I have wanted to visit Memphis for some time now. There are many draws for me personally and professionally. The only time I have ever visited was just after Elvis Presley passed away. I was maybe three years old, and I remember my Mom and Dad and I stood at the gates of Graceland and met Elvis’ Uncle, who drove a blue pick up truck. That’s the only memory I have of Memphis.
Having worked for 20 plus years on fair housing issues, I knew it was a requirement to visit the site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, for it was his death and the resulting infernos and riots that tore America’s cities apart that finally spurred Congress to pass the federal Fair Housing Act, making it illegal to discriminate against someone in their pursuit of housing. Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony outside rooms 306 & 307 of the Lorraine Motel, around which the National Civil Rights Museum is built, on April 4, 1968. Exactly seven days later, on April 11, 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, which had been languishing for years.
The other draw to Memphis for me personally is that the resilient Tina Turner, my heroine, was born just a little over an hour from here in Nutbush. You remember the famous song, “Church House/Gin House/School House/Out house/Highway Number 19/The people keep the city clean/they call it Nutbush.”
A couple of years ago, the West Delta Heritage Foundation in Brownsville, 15 minutes from Turner’s birthplace, opened the Flagg Grove School, a one-room African American schoolhouse that was painstakingly refurbished. It just happens to be the school that the resilient Anna Mae Bullock (Turner) attended as a child. She made a significant financial donation toward the refurbishment and also contributed her own personal stage clothes, awards and other memorabilia to create a museum.
Actually seeing the sights in person was both fulfilling, educational, thought-provoking and emotional. Upon settling into the famous Peabody Hotel in downtown, built in 1925, we were picked up for a private tour like no other.
Elaine Turner is a straight-shooter. She quite matter-of-factly, vividly and personally recalls the marches, the sit-ins and the protests of the 1950’s and 60’s. She was, herself, arrested multiple times, which ultimately prevented her from being hired as a teacher in Memphis. She pulls no punches in recounting those stories, along with much more depressing history of slavery. She gave up teaching because she wanted “to do more.”
Thirty-two years ago, Elaine founded Heritage Tours to visit Memphis’ crown jewel collection of important civil rights sites. She has become a teacher on a bigger scale, sharing her facts and anecdotes with visitors from around the world. “It doesn’t matter how horrible your ancestors were. You can be a better person. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out we are all the same regardless of skin color,” Elaine told us during our visit to Slave Haven, a home constructed in 1857 that was part of the Underground Railroad.
At Slave Haven, we learned about the hidden codes of the Underground Railroad, including symbols sewn into quilts. Lawn jockeys, considered offensive today, with their lights on were used to indicate a safe house. Magnolia trees, which stay green all year, were an indication to an escaped slave looking for the house with green trees. Drums were eventually outlawed because the slaves used them as a language to communicate amongst themselves and escape.
Elaine explained the importance of cotton to the economy and slave trade and how the trading of human lives became a commodity. She surmised that the Atlantic Ocean is perhaps the largest cemetery on the planet. Millions of Africans lost their lives in the Middle Passage, with approximately 54,000 voyages over 300 plus years from the 1500’s to 1800’s.
We visited Mason Temple where Dr. King gave his last speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” the night before he was assassinated. Mason Temple is also the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ and is named for its founder, who is entombed at the temple, which is undergoing construction for the creation of a museum.
A visit to the Cotton Museum proved simultaneously worthwhile and educational. To understand the history of the crop, its value and its uses as well as the ability of a single invention, the cotton gin, to eventually start the Civil War, the Cotton Exchange is a vital relic of the civil rights chronology. Cotton also contributed significantly the to the music, as modern blues and soul trace their roots back to the gospel spirituals sung while picking cotton.
To ease the heaviness, we visited the Queen of Rock’s former one-room schoolhouse where I saw my name on the list of donors. What a thrill that was, combined with the perfectly gorgeous drive through the Tennessee countryside, dotted with woods that break up the white fields of cotton that look like clouds have settled on the ground. It was early fall, so there were minor bursts of autumnal colors in the trees and some of the cotton fields had turned to a hay color, having already been harvested. The bright blue, cloudless sky offered the perfect backdrop for selfies in front of the “Nutbush” and “Tina Turner Highway” signs.
Tina’s former husband, Ike Turner, was featured on the wall of at the Sun Studio tour, where one can stand on the original floor of the recording studio where an 18-year old unknown named Elvis Presley stopped in to put down a track for his mom. Interestingly, the male owner of Sun Studios, Sam Phillips, was not in the studio when Elvis first stopped by. It was Sam’s “secretary” Marion Keisker, who recorded Elvis, and she was also responsible for convincing Sam of Elvis’ talent and potential. The studio is also famous for the legendary Million Dollar Quartet recording that brought together Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins for an explosive session of musical genius.
No visit to Memphis is complete without seeing Graceland on Elvis Presley Boulevard. While the crowds, prices and Elvis tchotchkes may be off-putting, seeing the world-famous Jungle Room draws visitors from all over the planet.
People in Memphis are so friendly, and it was great to connect with friends I’d met on former travels for dinner at Harbor Town. Overlooking the mighty Mississippi at sunset was delightful. The food in Memphis is superb and goes well beyond the basic BBQ. Fine dining options include Paulette’s at River Inn at Harbor Town and Chez Philippe at The Peabody. The latter is four-star, and my dinner companions and I agreed we hadn’t dined in such elegance for quite a few years.
Memphis is known as “New Orleans Light,” and in addition to the food, Memphis is known for music. Make sure to visit the Stax Soulville USA, located at the former headquarters of the Stax record label responsible for such stars as Isaac Hayes, the first ever African American to win an Academy Award for music. Hayes’ 24-karat-gold-plated baby blue Cadillac is a one-of-a-kind sensation on full display inside the Stax. Stax also chronicles the influence of the civil rights movement on the music scene. The Memphis Rock and Soul Museum is the only museum curated by the Smithsonian outside of Washington, DC.
Being in the Bible Belt, we felt obligated to attend Sunday service. Four of us pilgrimaged to the Reverend Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in search of inspiration and redemption from the debauchery witnessed on Beale Street where “they still sing the blues,” according to country star Barbara Mandrell’s song, “There’s no Love in Tennessee.” The choir, musicians and soloists were exceptional, and Rev. Green hits all the high notes when he sings. His message, on the other hand, hit many low points and became a confused babble-fest that many in attendance found offensive. It’s definitely entertaining and worth seeing in person. There are more guests (tourists) in attendance than the regular church members, so you won’t feel out of place.
Don’t forget to catch the Marching of the Ducks at The Peabody every day when they roll out the red carpet at 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Also be sure to visit the Duck Palace on the hotel’s rooftop, which offers stunning views of the skyline and river at sunset.
Memphis also offers many beautiful neighborhoods, like the mansions in Midtown and the Chickasaw Gardens, which is home to the Pink Palace, built by the founder of Piggly Wiggly. The structure is impressive and constructed of pink marble. It’s now home to museums, an IMAX theater, and a planetarium. There’s also shops and restaurants in Overton Square, just down from the theaters in Playhouse Square. The Beauty Shop in the Cooper Young community is where Priscilla Presley once had her famous beehive constructed. It’s now a brunch hotspot known for a variety of takes on eggs Benedict, crepes and, of course, waffles with fried chicken. They also boast milkshakes made from gelato.
While you’re “Walkin’ in Memphis,” you won’t be bored or hungry but you might get tired. There’s so much to see and do that you find it hard to let any grass grow under your feet. If you have the time, allow yourself an extra day at the end of the trip just to rest and pamper yourself at the new hotel spa, “Feathers.” We had a tour but didn’t have time for any treatments. There’s always next time. Until then, I’ll have the Delta Blues.