National Civil Rights Museum: Candy Brewer

Black History in Memphis

Beyond the National Civil Rights Museum, our famed music museums and clubs are off-the-beaten-path cultural hidden treasures that tell the inside stories of the Civil Rights struggles and triumphs in Memphis.

Every autumn, the National Civil Rights Museum presents the Freedom Awards. This event honors individuals who are committed to equal rights and whose accomplishments depict the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. Honorees include Oprah Winfrey, Bono, the Dalai Lama and Paul Rusesabagina.

On Sunday mornings you can visit the oldest African-American congregation in Memphis, First Baptist Beale Street. Started in 1865 as a shelter for the thousands of rural freed men and women who came to Memphis during and after the Civil War, this magnificent structure is the first brick-constructed, multi-story church in the U.S. built for African Americans. If the history of the church doesn’t move you, the service will.

WDIA at Rock n Soul Museum - Justin Fox Burks
Alex Haley Museum in Henning, TN.

Two blocks away is Tom Lee Park. This riverside park serves as home of the Memphis in May International Festival and is named for Memphis’ greatest hero. In 1925, with the help of his tiny rowboat, local African-American resident Tom Lee (who could not swim) braved the Mississippi’s swirling currents to save 32 strangers from drowning when their excursion steamer sank. A statue at the center of the park pays tribute to Lee’s heroic efforts.

Just 35 miles north of the city limits in nearby Henning, Tennessee, stands the boyhood home and final resting place of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley. The “birthplace of Roots," as Haley called it, has been restored to represent the home where he grew up in the early 20th century. The Alex Haley House and Museum is the perfect day trip from Memphis and a must-see for anyone with an extra day in the area and a passion for history.

While in Memphis, turn your dial to 1070 AM to tune into WDIA. This Memphis-based radio station became the first U.S. radio station programmed by African-Americans in 1962 and is still a local favorite today. Also keep an eye out for the various historic markers scattered on downtown sidewalks. Each marker depicts a historical figure or event that took place right here in Memphis.