If you are looking for ways to celebrate Black History Month I suggest exporing my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee this February.
Memphis offers a diverse and unique look at African American history not just during National Black History Month but all year long including visiting museums and historic sites.
Memphis played a huge role in the Civil Rights Movement and you will experience first hand the struggles, triumphs and music along with larger-than-life legends like Dr. king and many unsung heroes who fought along side him.
There are plenty of places worth exploring for Black History Month including the following attractions:
- The National Civil Rights Museum
- Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum inside the historic Burkle Estate
- The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange
- Ernest Withers Collection
- 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 the inequality and injustices that many people of color experienced in the south.
If you’re looking for things to do in Memphis this Feburary to celebrate Black History Month keep reading as I provide you with best things to do in Memphis for Black History Month!
Black History Month Museums & Historical Sites In Memphis
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 moment we arrived at the museum it was as if we walked backed into 1967. 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.”
What To Expect For Black History Month In Memphis
National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum immediately touched my daughter Maddie with its cultural and historical significance to African-American culture.
As we walked through the museum we felt 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, but this was my Madison’s first time. She started her journey trying to understand the civil rights movement, by learning about slavery and the abolitionists who tried to help the slaves.
After learning about slavery and the abolitionists movement, we began 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, we made our way 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.
Madison was so overwhelmed by being just steps away from where King’s life was taken that she burst into tears. We talked about how young he was, and what he might have accomplished had he lived.
The rooming house across the street where James Earl Ray rented a room, is now a museum as well. That was next on our journey.
Madison learned about Dr. King’s murderer, James Earl Ray; who rented a room in a guesthouse and shot Dr. King from a window facing the Lorraine Motel. There is still great debate on whether he actually killed Dr. King, or if he was framed by the government.
As we left the museum my daughter had more questions than I had answers. I want Madison to understand how far we have come, but how far we still have to go; especially in the current racial climate, we are living in today.
It’s so easy to take for granted what our ancestors endured so that we might have the freedoms we currently have, but I want her to know those freedoms are not to be taken lightly because so many died just for her.
Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum
Our next stop in Memphis to celebrate Black History Month was to Slave Haven Underground Musuem. 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 the 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 orginal Burkle home and the neighborhood is not the safest but please do not let that deter you from visiting.
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 Museumchronicles 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.
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.
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.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
February is celebrated across the country as Black History Month, and Memphis has 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 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.
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 barber shop. 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 song. “Memphis Blues” was followed by “St. Louis Blues” which was written in 1914 and “Beale Street Blues which was written in 1906.
Conclusion of Black History in Memphis
For many people, the city of Memphis is synonymous with one of the most significant, and saddest, events in recent American history — the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Lorraine Motel, where King was staying when he was shot, has in the years since the assassination become the National Civil Rights Museum.
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.
At the Memphis Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum, just a block off Beale Street, you can learn more about Handy and other famous African-American blues musicians who found a place for their music.
Best of all is the Soulsville USA: Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which has been drawing rave reviews since it opened a few years ago in a resurgent South Memphis neighborhood. Another museum with exhibits on famous black musicians is the Pink Palace Museum.
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.
The park was a gathering place for African Americans in the early 1900s, when restrictive Jim Crow laws segregated city parks.
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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