Part of the Urban Art Commission in Memphis, and my fave along with the Raised River sculpture

That’s How I Got to Memphis

When we went to Memphis for a ‘sister weekend’, we created a playlist of songs mentioning Memphis. We drove ten hours to get there, and only listened to a fraction of the songs. You guys, Memphis is so much more than you think, in every possible way.

Here’s my truth about Memphis: I went there once in college and thought it was romantic and quaint. I’ve been three times in the last two years — once for education purposes and twice for fun — (and I would go again tomorrow if you want…), and found it gritty and attractive. I was right decades ago, and I’m right about it now.

I don’t pretend to know everything about being a visitor in Memphis, but I know hidden gems we found, and places we sought out, spots we stumbled upon, and sites I’d go out of my way to find again. What I found was ask questions: what should we see, what should we do? We asked that in a vintage clothing store on the edge of Cooper Young, just down from Central BBQ (yes, go there), and a woman overheard us and said she worked giving Haunted Memphis walking tours and we should join in that evening. So we did. It was a made-to-order combo of some gruesome history, seedy-underbelly stories, and walking alleys and sidestreets, ending up outside Lansky Brothers, where we began.

In the seedy-underbelly stories we learned about the yellow fever epidemic (due to flooding and mosquitoes), and that abandoned businesses were reopened by newly freed former slaves bringing the city back from bankruptcy, and wealthy black businessmen bought swaths of land around town which became neighborhoods and parks and churches and Beale Street. After the outbreak, while digging for better sewer lines, an artesian aqueduct was found under Memphis, which became the biggest freshwater source in the land. We learned that the Memphis Blues sprung from a political campaign song. We learned that Memphis just kept surprising itself.

Music. Oh hell yes. We did the Sun Studios tour, and sat in the exact spot where the famous photo of the Million Dollar Quartet sat. We saw the WHBQ studio where “That’s All Right Mama” was played over and over when it debuted, and that’s how Memphis learned who Elvis was, just before the rest of us heard him. We saw where Johnny Cash recorded albums for years, and where Jerry Lee Lewis played piano and Carl Perkins auditioned for the Sun label. It’s a heady experience for a tiny room to hold. We ate and drank at the High Cotton brewery one block down. Oh, and we also went to Graceland — which was smaller than I remembered, and farther out of town than I recalled. And we went to live Delta music at the Overton Park bandshell (with to-go picnic boxes from Soul Fish, so amen to that). We also happened upon some fabulous street musicians at Tom Lee Park at sunset, so put that on your list because Memphis makes some fantastic use of their riverfront (do not even start with me about that pyramid, though…).

It’s worth walking neighborhoods of Memphis. A recent campaign encouraged artists to submit designs for murals, sculptures and other installations throughout greater Memphis. Through the UAC (Urban Art Commission), you can download walking maps by neighborhood, and find some incredible art murals. Or find a specific locale, and learn how that art installation came to be. I recommend the I AM A MAN Plaza, which we stumbled upon because we were trying to avoid parking crowds for the AAC Basketball tournament going on at the time and took a wrong turn down a dead-end, and a man on a park bench asked us if we were trying to find the I AM A MAN sculpture. Luckily, we decided we were indeed. I’ll get to Civil Rights in a minute, but this installation is part of that legacy in Memphis. It honors the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to town to speak —the day before he was assassinated there. The plaza adjoins the Clayborn Temple, which was the local hub and staging area for the Civil Rights Movement and a place of refuge for the striking sanitation workers. The timeline of events spirals on the ground, around the huge stainless steel letters (I AM A MAN); engraved on the letters are words from the speeches given by Civil Rights leaders during the strike. The intention is you see yourself in the words, and it is pretty powerful.

Over, or under, all this in Memphis is the Civil Rights history. Museums are my thing, and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is far and away the most compelling history museum I’ve been to, anywhere. I’ve been twice, and I would go again tomorrow. I’m quite serious. You need at least a full day there. The NCRM itself includes the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was shot. At the time, the Lorraine was known for hosting black leaders and entertainers who visited Memphis, one of only the few hotels that welcomed African American guests. It became a hub for Civil Rights meetings, and also for recording artists in town for Stax Records and Sun Studios (Steve Cropper and Wilson Picket wrote “In the Midnight Hour” while staying overnight at the Lorraine, for instance. Also, FYI, it was called the Marquette Hotel before a new owner changed the name to honor his wife). The NCRM houses the best and most recent scholarship on the Civil Rights movement to date; just their Brown v Board of Education installation alone is worth a trip to Memphis. Traveling there with college students was particularly powerful, since student leadership was pivotal in so many demonstrations and protests and Freedom Rides, and voter registration initiatives, of the time. Names dotting the walls were of leaders the same age as the students I was chaperoning. We had just come from Montgomery (which is a different essay for a different day), and had a heightened awareness of these parallels. We just let that sink it, at every turn.

Brilliantly, outside the NCRM is a park, perfect for reflection. Memphis has done a stellar job incorporating historic markers and monuments into public places, and creating spaces for quiet contemplation and thought. One late night, we were walking up and down Beale Street (oh, and it was St. Patrick’s Day weekend, so think about that chaperoning college students in Memphis…) and one student pointed to an historic marker and called out to me, “It’s your girl Ida!”, about Ida B. Wells (look her up, she is my girl). I was equal parts proud students were hearing me talk about Ida, were reading historic markers on Beale Street 11pm, and were placing stories in context (especially after seeing the Ida B. Wells garden at EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery). No doubt, some of that is being open to teachable stories, but much of that is Memphis itself, just serving it up.

And so you know, Memphis has a long history of grassroots movements shaping history. One of the most notable would be that a group of concerned citizens actually stopped the interstate from being built the way the Department of Transportation, federal and state governments both, had designed it. Rather, they rallied to not dissect their city and instead to create a loop around the city to preserve neighborhoods and greenspace. Of course, because it’s Memphis, there is an historic marker about this as well, right downtown by the visitor center. The resurgence of the Midtown neighborhood, and the thriving parks and public lands that were spared, would never be as vibrant as they are now. The case (Overton Park v Volpe) is often cited in administrative law, highway planning, and environmental protection, still. (An aside, TDOT official maps, to this day, do not include Overton Park, so there is still a tiny bitter flavor lo these decades later. But the park and the neighborhood are indeed there, and do not have a highway dissecting them.)

Lastly, I promise you, you can eat your way through Memphis and you would not go wrong. Follow your own hunches, because it’s all so fabulous. But if you want a hint, do not miss brunch at the Arcade (just roll with the crowd or the wait because it’s worth it), and definitely check the dessert cart at the Peabody Hotel. Thankfully, someone tipped me to the Cheesecake Corner, which is largely unmarked, and mostly keeps their door locked — which seems counter-productive. But, as one table of patrons leaves, they do let in people who are waiting on the sidewalk to fill the vacated seats. Important sidenote: this is the best late-night treat I know, but selections dwindle as the night gets later. Again, like most food options in Memphis, you will come out ahead even with short odds.

Not many places capture all my interests, all the cool facets of history and entertainment and art and nature and the Mississippi River, plus are just so accessible and welcoming. On these fronts, and so many more, Memphis is doing the winning.

I AM A MAN plaza sculpture — honoring a difficult struggle in Memphis’ history
Tom Lee Park, Mississippi River at sunset



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