A Black history travel guide for visiting Memphis, Tennessee which includes a brief history of the city and some insights into a few of its museums. In the guide I provide an overview of the city’s history dating back to its founding in 1819 as well as its emergence as a regional center of Black life. I also discuss a few of its music and two of its history museums in detail.
A History of Memphis
City on the Bluff
Situated atop a bluff, the area that would one day comprise Memphis was originally home to the Chickasaw Native Americans. Europeans first made contact with the area in 1541 when Hernando de Soto visited and claimed the area for Spain. At various times the land was also occupied by the French and English. In 1818, future president Andrew Jackson and two other investors purchased the land. One year later, the city was formally founded and given the name of the ancient Egyptian city which means “place of good abode”.
Despite being inland, Memphis is located on the banks of the Mississippi. This meant the new city was ideally situated to take advantage of river transportation while its elevation protected some areas from floods. The city’s growth was primarily fueled by the farming and transportation of cotton which was heavily reliant on slave labor. By the mid-1800s, the city’s population saw tremendous growth with the arrival of Americans from other parts of the country as well as Irish and German immigrants.
During the boom years, both enslaved and free Black people contributed to the city’s success. A ban on the import of slaves into America had gone into effect in 1808. But a separate Tennessee ban on the trading of enslaved people within the state was repealed in the 1840s. Thus in addition to becoming an inland center of the cotton trade, Memphis also became a center for slave trading in the 1850s. A prominent figure in the city’s history, Nathan Bedford Forrest earned his fortune during this time as a result of owning cotton plantations and operating a large slave market on Adams Street one of the city’s main streets located a short distance from the Mississippi River landing.
A little over a year after the start of the Civil War, Memphis was occupied by the Union and remained under the army’s control. Thousands of free Black people and escaped slaves took refuge in the city and aided the Union Army. Following the end of the war, White residents chafed against Reconstruction and Union rule. In 1866, a large riot broke out following an altercation between Irish immigrants and Black soldiers. The fighting left 44 Black people dead, damaged several establishments, and resulted in the majority of the city’s Black residents leaving.
Memphis’ poor sanitation and climate led to two separate Yellow Fever epidemics in the 1870s which devastated the city’s population and finances culminating in bankruptcy. Sensing an opportunity, Robert Church, Sr., a Black businessman began purchasing property around the city with a special focus on Beale Street. He built various venues for the city’s Black population and was a founder of Solvent Savings Bank. Through these institutions, Beale Street would become a center of Black life in Memphis and the surrounding region. But, the old racial issues would re-emerge following the city’s repopulation after the Yellow Fever epidemic subsided.
Despite those hardships, Memphis became a major Southern hub for Black people. The city was a major force in music starting with the blues in the 1910s, rock and roll in the 1940s-1950s, and soul music in the 1960s. It also played an important but devastating role in the fight throughout the South for equality. In February 1968, sanitation workers went on strike in protest of the deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. This was the culmination of years of discrimination and poor working conditions for the city’s sanitation workers most of whom were Black. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was called upon to lend his support to the strike and it was while visiting the city that he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Following the death of Dr. King, rioting erupted in the city. Urban renewal projects launched by the Memphis Housing Authority also changed the city’s landscape. Residents were made to vacate properties around Memphis which were then demolished or left vacant but otherwise were never rebuilt or renovated.
Memphis experienced a downturn that lasted until the 1980s when traditionally Black neighborhoods began to be gentrified. By the early 1990s, Beale Street had been revived as a tourist destination and the National Civil Rights Museum opened on the site of the Lorraine Motel. Depending on who you ask those specific changes may or may not be positive.
It should be noted that 64% of the city’s population is Black, making it a majority-Black city. But, the median Black household income is about half that of White households standing at about $31,000. While 20% of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, 52% of the city’s Black children live below the poverty line. Memphis has a storied history but still has a long way to go.
The city is known for its musical history and in visiting several museums there was a message conveyed that music was enough to bring the city’s residents together. That everyone got along and things only changed after the assassination of Dr. King. But, that can’t be true as there wouldn’t have been a need for a sanitation worker’s strike. And being in the South, Memphis was a segregated city. I admittedly didn’t visit all of the museums in the city and didn’t have time to see all of the historical markers. But, I felt like I wasn’t getting the full story. I enjoyed the museums for what they were with regards to music and think most are worth visiting. But, I also think you have to do your due diligence to get the complete history and separate facts from spin.
My Perspective on Memphis
When I visit a city, as long as it’s safe, I try to get out of the tourist areas to get an idea of living conditions for normal residents. While driving around Memphis I made it a point to take the local streets when possible rather than sticking to highways. Downtown near Beale Street is the tourist area and as is to be expected it is pretty nice. The Uptown and Midtown areas were also nice and seemed to have a lot of homes that were newly built or under construction. But, South Memphis looked rough and neglected compared to other parts of the city. If you drove down a block with five houses at least two would be boarded up. Not to mention stores and gas stations that were shuttered.
I visited at the beginning of March 2020 and the city seemed pretty empty. I don’t know if it seemed empty because I’m used to big crowds in New York or this is just how it is. Fewer people might have been out because I arrived in town on a Sunday and there was bad weather that night or the oncoming coronavirus pandemic.
The local people that I met were mostly all very nice and friendly. Of all the people that I met the only two that were unfriendly were at businesses and the other people I dealt with at those same businesses more than made up for it. I’m not a big fan of long car rides but if Memphis was closer to Atlanta I would visit again, if just for the people and BBQ.
Blues Hall of Fame Museum
The Blues Foundation pays tribute to blues artists and music through awards and a hall of fame. I knew of a few artists and had heard a few blues songs from movies and television shows before visiting the Hall of Fame Museum. But, visiting the museum provided a different experience.
The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise Gallery features special exhibits that change every three months. At the time of my visit, the special exhibit was “Women of the Blues” which featured photos of various female blues artists. I love photography so although I didn’t know any of the artists or their music, I enjoyed browsing the photos with their bright vibrant colors.
You enter the museum at street level but descend a set of steps to the permanent exhibits. The lower level contains three main areas that I would describe as the main hall of memorabilia, a smaller hall about inductees and a sitting area with books about blues music and artists. The main hall has several display cases on each side that feature musical instruments, outfits, and albums. There are your typical placards along the way that contain information about individual artists.
I liked the multimedia displays that allowed you to touch and swipe your way through information. Towards the end of the main hall, there are sound booths where you can step inside, put on a pair of headphones, listen to full-length songs from artists, and read their bios. There was one particular song that stood out, “Don’t Start Me Talking” by Sonny Boy Williamson where the singer tells everybody’s business.
Memphis Music Hall of Fame
To be quite honest, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame was probably my least favorite museum of the bunch. This was the last museum that I visited so by this point there was some overlap in content about older musicians. But, unlike some of the other museums, this one also featured memorabilia from modern artists such as Three 6 Mafia and Justin Timberlake. On its own, this is a small but pretty good museum if you’re interested in artists with ties to Memphis but not necessarily rock or soul musicians.
National Civil Rights Museum
Full disclosure, I did not tour the interior of the National Civil Rights Museum at The Lorraine Hotel. I planned out my visit to Memphis in the weeks leading up to the trip and made note of the various museum hours. But, when I re-checked the National Civil Rights Museum’s website the night before I planned to visit there was a message that the museum would be closed the following day for a private event. This meant changing my plans to visit on the morning of my last day in Memphis.
While visiting the Blues Hall of Fame I realized that the Lorraine Motel was right across the street and down some steps. I wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere so decided to walk over and take photos of the exterior so it would be one less thing to do on my last day. I’ve seen the building in photos and documentaries but it was surreal to see in person. It’s both physically smaller and emotionally larger than I’d imagined. Smaller because some of the people who stayed at the motel were big-time celebrities of the day and would go on to become cultural icons. But it’s a relatively small place in the middle of a regular neighborhood. I think that speaks to the reality of segregation. Larger because there’s a feeling of being on hallowed ground in the sense that something momentous in history took place here.
There was some activity surrounding the building as groundskeepers freshened up the area, trucks were unloaded, and a tour group explored the area. While I snapped photos my mom (being a nosy Mary) went closer to the entrance to find out what was going on and learned that Apple was having some kind of a premiere. When I walked to the corner where the Lorraine sign is located I noticed a table with a bunch of signs across the street. Being from New York City I usually ignore protests like this because quite often they’re about nonsense. But, after reading the signs from a distance I was intrigued and was curious to learn more.
Upon approaching the table, I met Jacqueline Smith who explained that she’d been protesting the museum since the closure of the Lorraine Motel in 1988. Smith had lived and worked at the motel since 1973 and was the last tenant to be evicted. When her belongings were placed out on the street across from the motel Smith took up residence on the sidewalk. She remains there to this day and speaks with passersby about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and what she perceives as the wrongs committed in the development of the museum.
The museum sees itself as being located at the site of Dr. King’s assassination but dedicated to offering a look back at the wider scope of the Civil Rights Movement. There’s a memorial to Dr. King but the entire museum is not just about him. Based on what I learned from the website, the permanent exhibits begin with slavery, move on to the Civil Rights Movement, and then on to the Black Power Movement.
Smith’s major points of protest are that the museum focuses too heavily on the violence of the assassination of Dr. King rather than his work and mission during life. And also that Dr. King was concerned with and worked to alleviate the plight of the poor. But, the development of the museum and wider gentrification of the area led to the displacement of those very people. The funds used to create the museum would have been better spent providing support and resources for Memphis citizens who are in need. Also, while Black people should be telling the story of Black history the museum’s non-profit board primarily consists of non-Black members. It feels like the historical struggles and hardships of Memphis’ Black community are being used to generate tourism dollars and taxes are being used to support the museum while residents have been displaced and left without access to resources.
I believe that there is some merit to the perspective of both sides. It seems that Smith’s focus is on the museum’s representation of Dr. King’s legacy but while that’s a part of the museum’s mission it is not the sole focus. She also takes issue with the presentation of some content within the museum, its location, and the use of taxpayer funds but not the overall existence of the museum.
I don’t take issue with using funds to recreate events or environments that allow people to imagine themselves in a different time or place. I understand having a problem with government funds being spent in part to manage and maintain the property while people are poor/homeless. But, I don’t know the details of local Memphis or Tennessee politics to assess if this is more egregious or inline with what other cities and states do with regards to sports stadiums, museums, and other tourism draws.
In addition to good BBQ (of which I had plenty), the National Civil Rights Museum was my primary reason for visiting Memphis. But, I felt conflicted after speaking with Ms. Smith and combined with facing an hours-long drive I ultimately decided not to return to visit the museum before leaving the next morning. That being said I think it’s best left up to the individual to decide if they’ll visit or not.
Rock N Soul Museum
The Rock N Soul Museum begins with a 12-minute intro video that gives an overview of how country and blues music combined with gospel to produce rock and soul music. Following the end of the film, you’re handed an audio guide player that you can use at stops throughout the museum to hear additional content which is usually music.
The museum is physically divided into four sections. You begin in a relatively open main area where the progression of Black life and music moves along the left wall and the progression of White life and music moves along the right wall. There’s information about the two forms of music but also a look back at how the consumption of music developed and was influenced by life in rural areas.
Emphasis is placed on rural families earning a living through sharecropping and cotton farming. And how those shared experiences and living nearby exposed Black and White families to each other’s music and led to porch gatherings where people would play instruments and sing. It’s important to note that attention is paid to the hardships of being the rural poor but not as much discussion of the racial strife that Black families would have also been facing at the time.
Beale Street was a center for Black people but most of the businesses were owned and operated by Jewish and Italian people. On select White-only nights, White people would visit Beale Street for entertainment but Black people couldn’t visit White establishments as anything but entertainers and workers. This was not surprising as I’d read about similar practices in Harlem while researching the Harlem Renaissance.
It was interesting to learn about the Black businesses and professionals related to the music industry that had ties to Memphis and Beale Street. I came to realize that some of the city’s institutions such as STAX and the radio station WDIA which primarily produced content from and for the Black community were White-owned. I honestly don’t know how I feel about that but I appreciated that WDIA at least gave back to the community by contributing to and providing resources for Black children.
The Stax Museum is located less than 10 minutes from Downtown Memphis at the corner of College St & East McLemore Avenue. It’s a short distance but a notable difference as the area begins to look a bit rough once you get out of Downtown and start heading towards South Memphis. But, don’t let first impressions sway you from visiting.
When we arrived there was a tour bus outside and inside was a fairly large group of what appeared to be high school or college students. The entrance and gift shop area where tickets are purchased aren’t very spacious but also didn’t feel overwhelmingly crowded. Touring the museum begins with a 20-minute film about the development and influence of soul music. The film doesn’t just focus on Memphis but rather touches on some of the other cities and record labels that had an impact on the soul genre. As is to be expected, some of the film specifically focuses on Stax but it’s just as willing to discuss Stax’s downfall as its successes.
I knew that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis to support the local Sanitation Workers strike when he was assassinated. The riots that occurred across that country after his murder are often discussed but the focus tends to be on larger cities. So I welcomed the opportunity to learn a bit about the impact that the assassination had on the city of Memphis, race relations, and the music coming out of the city. There’s also a discussion of Wattstax, the recording of a 1972 festival that was designed to bring 100,000 Black people together for one mega show in memory of the Watts Riots.
After the film, you enter the actual museum which begins in a reassembled country church. Soul music emerged from the kind of Southern gospel that would have been sung in a Mississippi Delta church such as the one on display. The pews and pulpit are cordoned off for preservation but you can view things from both the rear and right side which gives a pretty good idea of what it might have been like to be in such a church. Along the wall that guides you into the main area of the museum is a timeline of sorts about early gospel singers and the progression towards soul music.
The main area of the museum tells the history of Stax as well as individual artists who contributed to soul music. Much like the film at the start of the museum, the focus is primarily on Stax but also features information about artists in the soul genre who were actually on other labels. There is a room with bios about high profile artists who contributed to the development of blues and soul such as Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Ray Charles, etc. But there’s another section where entire display cases are dedicated to less widely known (or at least less well known to me) artists who were major contributors at Stax such as Carla Thomas. Other highlights in the museum include Isaac Haye’s “cat daddy” Cadillac, a wall of sound consisting of singles and albums, and a recreated version of the Stax recording studio.
This was my favorite music-focused museum in Memphis as I enjoyed all of the music and it is very well curated and organized. It’s called the Stax Museum of American Soul Music most likely because of the history of Stax and the location of the museum. But I would recommend thinking of it in terms of being the Soulsville Museum because it’s a great place for learning about soul music overall.
Slave Haven is an Underground Railroad museum within a home in the Uptown area that was once owned by the Burkle family. Jacob Burkle was a German immigrant who moved to the area in the 1800s and owned the stockyards that were located a short distance away on the banks of the Mississippi River. The house seems to sit a bit further back from the street than some other older homes in Memphis giving it a nice large front yard. The exterior is otherwise nice but fairly modest and unimpressive which helped to hide its function as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The true history of the house remained obscured until after its 1985 purchase by Helene Eldress Phillips who would begin the process of converting it into a museum.
This was hands down my favorite museum and it should be on your list of places to visit. But I will admit that the visit didn’t start on a positive note. I planned for Slave Haven to be the first stop after breakfast on our second day in town. The first employee we met was not very welcoming as she seemed more intent on just getting us into the museum rather than ensuring we’d enjoy the experience. Though to be fair, the place was very busy and she might have been feeling overwhelmed. Also, we were told that the card machine was not working so we’d have to pay with cash, Cash App, or PayPal. Usually, I carry $20 or less in cash on me but fortunately, my mom had enough cash so that worked out.
Arriving in the late morning, there were a few school buses out front with kids gathered into sizable groups that were waiting to board the buses. When we entered the museum two other large groups were touring the house. The rooms are fair-sized but with two large groups and fairly young kids yelling and moving about it began to feel very crowded. You can only tour the house with a guide so I had to join one of the groups that had already formed. Both groups had already begun the tour and we ended up quite some distance from the guide so we couldn’t hear and felt disconnected from what was being discussed. We decided to leave and come back later in hopes that the kids would be gone or at least the groups would be smaller.
Upon returning there was another large group and I was about to give up as I didn’t want to struggle to hear and see the tour guide. But fortunately, as I was turning to leave, one of the tour guides, Aisha, promised to ensure that I would be close enough to her to hear. I’m very grateful that she encouraged me to stay as the experience was one of the most memorable parts of the trip.
Where your tour begins will depend on the number of groups in the house and where the tour guides decide to start your particular group. My mom and I began the tour in the front parlor which gives you an idea of daily life in such a home in the 1800s. Moving into the front hall, we were joined by the group and ended up near the tour guide. The front hall is your typical foyer with doorways that lead to multiple rooms in the house. This creates divided wall spaces which are used as sections that you move through as the story of the home as well as the broader history of slavery are told.
Aisha began the front hall section of the tour by speaking about the history of the Memphis Slave Market. Something that always strikes me when visiting some of these Southern cities is coming across specific streets, squares, parks, and waterfronts where enslaved people would have been moved through in the past. Seeing and walking through these physical locations transforms slavery from being something in history books to feeling very real. There are museums and sometimes historical markers for buildings but cities don’t always obviously mark the public spaces that were a part of this history.
I found it very interesting when Aisha shared that there were slave markets located on Adams Street (now Adams Avenue) as I’d driven down that very street and had no idea. She also gave some insight into how older historical markers in the city deceptively portray Nathan Bedford Forest as simply being a successful entrepreneur while he was actually the owner of a large slave market.
In telling the story of slavery, you have to discuss the Middle Passage. But, Slave Haven goes a bit further by telling about the process of assessing how fit slaves were for the journey and how they would be moved through the slave castles on Africa’s west coast. I also find it interesting to learn about companies and institutions which still exist that were involved in the slave trade. I’d previously heard about banks but it was a different perspective to learn about the involvement of several prominent insurance companies.
In learning about runaway slaves, I’d always assumed that they escaped from slaveholding states to free states in the Midwest and Northeast as well as Canada. It always seemed like escaping northward to the free states from somewhere like Florida or Alabama would be a long and especially dangerous journey because of the distance. But, there’s an insightful map that provides more details than I’d ever seen about where the enslaved usually escaped to based on where they were escaping from.
The museum contains a lot of information, some of which you can find at other museums. But what sets Slave Haven apart is the emphasis on oral history/storytelling and its incredible tour guides. Aisha gathered us into another front room and provided an amazing breakdown of coded communication between escaped slaves and conductors on the Underground Railroad. You might have heard about negro spirituals and their hidden messages but it was different to hear someone with an incredible voice sing and break them down line by line. And to then learn about how mundane household items like lamps, lawn jockeys, and the patterns on quilts would be used to communicate when it was too dangerous to speak directly.
From there we were handed over to another excellent tour guide, Taylor, who took us through the remaining areas in the house. This part of the tour shifts focus back to the house and explains how the museum developed. In walking through the rooms there are more details about life during the mid-1800s. There’s a surface level explanation of what life would have been like within the house. But also a deeper exploration of how the home’s construction aided in hiding escaped slaves in less noticeable areas of the house.
Slave Haven does not have the slick polished design or multimedia displays of some of the other museums. But, this gives it an authentic and transformative feel. It contains a wealth of information that you won’t find elsewhere in the city. And the content is presented in a unique and incredibly humanizing format which allows visitors to personally imagine and feel what these experiences might have been like rather than as a distant unrelatable part of history. If you only visit one museum in Memphis it should be this one.
- Harkins, John E. 2018. “Memphis.” Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society. March 1, 2018. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/memphis/.
- “History of Memphis.” n.d. Memphis Tourism. Accessed March 20, 2020. https://www.memphistravel.com/trip-ideas/memphis-history.
- Jarvie, Jenny. 2018. “50 Years after King’s Death, Struggles Remain for African Americans in Memphis.” Los Angeles Times. April 4, 2018. https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-king-memphis-20180404-story.html.
- “Memphis Tennessee: Memphis History: African American History.” n.d. We Are Memphis. Accessed March 20, 2020. https://wearememphis.com/culture/history-of-memphis/.
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