In Memphis, the stories of African Americans are found in museums but also in barbecue joints and picturesque parks, on Beale Street and in neighborhoods like Soulsville. From slavery and civil rights to entrepreneurial success, Black history is all around.
A trio of museums & tours gives a fine overview
To grasp Memphis’s role in civil rights, start at the National Civil Rights Museum. It is housed in the reimagined Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King died in 1968, and while the room where King stayed has been preserved, the rest of the motel has been turned into a world-class museum. A few years ago, more than 40 new films, oral histories and interactive media were added to its already forceful collection.
King was among the Civil Rights leaders photographed by Ernest Withers Sr., a well-known photographer who spent more than 60 years documenting Black life. His former studio on Beale Street became The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery in 2011, where a fraction of his 1.8 million images are displayed. He photographed stars like Aretha Franklin and Willie Mays, as well as not-so-famous friends, neighbors and families.
At Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, visitors experience the depths of slaves’ despair as they step down into the cellar and hidden tunnels that would take them North – concealed by a white clapboard house that served as an Underground Railroad stop. Local tour operators including Heritage Tours and A Tour of Possibilities offer group excursions to landmarks like these, as well as guided van or bus tours to several sites of interest.
A breath of fresh air; whiffs of barbecue
The city’s air is scented with wood smoke and simmering sauce, a happy byproduct of its bounty of barbecue restaurants. The Bar-B-Q Shop, in Midtown, was chosen among the country’s top 5 by the Food Network. Off I-55, Interstate Bar-B-Que owner Jim Neely has smoked tons of pork since he retired from a successful career in insurance and challenged himself to make a better barbecue sandwich. He apparently succeeded, as Interstate’s has been repeatedly ranked among the best barbecue in the country. For a break from smoked meat, try the Four Way, a local favorite, where meat and three costs around $10. Since 1946, The Four Way has dished up black-eyed peas, meringue pies and other Southern favorites as it served as a center of community activism. King and other civil rights leaders often met there over meatloaf, cornbread and greens, and the tradition continues.
A day of attractions; an evening of theatre & entertainment
By day, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and The Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame welcome visitors to learn, listen and even dance to the sounds of Memphis’ enduring, global music legacy.
After a busy day in the city, it’s nice to sink into a seat at the Hattiloo Theatre, the only freestanding Black repertory theater in five surrounding states. Since 2016, this homegrown effort has staged professional shows ranging from classics like Porgy and Bess to original works written by its founder. Or, hit world-famous Beale Street, soaked in history and neon light, for live music seven nights a week.
For more information:
Lisa Catron, CTIS, CTTP, CSTP
Global Travel Trade Director