Unearthed: Memphis

Unearthed: Memphis

Season 2: Episode Two: Earnestine & Hazel’s

March 01, 2021

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.)