Shelby County was carved out of Chickasaw Indian hunting grounds. This land was purchased, along with the rest of western Tennessee, by the United States for a total of $300,000. Shelby County was drawn onto Tennessee maps on November 24, 1819, by an act of the state General Assembly.
Named for the first governor of Kentucky and Revolutionary War hero Isaac Shelby, the county's first government was appointed by the General Assembly. The five-man Quarterly Court was called into session in a log cabin near Main and Winchester in the raucous river settlement of Memphis.
Today, the county still strives to assist the poor in finding food, housing and burial services, but it has also expanded into child care, employment, medical services and many other areas designed to break the cycle of poverty. For example, Shelby County Government distributes more than $2.5 million in food commodities each month using a distribution system that serves as a model for the nation. Elderly citizens who need nursing home care are assisted by the county, too -- more than 600 beds have been provided.
Today's Shelby County high-rise government buildings and regular County Commission meetings would have amazed those early court members. Shunning the log cabin built for court business, those legislators often went to someone's home for a meeting, got no quorum, and returned home without getting anything accomplished.
In 1827, Shelby County government moved into a small frame building outside Memphis in a town they named Raleigh as a favor to the first circuit clerk of Shelby County, who had moved from North Carolina and wanted to honor his native state. It is uncertain why Shelby County government moved to Raleigh, but in 1868 the county seat was brought back to Memphis.
After the War Between the States began, the court took $7,000 from the courthouse fund to support Confederate soldiers and their children. Today, Shelby County assists veterans of military service in obtaining more than $8 million in benefits each year.
From 1862 to 1864 -- roughly the years of the Civil War -- the Quarterly Court did not meet. But when it did resume, it seemed to be efficiency-minded. The Quarterly Court voted that no lawyer or any other person could speak twice on any subject unless in explanation and then only for five minutes. Today's county commissioners, whose meetings often last for hours, might wish its forums were so regulated.
On Jan. 1, 1976, the position of commissioner was abolished as an executive job and the county's first mayor, Roy Nixon, took office. He was followed by William N. Morris, Jr., who was elected in 1978, 1982, 1986, and 1990.Mayor Jim Rout was took office in 1994 and present Mayor A. C. Wharton, Jr. was sworn in in September of 2002.
Shelby County Government is like its various homes -- the shell changes but never the purpose. It began small in a log house and then a log courthouse serving a small community. Later, a growing Shelby County forced the government into larger quarters at the Overton Hotel on Poplar and Main.
And as the needs of its residents increased, Shelby County's government moved into a courthouse occupying an entire city block in downtown Memphis. This $1.6 million courthouse opened in 1909. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the courthouse features seven different marbles from Vermont, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Tennessee. The building, with its mahogany woodwork, bronze hardware and art groupings representing law, underwent extensive renovation from 1987 to 1991.
As the county continued to expand and change from a rural to an urban center, Shelby County Government responded with more services to a greater population. The 1909 courthouse became too small and in 1969, an administration building was built at 160 N. Main for $5.4 million dollars.
The $58 million dollar Shelby County Criminal Justice Center opened in 1981, replacing the old county jail. The 10-story facility at Poplar and Third in downtown Memphis also houses the Memphis Police Department, Shelby County Sheriff's Department, the Attorney General's office, City Court, Criminal Court and General Sessions Court.
Not only have the buildings of county government changed along with the nature of the population, but so has the form. In September 1986, the county began operating under a Home Rule Charter after voters overwhelmingly approved the change. This charter gave Shelby County the authority to adopt its own ordinances without requiring the approval of the state legislature. Under the charter, the Board of County Commissioners, descendant of that first Quarterly Court, can adopt or amend ordinances with either a majority or two-thirds vote.
Despite the evolution of the structure of county government, the changes in the county population, the differing buildings that housed government, one thing has remained constant: that vision of Shelby County first seen in the actions of its earliest Quarterly Courts.
For those early leaders, Shelby County was not just a place to be drawn on a map. It was their home, and people like Winchester, Overton and Jackson set the direction for future Shelby County residents. These pioneers, like county leaders today, worked to make this a place where citizens would be offered a special place for their families and themselves to find happiness, meaning and pride.