There are few men in the city of Memphis with the history and accomplishments of former Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism. Memphis and Shelby County have both produced their share of prominent people, including many who have achieved national status and recognition, but true, independent leaders have been few and far between in recent decades. One leader’s name is appropriately called when honor, accomplishment, independence and bravery are considered. Sidney Chism, and his very recognizable white Stetson hat, stands apart for many reasons, not the least of which are his professional, political and personal accomplishments.
Sidney is a ‘North Memphis Boy’, born in 1940 on Tunica Street in the Hyde Park community to parents Lorene and Lee Chism. Sidney is actually named ‘Lee’, after his father, an independent construction contractor, who earned a very good living renovating homes for whites that owned property in Black neighborhoods. His mother Lorene is from Memphis, and grew up in the area near Booker T. Washington High School. His father, Lee Chism is from Greenville Mississippi.
Young Sidney learned early in life that hard work and preparation for the future would be the keys to his success, having a paper route in Hyde Park as a child, and learning early skills of painting houses and duplexes while he attended Douglass Junior High. He left Douglass High School before graduation to work full time, returning to school to complete his high school diploma at Booker T. Washington’s night school. In his early career, the ambitious and assertive young man was a Homebuilder and contractor, actually building some of the first ‘pre-fab’ houses in the city of Memphis in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
By 1962 Sidney Chism was already fully engaged in the commercial side of Black Memphis, earning a comfortable living, and securing his first real job at the Formasco Steel Mill. His talents and abilities were recognized by management at Formasco, with promotions and holding supervisory roles by the age of twenty-five, a rare occurrence for Black men in the early days of the looming Civil Rights Movement. By the late 1960’s, Sidney was able to land a plum job at the Schlitz Brewery, where he once again was able to move in rapid succession to the top ranks of the company. Schlitz would eventually be purchased by Stroh’s, with that company eventually being bought by Coors.
Many Memphians over the age of sixty can remember what seemed to be the ‘hey day’ for Blacks in Memphis, with men being employed at Caterpillar, Firestone, Coors, and other large manufacturing concerns in the city and county. The decade of the 1960’s was a tale of two realities in Memphis, with solid wage-earning opportunities for families, but also with sanitation workers being paid thirty-five cents (¢.35) per hour. Sidney Chism set a remarkable example for Black employees, with increasingly important roles at Schlitz including becoming the first Black man to run the “Power House” or power plant that controlled the entire facility and Brewery itself. Sidney would become the Union Steward at Schlitz, right at the time when the Teamsters were winning the union contract over the Brewers Union.
Honor, accomplishment, independence and bravery were not only personal characteristics, but a constant part of life for Sidney Chism, raising issues of adequate pay, work hours, plant leadership, and pensions for retirement. When he began his role as union Steward, the employment rate of Blacks at Schlitz was around ten percent (10%), but a large overseas commercial order caused the company to increase staff at its Memphis plant, among others. It would be Sidney Chism as Shop Steward, who insisted that union officials allow him to open the employment pool to Blacks, leading to a thirty-five percent (35%) rate of employment by the mid 1970’s.
Teamsters officials also recognized the professionalism and influence of Chism, with officials like John Hoh, Director of the Beer & Soft Drink Division, tapping him to work on the International staff of the Teamsters organization. He was contacted by Bobby Logan from Chattanooga who was himself seeking the job of Secretary Treasurer for the Southeast Region of the Teamsters, asking Sidney to seek the office of President of the Joint Council. That body oversaw union operations and membership for a dozen states throughout the southeast. Sidney Chism was elected President in the early 1980’s, and would spend twenty-six years as an organizer and executive of the Teamsters Union.
In the midst of his professional rise to leadership, he met his wife of fifty-six years, Lillie, at a social function hosted at the Savers Grill by his Club, “The Brothers”. Theirs was a group of young professional men including Ed Parker and Willie Rounds, who supported each other. “At first she didn’t seem that interested in me”, says Chism. “But after a while, we started dating, and eventually got married”, he added. Chism credits Lillie with maintaining their home and several family businesses, as he continued his work and constant travel for the Teamsters.
John Hoh encouraged Sidney to become financially independent, which he did, operating successful small businesses including several car washes, a Liquor Store, a Laundromat and several rental properties. Lillie, who always wanted to be a teacher, still operates a very successful day care center in the Westwood-Whitehaven community, to this day.
Over his twenty-six years of serving as a top union official with the Teamsters, Sidney Chism had opportunities to meet and work with some of the most powerful men in the country, including Jimmy Hoffa, Roy Fitzsimmons, and Jackie Presser. There were few African Americans in any roles with the Teamsters, but Chism remembers two who stood out; A.W. Parker from Texas, and John Mishladae from New Orleans. The three would often meet at national conventions, including Las Vegas, Canada, California and New York. Chism would eventually retire from these roles, and continue to grow his family businesses.
By the early 1990’s, Sidney Chism had earned the reputation of being a shrewd political organizer, able to raise money and gain the right influences for local political races. He was the first campaign manager for Judge Walter Evans, and also served on the Shelby County Commission himself. He has helped many young politicians including Judge Jayne Chandler, Judge Carolyn Blackett, and Judge Tarik Sugarman. He counts as longtime friends prominent, influential men like the late Attorney Russel Sugarman and Judge D’Army Bailey, as well as Commissioner Walter Bailey, and businessman Jesse Turner.
There are few men in the city of Memphis with the history and accomplishments of former County Commissioner Sidney Chism, and as now he prepares to celebrate and host his 16th Annual Chism Community Picnic, it seems only appropriate that the citizens and residents of Memphis & Shelby County pause to reflect on a “Leading Legacy”, and a legacy of Leadership. The annual Chism Community Picnic has always been free and open to the public, with thousands of families attending over the years. He’s independent, courageous, concerned about his community, and always willing to fight the good fight, whether it was for the workers at the Schlitz Brewery, or for children in Shelby County Schools