Walter Culpepper of Memphis1

Male, #61205, (1 Jan 1910 - 25 Jul 1995)
African* He was an African-American whose ancestry is unknown. If you can help identify him, please contact us. (Contact info is in page footer.). 
Birth*1 Jan 1910 He was born on 1 Jan 1910.1 
Marriage*say 1935 He married Hattie (?) say 1935.2 
SSN*1955 His Social Security Number was issued in 1955 in Tennessee.1 
Death of Spouse1992 His wife Hattie (?) died in 1992 at Memphis, Shelby Co., Tennessee.2 
Death*25 Jul 1995 He died at Memphis, Shelby Co., Tennessee, on 25 Jul 1995 at age 85.1 
Obituary*27 Jul 1995 Memphians Flocked To Culpepper's Chicken

With $10 in his pocket and a firm conviction that everyone deserves the best of service, Walter Culpepper carved himself a niche in Beale Street and Memphis history.

Opening his once-famed Culpepper's Chicken Shack near the end of Beale's raucous heyday in the 1930s, Mr. Culpepper spent more than 30 years serving the likes of Elvis Presley, Cab Calloway, B. B. King, Bobby Blue Bland and Bing Crosby.

Mr. Culpepper's restaurant, known for its late hours and top-notch barbecue, always boasted an eclectic crowd, from the tuxedo-and-evening-gown set to working folks in blue jeans and slick, shifty gamblers in flashy clothes.

And, even during bitterly segregated times, served both black and white.

"When people went out on the town and had a good time, the evening wasn't over until you went to the Chicken Shack.

"You never knew who you'd see in there - celebrities and people in tuxedos standing next to folks in jeans," said Freddie L. Moore, Mr. Culpepper's niece.

"He treated everyone the same and made sure his waitresses did, too. That was his way of doing business," said Moore, who cared for Mr. Culpepper in recent years.

A small chapter of Beale Street history ended Tuesday (25 Jul 1995) when Mr. Culpepper, retired now for nearly 25 years, died of heart disease at UT Bowld Hospital. He was 85.

Opened in 1932, Culpepper's Chicken Shack was a place that won't be found in most written histories but was stamped on the memories of a generation of Memphians.

The restaurant first opened on Fourth Street, just off Beale, and first boasted a clientele of tired, hungry and occasionally drunken gamblers and ''sporting people" from the Midway and Beale's many other gambling houses, said Moore.

Mr. Culpepper told his family that, when he opened, he had all of $10 for supplies. He would purchase as much chicken as he could afford, cook it, sell it and then put the money back into more supplies. At the time, he sold a half-chicken for 50 cents.

Soon, the restaurant became a favorite of most Beale Street patrons and performers, including most of the famous black musicians and band leaders who played the Beale Street clubs. The patronage of political boss E. H. Crump helped spread the restaurant's fame to Memphis's white community, which seldom ventured to Beale during the '30s.

A fire in 1938 forced a move to 204 Hernando, a short distance away, but the restaurant's popularity only grew. Even during the 1940s, when Beale Street lost its clubs and prosperity, the restaurant remained popular, visited regularly by celebrities such as Crosby, William Holden and Mae West.

"He always believed in serving people with a smile and always treated everyone the same, no matter how they were dressed or looked. It (the restaurant) was always integrated because he believed in serving everyone," his niece said.

In the 1950s, Mr. Culpepper's food became a favorite of the young Elvis Presley, who often wandered Beale in his youth. In recent years, Mr. Culpepper used to like to tell the story of when someone asked Elvis why he referred to him, a black man, as "Mr. Culpepper."

"Elvis said, 'I've been calling him Mister all along, why would I change now?' " Culpepper had said.

Mr. Culpepper and his late wife, Hattie, also were known for their friendship to young people on the street, befriending them, feeding them, helping them find jobs and occasionally helping pay to send them to school.

"They loved children. They had an adopted daughter, but didn't have any children of their own physically, so they kind of adopted a lot of children off the street," said Moore.

The Culpeppers retired from the restaurant business in 1971 after Mrs. Culpepper was attacked and pistol-whipped while working behind the counter of a new shop on Vance, near Lauderdale. The couple's age, in addition to the declining neighborhood, helped make up their minds, their niece said.

Mrs. Culpepper died in 1992, but Mr. Culpepper continued to work at a local hospital until recently. It was while he was in the hospital himself that one of his acts of kindness was repaid.

While being taken downstairs in a wheelchair for a medical procedure, one of the doctors told the staff he wanted them to take extra special care of Mr. Culpepper.

" 'I know you, Mr. Culpepper. I was one of your alley kids you used to feed,' " the doctor told his patient, Moore said.

Mr. Culpepper, a mason, was a member of Progressive Baptist Church. The widower of Hattie H. Culpepper, he leaves a daughter, Lois Jean Culpepper of Chicago; a sister, Georgia Mattox of Memphis, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.2 

Family

Hattie (?) (say 1913 - 1992)
Marriage*say 1935 He married Hattie (?) say 1935.2 
Last Edited14 Jul 2010

Citations

  1. U.S. Social Security Administration, compiler, Social Security Death Index (SSDI), Online database at Ancestry.com.
    http://www.ancestry.com/search/rectype/vital/ssdi/main.htm
    Walter Culpepper, 1 Jan 1910 - 25 Jul 1995, Memphis, Shelby Co., Tennessee 38106, SSN 413-60-0441 issued in Tennessee in 1955
    (Why it is safe to publish Social Security information for deceased people: http://gen.culpepper.com/about/socialsecurity.htm).
  2. The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN.
    http://www.commercialappeal.com/
    Obituary of Walter Culpepper (#61205), "Memphians Flocked To Culpepper's Chicken,"by Jerry Huston, Thursday, July 27, 1995, Page A12.