charges were not pursued and the fines levied earlier were refunded.

The consensus among the powers that be had always been that if “colored people” were allowed admittance seven days a week, that would change everything for everyone. Tradition would be the first thing to go. Tradition included the six/one admission policy. Mingling races at food stands, at tables with chairs, on kiddie rides, on pony tracks was a horrifying prospect to many zoo visitors of the white persuasion, not to mention those who operated the zoo and Overton Park. The status quo was a much safer course than an integrated zoo might prove to be. Despite all that “southern sentiment” the Overton park Zoo was opened seven days a week to all visitors in late 1960.

Photo by Ernest Withers

For a while, white attendance at the zoo dropped but eventually the two races coexisted, usually not acknowledging one another, but in peace. Like many of the segregation policies and practices of the past, the sting of approaching things differently was not as acute with the passage of time. Some whites never attended the zoo again, their loss. Baby stroller rentals were eventually discontinued (had their condition become so wretched no one wanted their baby in one of them?). The picture-making business was still in full swing when I left to go to college. That may have been the one thing in the zoo that never knew the difference in race, except when it came to high or low lighting and warm or hot developer. We readily accepted quarters from all comers.

Today the admission to the zoo is a lofty sum between fifteen and twenty dollars a head. The staff photographer routinely snaps pictures of those entering the park. At the end of the tour people are invited to pick out which pictures and how many they want to buy at a hefty price that makes our twenty-five cent charge look paltry even by the standards of the 1950’s.. Things are different in many ways. The cheap fifty-cent rubber trinkets in the gift shops are now multiple dollars. Such things as balloons and hats and clothing are expensive –but all have the zoo logo on them just as they did back then. The city buses are gone from the scene. The parking problem has turned volatile at times. Armed camps of critics protest over the encroachment made to the park for parking spaces. On Tuesday afternoons, admission is free to all, black and white visitors, allowing citizens and visitors to take advantage of the zoo without paying the normal admission fee.

Riding city buses to the zoo as was popular in my day is almost non-existent anymore. The bus system is no longer reliable and the convenient stop right at the front gate, with a covered kiosk to protect riders from the sun and rain are gone. If I opened the window in the rear of the photo booth, a large, wide window, I could look out to the kiosk and benches just a couple of feet away. Many are the times I would strike up a conversation with bus riders as they awaited their Number 3 coach heading toward the inner city. Because most blacks at that time lived close to downtown, bus riders on Thursdays were all black. My conversations with them were always pleasant and interesting. Some had kids or grand kids with them. They routinely expressed pleasure at having been to the zoo, never disparaging the fact that they had to come on a certain day of the week. I was curious about how they felt but did not question them about segregation and inequality. That was a topic not discussed casually between races in those days.

I often think back to my zoo-youth and recall that sweltering dark room, without ventilation, just a small table-top fan, those pungent chemicals boiling on the unprotected, electric, hot plate burner, Kitty Wells blaring out “I’d Rather Stay Home and Cry Over You, Than Run Around All Over Town With Somebody New” on the portable radio, and temps hovering at one-hundred plus degrees. I smile and think how unique it was, at such a young age, to have been privy to observe “the passing parade” of life in that microcosm known as the zoo at a time, thankfully gone forever.

I have not pursued the question of how much service is available to today’s Tuesday crowds at the free admission time period at the zoo. Any cutbacks in facilities could rightfully be pointed to as practical business decisions. And since both races are subject to the same treatment, no prejudice may be implied other than toward that portion of the population who choose to participate in the bargain that is Tuesday at the zoo. The current situation falls short of the seemingly mean, prejudiced and negative efforts of the management on those long ago Thursdays, when the target of the slights were all black.

NOTE: Other than the reference to the protest in 1960 covered in the Press Scimitar on 1-3-61, everything that appears above comes from my memories and recollections of those days of my youth and no cites are necessary. They are as vivid today, as I am about to reach 80-years-old, as they were in 1953. 

3 thoughts on “Free– But With A Price (A Memory Piece)

  1. Picture with zoo logo is one of the original 25 cent photos we sold at the zoo. I am pictured on left at age 14. My supervisor and mentor is on right. He was Donne Walden who worked at the zoo starting in 1950. He was a prolific photographer of Memphis locales, especially the Fairgrounds. His contributions to WKNO’s Memphis Memoirs are many. He worked for many years as one of the chief photographers for the Memphis Police Department. We remained friends all his life until he died 2 or 3 years ago. He was one of the great-unsung heroes of Memphis.

  2. excellent! Although I am 83, I didn’t know about the removal of the chairs on Thursdays. I never really liked the zoo, as I always felt sad for the animals, especially the lions in their one-room cages.

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