Culture on the Flip Side

Memphis’ history is both tragic and triumphant. From slavery to the successes won by the fight for civil rights, the city is home to countless symbols of heritage. Take a journey through time and explore its sights, sounds and tastes.

Lorraine Motel Memphis

National Civil Rights Museum sign at the Lorraine Motel

National Civil Rights Museum - Sanitation Strike Exhibit. Photo Credit: Lisa Waddell Buser

I AM A MAN exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Photo by Lisa Buser.

Balcony at National Civil Rights Museum. Photo Credit: Bob Hazlett

Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel at the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo by Bob Hazlett

Side A – A Trip Through History

Begin your journey with a visit to the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum housed in the former Burkle Estate, which was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is believed this was, in fact, the last stop in a local Underground Railroad network. From there, slaves would be ushered onto waiting riverboats that would take them upstream to free states in the North. When you visit Slave Haven, you will learn about the slave trade and have the opportunity to explore the trap doors, secret cellars and attics through which so many sought freedom.

Continue your journey by heading south to Elmwood Cemetery. Established in 1852, Elmwood is Memphis’ oldest active cemetery and is a sight to behold with its collection of striking tombstones, monuments and mausoleums. Memphians from every walk of life are buried on these grounds, including political and military leaders, entertainers and outlaws. It’s also the final resting place for many prominent Memphians like Marlin Carter, one of the stars of the Negro Baseball League; Dr. R.H. Tate, the first African-American physician to practice in Memphis; and Ernest Withers, a prominent photographer during the civil rights movement.

Back toward the city is an institution that once defined its economy. The Memphis Cotton Exchange Building, built in 1922, is now the home of The Cotton Museum. Learn about the history of the cotton industry in Memphis and see how slave labor and sharecropping propelled it to become the backbone of the local economy. Stand on the actual floor of the Cotton Exchange and peruse video oral histories, historic films, interactive exhibits and artifacts.

Now head back over to Beale Street, where Memphis music is anything but dead. Drop in the W.C. Handy House and Museum, where the Father of the Blues lived when his famous “Memphis Blues” was published. As you tour this shotgun house, browse through memorabilia while listening as your guide gives you a glimpse into the life of Mr. Handy and the history of the blues.

Memphis music didn't end with the blues. Wrap up your tour through history with a stop at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Located on the site of the original Stax Records, the museum showcases the history of the recording studio, as well as soul music and its influences. Listen to the sounds of Stax artists (Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding, to name two) and view soul memorabilia from days gone by. Kick up your shoes and dance on the museum's dance floor. And be sure to allow plenty of time for making your way down Stax's Hall of Records – a display showcasing covers of the hundreds of albums and 45s recorded here through the years.

Side B – Modern-Day Influences

While the Lorraine Motel is an emblem of one of the darkest points in the civil rights movement, the National Civil Rights Museum brings to light both the tragedies and the triumphs of that movement. The museum, which is in the motel, features exhibits showcasing the fight for equality. Catch a unique glimpse into the trials and successes of those who fought so hard for equality and expect to be angered, enlightened and ultimately inspired along the way.

From there, travel less than a mile to the Center for Southern Folklore, where you can experience the sights, sounds and tastes of Memphis. Listen as the blues, country, folk and other genres are performed live on stage; see the artwork of regional artists who capture the essence of the area in their work; and sit down to enjoy some of the best soul food in the city (be sure to save room for the peach cobbler) at this one-of-a-kind destination.

Afterward, stroll through the spot where one man born into slavery left his mark on the city. Robert Church Park was founded in 1899 by Robert Church Sr., who was born into slavery but, thanks to his entrepreneurial spirit, became the South's first black millionaire. In its early years, the park hosted political rallies, concerts and other events for the African-American community in Memphis. Today, families of all backgrounds enjoy the seven-plus-acre park with its play areas, pavilions and historical markers.

Finally, what would a trip to Memphis be without a good dose of gospel music? On Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings or Wednesday evenings, head down to the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where the Reverend Al Green is the presiding pastor. Best known as an R&B singer with hits like “Let's Stay Together” and “I'm Still in Love with You,” Reverend Green isn't always at the pulpit, but you can be sure you will enjoy an uplifting and spirit-filled service abundant with gospel music and Christian messages nonetheless.