If you are looking for ways to celebrate Black History Month I suggest exploring my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee this February and beyond.
Memphis’ Black History offers a diverse and unique look at African American history not just during Black History Month but all year long including visiting museums and historic sites.
The city of Memphis played a huge role in the Civil Rights Movement and you will experience firsthand the struggles, triumphs, and music along with larger-than-life legends like Dr. king and many unsung heroes who fought alongside him.
There are plenty of places worth exploring for Black History Month including the following attractions:
- The National Civil Rights Museum
- Beale Street
- Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum inside the historic Burkle Estate
- The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange
- Ernest Withers Collection Museum
- Historic First Baptist Beale Street
- MLK Reflection Park
- I AM A MAN Plaza
- The Blues Hall of Fame
- Stax Museum of American Soul Music
- W.C. Handy Home and Museum
Memphis helped shape the Civil Rights Movement and many fought to overcome inequalities and injustices that many people of color experienced in the south.
If you’re looking for things to do in Memphis and where to stay in Memphis to celebrate Black History Month keep reading as I provide you a list of things to do and how to celebrate Memphis Black History from a local’s point of view!
Black History Month Museums & Historical Sites In Memphis
1. National Civil Rights Museum
Perhaps the very first stop you should make during your Black History Month celebration is to the National Civil Rights Museum. Located at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony on April 4, 1968.
The museum is filled with Civil Rights history, and the exhibit showcases over 260 artifacts and interactive media to cover five centuries, from slavery in America, the Civil War to the 20th-century Civil Rights movement including modern-day race relation issues.
You can easily spend 6 hours visiting so make sure to give yourself plenty of time to explore the exhibits and experience the displays.
The front of the building is still frozen in time; complete with a wreath on the balcony of Room 306 and replicas of the cars parked in the motel’s parking lot the day King was assassinated.
Dr. King was in Memphis to give his support to the striking Memphis sanitation workers, and delivered one of his most memorable speeches the night before he was assassinated entitled; “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
As you walk through the museum you will feel a sense of this country’s tumultuous past regarding its treatment of African-Americans.
I have lived in Memphis my entire adult life and I have visited the museum numerous times and it always feels like the very first time.
After learning about slavery and the abolitionist’s movement, you will begin retracing the early 20th century; learning about Jim Crow laws, which were laws where state and local police enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States.
Finally, you will make it to where Dr. King was assassinated. His suitcase still on a bureau, the table set as though room service had just dropped off coffee; as he prepared for his speech the following day.
The room is literally frozen in time as it was on April 4, 1968.
The rooming house across the street where James Earl Ray rented a room, is now a museum as well.
There is still a great debate on whether he actually killed Dr. King, or if he was framed by the government.
It’s so easy to take for granted what our ancestors endured so that we can have the freedoms we currently have.
2. Beale Street
Beale Street, established in 1841 and one of the most iconic streets in America, became a thriving area for black commerce and culture around the time of the Civil War.
But in the 1870s, yellow fever hit Memphis and severely affected the city’s population. As a result, the city had to forfeit its charter in 1879.
During this time, former slave Robert Church acquired land in the area, and his investments helped restore the business community’s confidence in Memphis, which led to the regaining of its charter.
Among Church’s contributions was the Robert R. Church Park at the corner of Fourth and Beale. The park quickly became a gathering center for blues musicians and featured a 2,000-seat auditorium.
Beale Street was also home to many black-owned businesses, clubs, restaurants, and shops and was the headquarters of Ida B. Wells’ anti-segregationist newspaper, Free Speech.
The newspaper office was housed in the historic First Baptist Church (Beale Street), which was built by a congregation of freed slaves.
3. Historic First Baptist Beale Street
Beale Street Baptist Church was built in 1869 and is notable for being the first Memphis church built for blacks.
It is often regarded as “the Mother of black churches” and in 1892 was home to the first black newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech, edited by Ida B. Wells.
The church is also well known for being visited by two Presidents, Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt.
In 2018 the City of Memphis designated this property as a site on the Memphis Heritage Trail.
4. Ernest Withers Collection
The Ernest Withers Museum on the east end of Beale Street could be easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. But inside is one of the most important photography collections in Memphis, if not the world.
Ernest Withers was a photojournalist from Memphis who was one of the first people to cover the civil rights movement, publishing photographs of historical events from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Memphis sanitation workers strike.
Inside the gallery, you can peruse photos of the civil rights movement, of African-American sports figures, and of important musicians like Elvis, Aretha Franklin, and more.
5. Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum
Our next stop in Memphis to celebrate Black History Month was to Slave Haven Underground Museum. The Museum is housed inside the historic Burkle Estate, one of the Underground Railroad stops offering refuge for runaway slaves on their way to freedom.
You’ll get a different perspective of Memphis history if you spend some time at the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, which draws visitors back to the pre-Civil War era.
Also known as the Burkle Estate (after the former owner, Jacob Burkle), the main house features artifacts portraying life in the South during the days of slavery.
Jacob Burkle was a German immigrant who fled his home country’s oppressive government in the 1850s. Historians believe that the home was built from the ground up to be a safe house on the Underground Railroad.
The move was particularly risky at the time because the site was only six blocks away from a major slave auction site.
There’s a map to help explain some of the routes, but the main reason to visit the Slave Haven sits beneath a trap door.
You can visit the cellar beneath the house that provided shelter to runaway slaves before their mad dash to the Mississippi River. There were even special entrances built into the sides that allowed covert access space.
While the people passing through the Burkle home may have been safe for a moment, they were still in the South and they knew that they had a long way to go. At least they were on their way.
The house is filled with secret passages and trap doors used by runaway slaves attempting to flee north to freedom.
If you are visiting Memphis for Black History Month Slave Haven is a must-stop as you will experience history first hand and it’s a great way to educate kids on the slave trade.
Slave Haven is not a state of the art museum like the Civil Rights Museum. The museum is housed in the original Burkle home and the neighborhood is not the safest but please do not let that deter you from visiting.
6. The Cotton Museum
The epicenter of the South’s cotton economy—which relied on the hard labor of slaves—when you visit The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange.
While this crop may seem to hold little importance in our daily lives today, cotton had a deeply profound impact on our country’s history and the way our society was shaped. Cotton is the primary reason why slaves were imported from Africa to the United States in the first place.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, increasing demand for this crop from England made the value of cotton skyrocket. In fact, before the civil war, cotton exceeded the value of all other exports from the United States combined.
Set in the Memphis Cotton Exchange in the heart of downtown, The Cotton Museum chronicles the history of cotton in the world and in the United States.
The city of Memphis itself was founded in 1816 as a shipping port for cotton and a major hub in the slave trade.
It’s essential to stop at the Cotton Museum first to understand the full role that cotton played in fueling the slave trade in the United States.
7. The Blues Hall of Fame
The Blues Hall of Fame honors those who have made the Blues timeless through performance, documentation, and recording.
Since its inception in 1980, The Blues Foundation has inducted new members annually into the Blues Hall of Fame for their historical contribution, impact, and overall influence on the Blues.
Members are inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in five categories: Performers, Individuals, Classic of Blues Literature, Classic of Blues Recording (Song), and Classic of Blues Recording (Album).
Since 1980, The Blues Foundation has inducted over 400 industry professionals, recordings, and literature into the Blues Hall of Fame. Of the 130 performer inductees, 120 of them are African-American.
8. MLK Reflection Park
The park includes benches, a large walkway, reflection areas, the iconic 1977 “I have been to the mountaintop” sculpture, and some never before seen images of Dr. King from the Withers Collection. They were revealed Friday.
“Let us use this reflection site as a place where dreams can become realities, desperation can become hope, and isolation can become an inspiration,” Memphis City Council Chairman Berlin Boyd said.
9. I AM A MAN Plaza
This a new plaza created to honor the sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968.
The “I am a Man” Plaza is located next to Clayborn Temple, a key rallying point for the historic 1968 Memphis sanitation strike.
I Am A Man” slogan made famous by the 1968 strike, and a wall with the names of 1,300 strikers, among other artworks.
10. Stax Museum of American Soul Music
February is celebrated across the country as Black History Month, and Memphis Black History played an important role in the development of black culture in the United States especially around the music scene.
Stax Museum of American Soul lets you connect to the music that helped shape the Civil Rights Movement and soul music in the South.
Inspired by Sam Phillips, a Memphis radio technician who had started producing a few years earlier (and made a huge sum of money on Elvis Presley), Jim Stewart founded Satellite Records.
A banker by day and country fiddle player by night, Stewart knew that he could never make it as a professional musician.
However, he felt he could be the next best thing – a producer – despite having no experience or knowledge of the recording industry. Satellite cut its first record in October 1957, “Blue Roses”, a country song with low production quality.
11. W.C. Handy Home and Museum
William Christopher Handy known as the “Father of the Blues” was born in 1873 in Florence, Alabama in a log cabin built by his grandfather.
Growing up, he received lessons on the cornet in the local barbershop. Handy was teaching school by age nineteen but left for a high paying job at a factory in Bessemer, Alabama.
Handy formed his own marching band in 1902, which combined various elements from popular dance music and performed for both white and black audiences alike.
In 1909 Handy and his band moved to Memphis and established their presence on Beale Street. “The Memphis Blues” was written in 1909 and was the first blues ballad Handy ever wrote, and arguably the first blues ballad in history.
After publishing the song himself in 1912, “The Memphis Blues” became popular all over the United States. It was originally entitled “Mr. Crump” as it was a campaign tune written for mayoral candidate Edward Crump.
Handy continued to write music based on what he heard in folk songs. “Memphis Blues” was followed by “St. Louis Blues” which was written in 1914 and “Beale Street Blues which was written in 1906.
Where To Stay in Memphis
Canopy by Hilton is the best hotel in downtown Memphis. Creative, atmospheric, and historically layered, Canopy hotel is located in the oldest area in the city and within walking distance lies America’s most iconic road, Beale Street.
You can walk everywhere during your stay at Canopy including Beale Street, I AM Man Plaza, MLK Reflection Park, Ernest Withers Museum, First Baptist Church, and many more attractions.
The hotel is located next to Autozone Park and a half-mile from FedEx Forum Arena. The Memphis Music Hall of Fame is five minutes away and they are under a mile from Mississippi River Park and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum.
If you want to venture outside of downtown you can catch a taxi to anywhere in Memphis in under 20 minutes.
If you in need of a staycation or just some alone time but you are afraid to travel to due COVID-19 let me assure you Hilton is taking the safety of its guests very seriously.
Canopy offers a clean stay program which means there is a seal on each and every door to ensure no one has entered the room prior to you checking in and you also have the option of digital check-in.
The rooms are AMAZING y’all!
Beautifully decorated in contemporary 70’s music themes that include rhythm and blues influences of the South.
The rooms are locally inspired by the music that was created by legendary artists such as Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and many more.
They also included a cozy bathrobe, slippers, and a pair of colorful and branded socks to kick back and relax.
Where To Eat In Memphis
When I tell y’all the food is so darn good at Curfew Memphis!
Curfew offers upscale dining without the stuffy feel which is my kinda place. The dining experience seamlessly blends bold ingredients, a welcoming décor, the most delicious food, and amazing handcrafted cocktails that will have your taste buds praising Black Jesus himself.
Celebrity Chef Fabio Viviani was so personable and made his rounds to each and every table nightly to ensure the guests were satisfied and happy with the service.
I literally do not know where to start writing about the food I experienced at Curfew.
While this is a sponsored post for Hilton I must tell you this was some of the best damn food I have ever eaten and I’ve eaten some pretty good food in my lifetime!
Located on the main floor of Memphis’ Canopy Hotel, Curfew is my new destination when traveling to Memphis to see my friends and family.
Spanish Octopus and Wings
I ate the Spanish Octopus and wings all 4 days I stayed at the Canopy by Hilton. Chef Fabio said he braises the octopus in olive oil to get it so tender and flavorful.
The Sweet Fire Chicken Wings are made in a sticky gochujang chili sauce with celery and blue cheese.
Brunch at Canopy by Hilton
Brunch is hands down my favorite meal and it’s something about enjoying a staycation at your favorite hotel and enjoying brunch served with Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s.
For all you Moms out there, that is in need of a weekend getaway Curfew Memphis has you covered from a Biscuit Board, Spiced Walnut French Toast, “Pancakes fit for The King, Shrimp & Grits and a ton of additional dishes.
I had the french toast, shrimp & Grits, bacon with a side of potatoes!
Can you say delicious!
Craft Cocktails at Curfew
To me, a craft cocktail is very simply any cocktail made with the skill (or craft).
It’s when the bartender respects the ingredients and the patron enough to slow down and do the drink justice.
After all, anyone can dump whiskey and sweet vermouth together and call it a Manhattan but a craft bartender might take a more thoughtful approach to pair whiskey known for a particular characteristic with complimentary vermouth.
The mixologists at Curfew often include house-made specialties not available at your local bar or corner liquor stores- specifically syrups, small-batch bitters, and premixed barrel-aged cocktails to name a few.
A few of my favorite craft cocktails from Curfew are the following:
- Apple Harvest – Bourbon, Amaro Melleti, Apple Juice, Lemon Juice, Fresno Chili Pepper Syrup
- Kentucky Blast – Bourbon, Campari, Sweet Vermouth, Coconut Blast, Honey
- Spike your Juice – Vodka, Aperol, Turmeric, Ginger, Lime Juice, Orange Juice, Angostura Bitters
- Fly High Butterfly – Vodka, Limoncello, Elderflower Liqueur, Ginger, Lemon Juice, Butterfly Pea Flower Tea, Mint
Conclusion of Memphis Black History
Long before the civil rights movement brought King to Memphis, the city had already become one of the most important cities in the South for blacks.
After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Memphis became a magnet for African Americans, who came here seeking economic opportunities. Beale Street was where they headed to start their search.
Beale Street’s most famous citizen was W. C. Handy, the father of the blues, who first put down on paper the blues born in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta.
W. C. Handy Park, with its statue of the famous blues musician, is about halfway down Beale Street, and Handy’s small house, now the W. C. Handy House Museum, is also now on Beale Street.
Church Park, on the corner of Beale and Fourth streets (and once the site of a large auditorium), was established by Robert R. Church, a former slave and Memphis businessman who became the city’s first black millionaire.
Whether or not you are familiar with the history of the civil rights movement, the museum is a powerful testament to the sacrifices that ordinary people made in the name of freedom.
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