April 28, 2015
Memphis, Tennessee, takes its name from an ancient city on the Nile. (Remember that when you notice the glinting pyramid-shaped building on the Mississippi River.) But the city’s connection to African culture runs deeper than any river. Memphis was the centre of the global cotton exchange – and the network of plantations and African slaves who worked them. Later, Memphis was the city that former slaves and their descendants aspired to reach. In the 1960s, Memphis was the scene of a shot heard around the world. Today, the city is the sum of all these things, from the National Civil Rights Museum to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is fresh off a $20M renovation that will make your visit more interactive; expect listening stations throughout that layer artefacts and vignettes with interviews, speeches and songs. But one of the most moving elements of the museum remains: a view into Room 306, where Martin Luther King Jr. spent the night before his assassination on the balcony just outside.
From the museum, walk over to Beale Street. By night, it’s a swirl of neon lights and music spilling from clubs. By day, its buildings whisper stories of the street’s heyday as a centre for African-American culture. Take the audio walking tour, available at the Memphis Rock “˜n’ Soul Museum, to hear stories of W.C. Handy, B.B. King and others forever entwined with the area. Toward the east end of the street, tour W.C. Handy’s Memphis home and the Ernest C. Withers Collection Museum and Gallery, which houses an extensive collection of Civil Rights-era photographs.
You’ll learn at the National Civil Rights Museum that the Lorraine Motel was a popular hangout (and songwriting spot) for Stax Records artists. Venture out of downtown to visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a stop that’s as much about the music as it is about the collaboration across colour lines when Memphis was still segregated. In addition to artefacts – from footage of the Stax/Volt European Revue to Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac – the museum hosts live entertainment and changing exhibitions. On Tuesday afternoons (from April through to the end of July), the “Live in Studio A” concert series is free with museum admission. From 17th July – 31st Dec 2015, the museum will welcome the powerful exhibition, Motown to Def Jam, which juxtaposes artists’ interpretations of popular African-American songs with social movements in the U.S.
Time your visit to Memphis to include one of these tours or special events honouring African-American culture in the city:
Header image: The skyline of downtown Memphis, Tennessee © Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011
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Written by Samantha Crespo