I AM A MAN PLAZA / Logan Young

Samanta Crespo | January, 2019

If you’ve seen the Mississippi River, you understand why people call it mighty. But might is more than a physical description. The pull of the river—at once vital and mystical—has called people to Memphis for a millennium. 

Between 1000 and 1500 C.E., Mississippian cultures were building earthen mounds along the river. They had moved on by the time Hernando DeSoto arrived in 1541, claiming the land for Spain. The French and English made claims too, but by 1800, the land was part of a new order: the United States of America. 

In 1819, a group of three entrepreneurs—including future U.S. President Andrew Jackson—seemed to feel the same pull looking out over the Mississippi River from this land. Memphis was founded on the river’s fourth bluff, and its first century was as dramatic as the land’s dips and climbs. 

The land itself was ceded by native Chickasaw tribes, who were later displaced by Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Where the tribes had sown corn—and with a nudge from European colonial powers, cotton—the new settlers doubled down on cotton. Throughout the Delta, including the bottomlands between the bluff and river’s edge in Memphis, the crop surged like a green wave, leaving a wake of snowy white at harvest time. Though Americans had just rebelled against a crown’s rule, cotton was coming up king, and Memphis was its royal seat. 

By the mid-19th century, cotton merchants reigned Front Street and bale-laden barges commanded the river. Cotton fortunes financed mansions along Adams Avenue, nicknamed  Millionaire’s Row. Beneath the surface, however, there was an undertow: Slave labor had enabled Memphis’ crest to the top of the world cotton market. Memphis was a slave port, and civil war was imminent. When the war reached Memphis, it took just 90 minutes for Union ships to overpower Confederate gunboats and raise the U.S. flag over the city. 

One easy Union victory and Memphis was allowed to keep on growing. While the river was no longer running slaves, it was still running cotton—and the travel trade too. Steamboats, gambling boats, showboats—they all delivered people to Memphis before the turn of the 20th century.

But you’ve already caught the rhythm of this story: It’s up; it’s down. The river can give and the river can take. After the Civil War, the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank just below Memphis. Some 1,800 passengers—Union soldiers newly freed from Confederate prison camps—died. The site of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history doubled as ground-zero for a public health crisis that nearly sunk the entire city. In the 1870s, a yellow fever epidemic forced tens of thousands of citizens to flee Memphis. Thousands who stayed perished, buried in mass graves at Elmwood Cemetery. The population—and its financial situation—were so frail, Memphis lost the charter it had gained just 50 years earlier.  

Here’s the plot twist, the catalyst that smooths Memphis’ arc of tenuous highs and lows into something sustainable. It came from an unlikely source: Robert R. Church, Sr., born to a white steamboat captain and an enslaved seamstress, began operating a saloon in post-war Memphis. Though the war had ended, tensions hadn’t. A white mob attacked Church’s saloon, leaving him for dead. Church survived the attack, and the yellow fever epidemic too. At any point he could have—maybe should have—abandoned Memphis. Instead, he helped bail the city out of bankruptcy, preserving its charter. He invested in real estate, especially around Beale Street, and in Memphis’ African-American community. To the world, Church was the South’s first black millionaire. To Memphis, he was a reason for being, the architect who built vision, grit and generosity into the city’s foundation. 

Secure in its existence, Memphis moved into the 20th century. But its people seemed determined not to conflate security with complacency. Rather, the security emboldened Memphians to dream big, take risks. In 1908, teenager Abe Plough borrowed $125 from his dad to develop antiseptic oils (by the end of the century, Plough’s enterprise would be one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, on its way to merging with Merck). In 1916, a salesman in the grocery business named Clarence Saunders decided to do something about the lack of self-service shopping options: He opened Piggly Wiggly, the prototype of the modern supermarket. While entrepreneurs like Plough and Saunders were inventing, musicians—from jug bands to big bands, from Delta bluesmen and women to W.C. Handy himself—were turning Beale Street into a sound lab. Not far away, the see-and-be-seen crowd mingled in the decadent lobby of The Peabody hotel, smiling at the ducks swimming in its fountain, and developed a taste for pit-smoked barbecue at a five-seat joint called Leonard’s. 

By the mid-20th century, more dreams—big-as-the-river-itself dreams—came to Memphis. B.B. King hitchhiked to the city in 1947, finding work as a DJ for WDIA, the first radio station in the country programmed by and for African-Americans. Sam Phillips moved to Memphis (inspired by a 1930s visit to Beale Street), opened the studio that would shine as Sun Records and modified Jackie Brenston’s busted amp to produce the first rock ‘n’ roll song (“Rocket 88”). Like Beale had drawn Sam, Sam drew Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and others into his revolutionary orbit. The glow from Sun soon ignited a soul explosion in south Memphis, which the artists of Stax Records—including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Booker T & the MGs—exported to frenzied crowds in Europe. The sound lab incubated on Beale Street had made Memphis a musical crucible, where different styles could come together to create new sounds.  

Perhaps the biggest dream of all was one of equality. For all of its ingenuity, mid-century Memphis was inhibited by racial segregation. When actor Danny Thomas pledged to build a hospital in the city to treat children with incurable diseases regardless of their ethnicity, beliefs or ability to pay, small minds cast doubts over his big idea. But St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened, becoming the first integrated children’s hospital in the south. 

When African-American sanitation workers went on strike to protest unequal treatment on the job, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched alongside them and buoyed their spirits with his “Mountaintop” speech from the pulpit of Memphis’ Mason Temple. It was the last speech King would give. Like Danny Thomas, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a dreamer in a city of dreamers. Unlike Thomas, King wouldn’t live to see the fulfillment of his dream. He was assassinated the day following his speech at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. 

A century after the yellow fever epidemic threatened Memphis’ existence, the city was on edge again. A national trend toward suburban flight was gutting downtowns across the country; downtown Memphis had to contend with the deeper wound of Dr. King’s assassination. 

Starting in the late 1970s, you could feel a countercurrent, ripples of Robert R. Church, Sr.’s legacy. Memphians committed to rehabbing abandoned and decayed landmarks including Beale Street and The Peabody. In the 1990s, the Lorraine Motel was bought at auction to anchor the new National Civil Rights Museum. In 2000, the AAA Memphis Redbirds and the NBA Memphis Grizzlies debuted. Downtown Memphis was back.

In our bicentennial year, civic pride is stronger than ever. Neighborhoods across the city have been swept up in Memphis’ comeback story, from Broad Avenue to Overton Square, where locals and visitors gather for live entertainment, public art and good food. Thoughtful developments pay respect to the city’s historic architecture (you may have heard of Crosstown Concourse, an adaptive reuse of a 1927 Sears complex—the urban hub was one of three winners of a 2018 National Trust for Historic Preservation award). In east Memphis, a $70-million-renovation of Shelby Farms Park is changing the way we enjoy the outdoors. For so many of these projects, vision and funding were provided by local entrepreneurs-cum-philanthropists, a Memphis tradition. Among them: the family of Kemmons Wilson, who launched Holiday Inn (and the concept of comfortable, efficient lodgings); Fred Smith, who concepted FedEx as a college student and returned home to revolutionize global logistics; and Pitt Hyde, who founded AutoZone (and a game-changing way to shop for auto parts).  

Though we miss Elvis, his spirit’s alive in south Memphis, where Graceland Mansion—and a growing number of amenities and attractions around it—continue to draw visitors of all ages from across the world. 

Back downtown, new memorials to Dr. King and the Memphis upstanders he supported, especially I Am A Man Plaza, are enriching how we carry King’s legacy forward. And we’re reactivating the riverfront, with projects like Big River Crossing, Mighty Lights and River Garden. That’s where it all began and anyway, we’re sure there’s something in the water. For the last two centuries at least, it’s been the source of our originality. Our grit. Our soul.   

Order a Map & Tourist Guide