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.