27 minutes | Mar 2, 2021

Season 2: Episode Two: Earnestine & Hazel’s

The spot that is now occupied by Earnestine and Hazel’s at 531 South Main St was once the exact opposite of what it was to become in the future. In the late 1800s, it was built as a church, complete with fancy doors and a steeple. The area that the corner building occupies was considered “South Memphis”. It was a residential area that remained so until the early 1900s, when the railroad was built. South Memphis opened two new train stations and 50 passenger cars would come through every day. At that point, the area became able to support businesses. Sadly, the church burned down some time in the early 1900s. I couldn’t find an exact date, but the assessor’s office lists the current building’s date as 1918. That year, a new building was erected, the same one you see today, and it was purchased by Abe Plough and turned into one of his Pantaze Drugstores.  Abe Plough is a name synonymous with Memphis. In 1908, he borrowed $125 from his father and started his own business, Plough Chemical Company. He pedaled his “antiseptic healing oil”, that he created in a room above his father’s shop, to the drug stores in and around Memphis. His patent medicine took off and within a couple of years he doubled his profits.  Side note: patent medicines are basically ones that marketed as medicines, but have no proven effectiveness. They are protected by trademarks but their ingredients are generally not completely disclosed. You’ll often hear them referred to as “tonics” or “elixirs”. With his additional money, Plough found his way into the cosmetics and sunscreen business and eventually acquired St. Joseph’s Aspirin brand. Over the next 100 years, Plough Inc became a multi-million dollar company, partnering with Schering Company. Schering Plough and the Plough Foundation became a major philanthropic entity in Memphis.  But let’s rewind. Plough opened Pantaze Drugstores in the 1930s. Apparently Pantaze were the Walgreens of its day. There were 7 Pantaze drug stores on Main St and in the downtown area. It was during his time owning Pantaze that Plough started to expand his brand and continued on to find his fame.  Now in the building on S. Main, Plough only used the bottom floor of the building for his pharmacy/sundry store, so he rented the upstairs to two beauticians, Earnestine Mitchell and Hazel Jones.  Side note: a sundry is basically a general store that sells miscellaneous items One of the products that Plough had made was a hair straightening product and it worked quite well. Not only did the ladies use it in their salon, it was also being used all over the eastern part of the country. With Plough’s success and new found fortune, he gave (or I’ve also heard sold for a very inexpensive price) the building to Earnestine and Hazel. This transaction occurred some time in the 1950s, from what I can tell.  Having no interest in running a sundry, the ladies decided to turn the downstairs area into a jazz cafe. Earnestine’s husband, Andrew, who went by the name of Sunbeam, opened a venue nearby for musicians, called Club Paradise. This was not the first business venture of Sunbeam Mitchell though. Throughout his years as a promoter, Mitchell had opened several music venues, a restaurant, and even a hotel for African Americans, which were scarce in those times. Earnestine kept the books and ran the hotel.  The Mitchells and Plough were not strangers to each other either. One of Sunbeam’s music venues (Club Handy) and the Mitchell hotel were on the second and third floors of the Pantaze Drugs, which again was owned by Plough, on Beale St. (Wet Willie’s currently occupies this building.)  Club Paradise was the largest and most prestigious nightclub in Memphis. It could hold up to 3200 people. Numerous acts such as locals Bobby Blue Bland, BB King, Howlin Wolf, and Muddy Waters played there, as well as big named acts Ike & Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, & Sam Cook. According to some, playing at the Paradise was like playing at Carnegie Hall. The club was located on GE Patterson, so it was not a far trek to E&H’s cafe.  Once the acts finished their sets at Club Paradise, they would head to Earnestine & Hazel’s for good food, good drinks, good conversation, and good company. As they say, after the party is the afterparty and that’s exactly what happened at E&Hs. The club became a favorite spot for musicians. They would stroll down for some cheap soul food and good alcohol before retiring for the night to the nearby Lorraine Motel, or possibly for an hour of fun in one of the upstairs rooms.  To make additional money, the ladies offered up the upstairs rooms as a brothel for local ladies of the night. Apparently benches lined the walls of the hallway so that men waiting their turn had a place to relax. There were eight rooms upstairs that patrons could pay by the hour for use.  It has been said that not only sex work, but drug use was also an activity of those who hung out upstairs. While it was not said that the sisters condoned the upstairs activity, they certainly turned a blind eye to it.  E&H’s jazz club thrived for a couple of decades, but in the 70s and 80s things started to take a turn for the worse. Mitchell’s Club Paradise shut down in the 70s, as did Stax which was nearby,  so the regular crowd wasn’t coming in as frequently.  The 70s were a bad time in general for Downtown Memphis. Beale Street was fenced off, except for Schwabs. The Peabody had shut down. The Orpheum was a Malco theatre that showed X rated movies some of the time. Crime had escalated and it was something like a wasteland. During the 70s about 500 people lived downtown. It was said that more people were in jail (about 1000 people) than actually lived downtown. People didn’t frequent the area anymore, it wasn’t safe.   The cafe, however, was holding its own, for the time. In the early 80s, you could still get a Hog Maw Dinner or a neck bone for less than $3 and the fried fish would cost you about 20 cents more.  FYI: Hog maw is pig stomach. While the cafe and the brothel kept the cash flow stable, the late 80s brought about more challenges. Earnestine and Hazel were getting older and not able to oversee the business like they had before. Changes were coming to downtown. The creation of Memphis In May started the renewal of downtown. MIM started with the Beale St. Music Festival in 1977 and over the years added additional events to eventually become what it is today. The festival breathed life back into our dying downtown.  With the positive changes that were starting to happen, a brothel wasn’t something a visiting tourist wanted to see (well most visiting tourists that is) or needed to see. Earnestine and Hazel knew it was time to retire. They had to find the perfect person to take over their property and do it justice. This is where Russell George dances into the picture.  George was born and raised in Memphis by parents that had a love for good music. From a young age, George listened to soul, jazz, and the blues. He was the only white kid to enter the James Brown dance competition, held at the Coliseum. At ten years old, George had all the right moves and Brown crowned him the winner. By the age of 15, he had opened his first bar in an apartment downtown. He called it Jefferson in the Rear.  He was 15 and running an illegal bar, what do you expect it to be called? By the age of 20, he was a band manager and a dancer with a local R&B band. He also helped open Murphy’s on Madison and Silky’s on Beale.  In the early 90s, a promoter friend of his convinced George to look at a property on South Main. He began to reminisce about what the venue was like back when BB King and Ray Charles would visit. He knew he could bring it back to its former glory. George did some renovations and on St. Patrick’s Day 1993, Earnestine and Hazel’s reopened as a full fledged bar. He didn’t want a wide variety of foods or local fare, he wanted a good burger that people could enjoy after a night of dancing, drinking, and frivolity. He called it the “Soul Burger”. Apparently, the soul burger went through several trial and error stages before settling on what you get today. George realized you don’t have to pile on the toppings to have a good burger. You just needed some cheese, pickles, sauteed onions, and the secret sauce. The burger is served with a bag of chips and either a beer or coke.  If you’re from the south, you know that coke is the generic term for any soft drink, regardless of the flavor or manufacturer.  There is a small 8 seat bar on the second floor, where the brothel was located, that was opened on the weekends. It has been run by a fella named Nate, since George opened the bar. Nate had known George for years. He worked with him at Murphys. From what I have read, Nate is the go to guy for all things Earnestine and Hazels. It was even mentioned that he might have known Ms. Hazel in more than just a friendly way. He said they had a few dates prior to him marrying his wife.  Hazel passed away in 1995 and Earnestine in 1998. By that time, George and Earnestine had apparently become pretty good friends.  Besides being the best dive bar in the country, E&H is also known for being one of the most haunted.  It is reported that 13 people have died in the building. They recently even found bones in the walls. They were sent out for testing but I don’t know if it was ever published what kind of remains they were. Maybe someone who met their demise upstairs?  The identity of all those who died within the walls are not known, but it’s speculated some were the sex workers, one might have been a john who did not treat his lady with the respect she deserved, and the final one, we’ll talk about later.  Earnestine and Hazel’s isn’t just your typical haunted atmosphere. One of the most haunted things in the building is the jukebox. You might say, what an odd thing to be haunted or how do you know? Well there have been numerous reports of the jukebox coming to life on its own, without money having been put in it. And generally speaking, the box will cater its song choice to whatever subject you have been talking about.  Here are a couple of the stories that have been told by Karen Brownlee, who managed and tended bar at E&H for almost two decades.The day James Brown died, she was talking to a coworker about it, and “I Feel Good” randomly started playing. A woman who just signed her divorce papers stopped in to celebrate with some friends and Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” came blaring out. One the paranormal groups had come to spend the evening at the bar and they were talking to George about exorcism and the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” started playing. Another night, a businessman came in telling a story about how a coworker threw up in a cab and how awful it smelled. Moments later “What’s the smell” by Lynyrd Skynyrd came on. During one investigation, the interviewer and Brownlee were sitting at the bar, just as it opened, the jukebox wasn’t on yet, and they were talking about what a rough night it was the night before. Suddenly, the jukebox started playing “Everybody is a Star” by Sly and the Family Stone. Brownlee believes that was Earnestine. Then moments later and without warning, the jukebox stops.  Over the years, there have been countless paranormal investigations and ghost tours that have happened at E&H. Due to the number of deaths that occured in the establishment, it doesn’t seem terribly far-fetched, for those who believe in that kind of thing, to have an experience at the bar. It’s been reported that you get a feeling of sadness when you go upstairs and a feeling of relief, like a weight has been lifted, when you go back downstairs.  One of the employees went upstairs for something and came running back down and right out the door. Whatever he saw upstairs, scared him to death, and apparently he won’t go back up there. People have also said they’ve felt hands touching them when they go upstairs. I bet that’s the spirits of the ladies who used to work there, trying to beckon you to a room… The story from the investigator that heard “everybody is a star”, well, he had set up several cameras over two nights, trying to capture some activity on the second floor. He said the “black room” was most active. All the rooms have different color names. The black room houses an old record player with an AM/FM dial. The record player no longer works, but the radio does. And it randomly blasts out music.When not in the room, faint whispers can be heard from inside. When a comment was made about the spirits not liking the cameras, loud knocks could be heard coming from the room as well. Brownlee told a particularly memorable story to the investigator and his friend.  She said that a patron who had gone up to the black room was overcome with emotion while being in the room. She wrote a letter expressing her feelings. She said felt a woman’s troubled and saddened spirit and she somehow “knew” the girl had been stabbed. Brownlee confirmed there was a stabbing in that room and it is likely that the person died there as well.  Orbs can be seen floating in almost every picture that is taken there. I can account for that. I’ll post a picture from a class project where we did a photo shoot there. Even in that picture, you can see an orb. Young Tara in the left corner There are also reports of an occasional shadowy face in a picture too.  And there is a very endearing story from Karen Brownlee. Her son had passed away from a gunshot wound. When she found out the news, she was obviously devastated. Brownlee talked to Earnestine from time to time and when she was sitting alone at the bar one day, she just started talking to her, asking for a sign that her son was okay. She said all of a sudden, a little baby bird came hopping up to her from over one of the booths. He just came right up and looked at her and then flew away. Right after that, a lady, who she had never seen before, walked in and asked if she was okay. Brownlee felt compelled to tell her the story and afterwards she left, but returned an hour later with a silver necklace with a bird on it. She gave Brownlee a hug and then walked out, never to return again. She believes Earnestine sent the bird and the lady as a sign that her son was doing alright.  One thing that all employees have for E&Hs is respect. They have found that if they respect the establishment, they don’t have any negative experiences. There may be unexplained noises or tinkling of piano keys, but nothing malicious happens. It’s when you disrespect the bar and its inhabitants, they might not be so friendly anymore. Another story from Brownlee’s interview was about a group of people trash talking the bar and making fun of ghosts. Suddenly, the lights started flashing, getting dimmer and then brighter than the sun. It freaked them out so much they left the bar.  Clearly they have never heard what happens when you speak ill of the dead.  So earlier, we mentioned that there were 13 people who died in E&H. The last person to have passed away in the bar was Russell George. George had been battling cancer and depression for a while and according to Brownlee, she thought he just knew the end was coming soon and wanted to make sure he could stay at the bar. Russell George died from a self inflicted gunshot wound on September 8, 2013. It’s said his spirit does inhabit the bar.  After Geroge passed, the bar was taken over by Bud Chittom. Until doing the research, I was unaware that he actually owned the building and Russell George managed it and made it what it was. Gerald “Bud” Chittom was quite the legend in Memphis. He loved food and he loved music and he spent his life giving both of those to many Memphians and tourists alike. Over the years, he played in numerous club bands, even at the aforementioned Club Handy. He opened over 50 restaurants in Memphis and made Beale Street what it is today. According to his music note on Beale St, he was “a man you don’t meet everyday”.  Sadly, Bud suddenly passed away on September 5, 2018. He left Earnestine & Hazels to his daughter, Caitlin. Until now, she had run the bar like it has always been run, for the most part. She made some maintenance improvements where needed and brought in local craft beer on tap. You can also order a mixed drink at the downstairs bar, instead of having to head up and see Nate.  The jukebox remains the same and the wall decor has not changed. The electrical box still displays the house rules as laid out by George, “NO DOPE SMOKEN, NO CURSIN, NO FREE LODEN, E.H.”. And the spirits are still there to welcome you in.  One thing has changed though. George’s office is now padlocked and no one goes in anymore.  As we mentioned at the top of the story, Earnestine and Hazel’s is now up for sale. It hasn’t been opened since Covid hit. They just couldn’t risk their employees’ health. But that’s not the reason for the sale. Chittom said it’s just too painful to keep running the businesses she inherited. She thought overtime missing her dad would get easier, but it hasn’t. So she made the hard decision to sell. But it’s not just for anyone to have. She said she wants someone who will honor a “dive bar-and-a-brothel’s history. It’s not just about selling it, it’s about finding the right operator. Not somebody coming from Nashville, who doesn’t get it.” Right as we were finishing this episode, the Daily Memphian announced that E&H has a buyer! Derk Meitzler, who is a member of the Downtown Restaurant group, seems to be heading this operation. And he is keeping everything the same. It was part of the deal. Phew! This is such great news! I really wanted for Alan to be able to eat a soul burger, have a good drink, and listen to whatever the jukebox thinks we need to hear.  And there you have the story of Earnestine and Hazels. 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