Even as a Lauderdale I have to admit that my family has not left the same mark on Memphis as William R. Moore. Press-Scimitar columnist Eldon Roark described him as “perhaps the most unusual character who ever influenced the destiny of Memphis.” Another historian called him “one of the outstanding Memphians of all time.”
Moore was indeed a remarkable fellow. Born in 1830 in Alabama, he never went to school. In his teens he moved to Nashville and began clerking in one of that city’s largest dry goods stores. The ambitious lad then moved to New York City, where he began to prosper in the retail business, and by 1859, when he’d made enough money, he came to Memphis, at the time the fastest-growing city in the South.
He quickly became what he considered “this city’s most insulted resident.” With the Civil War looming, it didn’t help that Moore not only opposed secession but openly supported Abraham Lincoln. As historian Paul Coppock noted, “he was publicly abused, vilified, and held in contempt. The attack was so severe the Presbyterian congregation of which he was a member threw him out.”
When the war began, Moore quietly stayed in business, and he did something rather clever. Suspecting that Confederate money would be worthless if — and when — the South lost the war, he didn’t save it. Instead, he purchased downtown property with it, and when the war was over, while his business rivals found themselves bankrupt, Moore was a wealthy landowner and one of the richest men in the city.
His firm grew and prospered. He opened branch offices in Atlanta and built an eight-story headquarters and warehouse building in downtown Memphis with his name carved in stone across the top. It must have been a rather curious place to work. Among other things, Moore was absolutely opposed to any of his employees drinking alcohol, claiming that even a sip would give anyone a “muddled brain.”
At the age of 58, he married a woman with the remarkable name of Charlotte Blood, and newspaper accounts describe them living in the “Blood Residence” on Union, a noble-looking edifice despite the creepy name.
Even with his wealth and success, Moore began to obsess about his legacy. When he retired in 1902, he wanted people to remember him for building one of the finest schools in the South. According to a Press-Scimitar account, “from then until his death his time was largely filled with dreaming and planning for his college.”
Moore died in 1909 and was buried in a massive stone vault in Forest Hill Cemetery. He divided his fortune two ways, with part going to his wife, and the remainder — some $500,000 — going to the school he had envisioned.
His dream was delayed. Even in those days, half a million dollars wasn’t enough to build a fine college. So plans for the school were put on hold until the death of Charlotte Blood Moore in 1919, and then it seems there still wasn’t enough money, so a group of trustees invested the funds. They actually doubled the original investment, and when it finally reached more than a million dollars, it was finally time to build the new school — three decades after the death of its founder.
On April 11, 1939, the brand-new William R. Moore School of Technology opened at Poplar and Bellevue, and what a place it was. Perhaps because of his own lack of “book learning” Moore didn’t much care for the liberal arts. Instead, as the school’s first president explained, “He didn’t say anything about wanting academic subjects taught. He wanted boys to get training that would enable them to make a good living.” The school stood three stories high and included classrooms, an auditorium, a library, and even a museum. The technical training programs were extensive: Students could concentrate in drafting, electricity, machine shop, internal combustion engines, welding, carpentry, cabinet-making, metalworking, and much more.
“Thus students getting instruction in the shops of the William R. Moore School,” said the 1940 bulletin, “will be well prepared to go directly into positions of responsibility in industrial plants.” And how much would students pay for this opportunity? Just a few dollars. Tuition was free; the only expense was incidental costs such as 25 cents for rental of drafting equipment, or $4.50 for uniforms.
The William R. Moore dry goods business went through various ownership changes over the years, and finally closed. The nice downtown building is still standing; it was recently converted into the Toyota Center overlooking AutoZone Park.
And the school? It’s still going strong, now called Moore Tech, which claims close to 100 percent of its graduates find jobs in such diverse fields as plumbing, welding, maintenance technology, machining technology, air conditioning and heating, and industrial electricity.
William R. Moore would be mighty proud of his legacy.