It’s not hard to find Black history in Memphis. It’s all over the city — from trials and triumphs, to the legends and unsung heroes that shaped the city and the nation as a whole. One thing’s for certain: these are great landmarks that highlight the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans for the U.S. and for Black culture as a whole.
Named for the Church of God in Christ’s founding bishop Charles H. Mason, the Mason Temple opened in 1945 as the global headquarters for the largest African American Pentecostal group in the world. It was considered the “largest gathering place in Memphis as well as the largest church owned and operated by African Americans in the United States,” according to sources.
The building has close to 8,000 seats. Most of which were filled when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his most iconic speech in the civil rights movement, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” on April 3, 1968: the day before his assassination on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Of course, you can’t talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without mentioning the place where he took his final breath. Located at the Lorraine Motel, the museum is filled with civil rights history with exhibits showcasing 260 artifacts and interactive media covering five centuries, from slavery in America to modern-day issues.
The museum is broken up into several buildings: the actual Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, and the building across the street where James Earl Ray shot and killed Dr. King.
Dr. King’s 1968 visit to Memphis shepherded the historic sanitation strike of that same year with the largest demonstration, ensuing riot, and the death of a 16-year-old boy on March 28, 1968. African American sanitation workers and their families met inside Clayborn Temple to plan how they can make society listen and improve terrible working conditions. Church leaders encouraged workers to fight for their rights. The strike was known by the signs and shouts from strikers declaring “I Am a Man.”
Just outside the church is the plaza dedicated to that resounding phrase with the names of those who participated in the strikes etched on the letters.
Housed inside the historic Burkle Estate, this museum was the site of an Underground Railroad stop that offered refuge for runaway slaves on their way to freedom. The house was constructed in 1849 by a German immigrant, livestock trader, and baker named Jacob Burkle.
The house opened as a museum in 1997 and documents the history of the Underground Railroad, the possible role of the house in the secret escape network, and the history of slave trade and auctions in the Memphis area.
Ida B. Wells Statue
A long-awaited addition to Memphis’ list of historical monuments, the Ida B. Wells statue was dedicated in July 2021. Sitting at the corner of Beale and 4th Streets in Downtown, Memphis, the statue stands near the historic Beale Street Baptist Church. That’s where a congregation of freed slaves housed the office of the Memphis Free Speech, and Headlight, the newspaper that published some of Wells’ extensive anti-lynching investigations. One of the most famous articles Wells wrote in 1892 led to a white mob destroying her newspaper office and her leaving Memphis for Chicago. The church still hosts sermons that you can still attend on Sunday mornings, if you’re in the area.
If you’ve ever walked along the Mississippi River in Downtown, Memphis or attended the May Festival, you may have seen the statue of Tom Lee. He’s considered Memphis’ greatest hero. With the help of his tiny rowboat, this African American man braved Mississippi’s swirling currents to save 32 strangers from drowning after their excursion steamer sank. Lee reportedly couldn’t even swim. Did I mention Lee couldn’t even swim? A statue is now at the center of the park to honor Lee’s heroism.
Don’t plan on seeing that statue up close just yet. The park is currently undergoing a $60 million modernization project that’s expected to continue through 2023.
Hattiloo Theatre started in a small storefront in the Edge District of Memphis in 2006 as the only freestanding, non-profit, Black repertory theater in the five surrounding states. Now inside its own building and development center, Hattiloo is known for offering free, high-quality programming and performances throughout the city.
Otis Redding. Isaac Hayes. The Staple Singers. Rufus and Carla Thomas. These are some of the artists that recorded your favorite soul music hits, and they did that in the middle of Memphis. Set in an area known as Soulsville, the Stax Museum is the former location of Stax Records. The museum takes you through the history of Soul music: from its gospel roots of an authentic early 1900s Mississippi Delta church to the Soul Train dance floor, then taking you to Isaac Hayes’ restored, rotating, 1972, peacock-blue, Cadillac El Dorado. Make sure you take the time to soak in the history.
When you come to Memphis, turn on your radio, shift it to the A.M. dial, and turn it to 1070 A.M.; and you’ll hear the sounds of WDIA. The station was established in a building on Union Avenue in Downtown, Memphis in 1949 as the first radio station in the U.S. aimed entirely at Black audiences.
Over the years, the radio station employed influential and legendary disc jockeys like B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Jean “The Queen” Steinberg, and Nat D. Williams. Currently, the station is housed in Southeast, Memphis and is owned by iHeart Media.
This was quite the list, but there are even more places in Memphis you can visit, including the Ernest Withers Collection gallery, W.C. Handy Home and Museum, the Four Way Grill where Dr. King and Stax Artists would grab lunch, the Orange Mound Gallery in the U.S.’s first African American neighborhood built by and for African Americans, or just follow the U.S. Civil Rights Trail in Memphis. Any option is a good one and worth a visit any time of the year.