Cotton Museum - Andrea Zucker
Cotton Museum. Photo Credit: Andrea Zucker

Explore Memphis History

Dig in, history buffs; these are some great attractions you won't want to miss on your next trip to Memphis.

Memphis began with Native Americans settling high upon the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff and extended to Hernando DeSoto, the Civil War, yellow fever, the blues and rock 'n' roll music.

COTTON ROW 

Beginning around 1840, riverboats loaded with cotton lined the Memphis riverfront. Through the Civil War and by the turn of the century, Memphis was center stage and cotton was king. At some estimates, over 75% of the nation's cotton came through the Bluff City. Front Street in Downtown Memphis was nicknamed “Cotton Row” and was the heart of the cotton trade and the center of the Memphis economy for over a century.

Built on the original trading floor, the Cotton Museum (at the corner of Front Street and Union Avenue) uses video footage, oral histories, artifacts and exhibits to give you a glimpse of cotton society, history, economics and culture. Relive the days of cotton traders and see how their empires were created and how cotton changed the history of a nation.

ELMWOOD CEMETERY

Established in 1852, Elmwood Cemetery is the oldest active cemetery in Memphis. Beneath the ancient elms, oaks and magnolias lie some of the city's most famous and infamous. Elmwood is the final resting place for veterans of every American war from the American Revolution up to the Vietnam War, mayors, madams, governors, generals, senators, blues singers and Civil Rights leaders.

Elmwood is on the National Register of Historic Places and is also an official arboretum. The cemetery hosts special events and tours year-round. Docent-led tours are an excellent way to tour Elmwood's 80 acres and can be arranged for groups of 10 or more. Elmwood also offers an audio tours and maps for individual visitors. To find out more about tours and events, go to their official site.

DAVIES MANOR PLANTATION

Once a working plantation of 2,000 acres, Davies Manor is the oldest extant home in Shelby County. Today, you can tour the historic log cabin, gardens, outbuildings and tenant cabins. Inexpensive tours led by docents dressed in period-related clothing are informative and tell a beautiful story.

Davies Manor Plantation is located about 25 minutes from Downtown Memphis. More information about the tour and history of the manor can be found on their website.

VICTORIAN VILLAGE

Between 1845 and 1890, over a dozen three- and four-story, Victorian-style homes were built along "Millionaire’s Row," which at the time was on the outskirts of Memphis. This prosperous neighborhood had homes filled with riverboat tycoons and cotton magnates.

As the city of Memphis grew and expanded eastward, the area surrounding Millionaire’s Row became less and less exclusive. By the end of World War II, the neighborhood had changed so much that many of the wealthy families abandoned their mansions in Victorian Village.

Several of the homes still stand today and thanks to careful restorations are available for tours. Find more about Victorian Village in Memphis and touring the homes.

Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. Photo Credit: Baxter Buck
Inside Elmwood Cemetery / Andrea Zucker
Slave Haven Museum, Cotton Museum, A. Schwab, National Civil Rights Museum

MEMPHIS ROCK 'N' SOUL MUSEUM

Memphis' history is thick with music. Muddy Waters rode the Blues Highway – Route 61 up from Mississippi to Memphis. So did B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Bessie Smith and numerous others.

Located at the corner of legendary Highway 61 and Beale is the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum. Created by the Smithsonian Institution, the museum exhibition tells the story of musical pioneers who, for the love of music, overcame racial and socioeconomic barriers to create the music that shook the entire world.

The Rock 'n' Soul Museum offers a comprehensive Memphis music experience from the rural field hollers and sharecroppers of the 1930s, through the surge of Sun, Stax and Hi Records and Memphis’ musical heyday in the 70s, to its global influence. The audio tour takes you through at your own pace through seven galleries, packed with 300 minutes of information, including over 100 songs, three visual programs, more than 30 instruments, 40 costumes and other musical treasures.

Slave Haven 

The Burkle Estate was built in 1849 by Jacob Burkle, livestock trader and bakery owner, who opened his home to help slaves escape to freedom.

Currently, the Burkle Estate is the Slave Haven Museum which focuses on the history of slavery and the undergound railroad in Memphis. The house has 19th century furnishings but its main feature is the secret cellar and trap doors that offered refuge to runaway slaves. This dark cellar was their home for days as they sat silently waiting for boats that would take them to other way stations upriver on their way to freedom in the northern states. After stepping down into the cellar and kneeling on the brick floor of this cramped room, you definitely get a deeper understanding of the slaves’ plight. Take a tour and learn the history behind the slave trade, runaway slaves and the message system and travel patterns of escaping slaves.