Updated: Sep 22, 2020
After recently moving away from Memphis after 26 years, I've found myself reminiscing about everything I love about it. It’s not perfect. I mean no city is, right? But here we embrace our past, try our best to learn from it, and use it as inspiration to make things better. For me, that’s the appeal. The beautiful urban grit mixed with just enough southern hospitality, the heartbreak in its history, and the rejuvenation it’s experiencing today. If you haven’t been to Memphis yet, you are most welcome any time. And I invite you to share my journey into all the best places to visit while you’re here.
I believe it’s our duty as citizens to learn about the history of where we live. The good and the bad, the triumphs and the failures, and the living stories that have made a city what it is. This article is not a history lesson, but I have attempted to take into account some of the most important parts of the history of Memphis in order to make suggestions for a meaningful, educational, and fun visit!
Native American History
The areas now known as northern Mississippi and southwestern Tennessee were previously part of lands inhabited by the Chickasaw Tribe starting around the 17th century. Before that, the lands were associated with the Mississippian culture. The culture that gave its name to the big muddy river Memphis sits alongside, the river that was discovered by Hernando de Soto in 1541 during the European Age of Discovery.
Neighborhoods with names like Chickasaw Gardens, the Hernando De Soto bridge, and the iconic Memphis Pyramid that makes our skyline like no other, stand as reminders of our city’s rich and varied history. So where did the name Memphis come from, and why is there a huge pyramid downtown? Let's go back to the beginning. When the first European-American settlement began here in the early 1800’s, the location next to the river reminded them of the ancient Egyptian capital city of Memphis on the Nile River. And the name stuck!
Discover more about the Native American history of the area at the Chucalissa Archaeological Museum, where you can learn about the Mississipian culture of the centuries old indigenous tribes. There is also the Chickasaw Heritage Park, which has two ceremonial mounds more than 500 years old with breathtaking views from the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. While you’re here, you might want to check out the National Ornamental Metal Museum, a unique experience with exhibits demonstrating the blacksmithing and metal working history of the area.
Slavery and Black History
Memphis quickly became one of the most important cotton growing regions in the country, and due to its location, a transportation hub for both riverboats and railways. Slavery was very prevalent in the area and Memphis played a major part in the Slave Trade, especially during the 1840’s and 1850’s. There is some debate about the location of a slave market downtown, but most agree it was near the corner of Adams Avenue and B.B. King Boulevard (Third Street).
One place where you can most definitely learn about the history of slavery in Memphis is the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, a historic house that played an actual role in the underground railroad. Listen to the stories of struggle and bravery, and imagine what it must have been like hiding in the cellar or escaping through trap doors and hidden passages.
About that cotton industry. Due to the large plantations, the area around Memphis became one of largest cotton producers in the country during this time as well.
Originally the site of a cotton trading market, the corner of Front Street and Union Avenue is home to the Cotton Exchange building, used by cotton farmers to trade the cash crop that put Memphis on the map, as they say. Rebuilt multiple times over the years, the building here now holds the Cotton Museum, developed in 2006 to share the history and influence of cotton in the surrounding area.
This historic building was also featured as one of the filming locations in the 1993 Tom Cruise movie The Firm, along with the Front Street Deli across the street, where all of their delicious sandwiches are named after Tom Cruise films.
While you’re at the Cotton Exchange building, take a short walk down Union Avenue and check out the site of the original WDIA Radio Station. WDIA is still an active radio station playing classic and current R & B, but its location has moved.
This groundbreaking studio was the site of the first radio station in America dedicated to black programming, featuring black radio personalities, and helping kick start the careers of legendary artists such as B.B. King and Rufus Thomas. To learn more about the history of Memphis music and find all the best places to listen to live music in town, check out my Local Guide to Memphis Music.
Another historic location dating back to the 1850’s is Elmwood Cemetery, the oldest active cemetery in Memphis and the first rural cemetery established in the South. With graves from the the Civil War, and every other American war for that matter, Elmwood has more than a few stories to tell. A walk through this special cemetery that doubles as a bird sanctuary and arboretum will take you back in time over 160 years. Fun fact: the graveside funeral scenes from The Firm were filmed here as well.
On April 3, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Memphis to support the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, which set off a chain of events that ended in his assassination the next day. Visit these historic locations to learn about this tragic, yet pivotal event in Civil Rights history.
Start your journey at the Mason Temple. Now the Church of God in Christ's Global Headquarters, this iconic church held the service where Dr. King delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech the night before his assassination. A speech that is still remembered today as a message of inspiration and hope.
Your next stop should be the Clayborn Temple just south of Beale Street. During the Sanitation Workers’ strike this was the headquarters for organizing the march, and the pamphlets and signs bearing the words “I Am A Man” were created here. The plaza next to the temple honors this phrase, which is now a universal symbol for human rights and dignity.
Your last stop is the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assssinated. I highly recommend giving yourself at least half a day to soak in all the history that is told here.
To say you will be moved by your visit here is an understatement. This is a place everyone should visit at least once in their lives. I used to bring groups of students here every year, and never failed to learn something new or be touched by the stories it tells.
Sometimes the most tragic parts of our history teach us the most important lessons. And some lessons still need time.
Be sure to visit the Legacy Building across the street, the former boarding house from where the assassination shot supposedly originated! This annex to the museum has two floors of information tracing the history of the civil rights movement, the investigation into the Dr. King's murder, as well as the many theories of how the assassination actually happened, who fired the shot, and where it came from.
Local legends tell stories as well. Take a look at the blacked out windows on the back of the fire station across the street. You won't read this in a history book, but everyone on duty that fateful day got transferred somewhere else.
There is parking available on the property, but if you want a different experience, park in one of the public lots or metered parking spaces near the intersection of Beale Street and South Main, and go to the museum on foot. It's a bit of a walk, but to me it is completely worth it. This section of South Main was the location of the “I Am A Man” march. You can truly walk in the footsteps of history as you make your way to the museum.
Along the way you can admire the many street murals that honor the legacy of Dr. King and the Black History of Memphis, including the famous “I Am A Man” mural. For more details and specific locations, read about my journey into the stories told by Memphis street art.
After visiting the Civil Rights Museum, get some of Memphis’ best ribs or pulled pork at Central BBQ, or grab a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich and a milkshake at one of Elvis’s favorite restaurants around the corner, The Arcade Restaurant.
Got a sweet tooth? Get the best cheesecake of your life at the Cheesecake Corner or some Makeda's Cookies, made fresh every day with a little bit of butter and a whole lotta love! Classic Butter, Peanut Butter, Iced Lemon...I miss them so much! But I digress. Speaking of yummy food, there are lots of great places to eat along South Main Street as well, read here for all of my top recommendations!
Ok, so maybe it was little bit of a history lesson. I’m a teacher, what can I say? But I stand by the opinion that the history of a place brings out its personality and gives a feeling and a depth to whatever you see and do. It gives you a perspective, helps you understand it so much more, and in turn enriches your experience, whether it be for a short visit or time spent living there.
If you enjoyed reading this, please check out the other articles in my series of local guides to Memphis!