Finding the soul of Memphis

Published on Saturday, 12 April 2014 21:41 - Written by Coshandra Dillard cdillard@tylerpaper.com

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If you want to visit a lively and culture-rich city, Memphis is where it’s at. Famous for its barbeque and illustrious musical history, which include blues, soul, country and rock ‘n’ roll, it’s not short on fun, food and flavor.

The hot tourist spot of the city is Beale Street, a crown jewel. The cobblestoned entertainment and commercial district stretches nearly 2 miles.

Taking a stroll down the street, you can enjoy history lessons, everything-Elvis gifts, a carriage ride, live blues, food or street performers. The history of this street is just as lively as its modern appeal.

The street was established in 1841 and housed merchants who traded on the Mississippi River. By the 1860s, many black traveling musicians would perform there.

By the early 1900s, Robert Church, the South’s first African-American millionaire, helped develop Beale Street.

African-Americans owned several businesses along the street, including Ida B. Wells — the famous journalist known for her anti-lynching campaigns — who operated the newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech.

The street was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and deemed “Home of the Blues” by the U.S. Congress in 1977.

When the Great Depression struck, it killed Beale Street. By the 1960s, it was a ghost town, with many of its stores abandoned. The city began buying property on the street in the 1970s and by the 1980s, it was booming again.

Each May, Beale Street is home to several events, including the Beale Street Music Festival. See more at memphisinmay.org.

 

MUST SEES

You can’t leave Memphis without visiting the National Civil Rights Museum. Not only is it filled with images and information surrounding the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination, but it also celebrates other civil rights leaders and human rights movements through today.

Part of the museum, housed inside the historic Lorraine Motel, had recently undergone a nearly $28 million, 18-month renovation. It reopened April 5, a day after the 46th anniversary of King’s assassination.

Across the street from the museum, protester Jacqueline Smith can still be seen at her post. She’s led a one-women campaign for more than 26 years now, expressing that the multimillion-dollar museum spurred gentrification, pushing out the culture and residents of Mulberry Street.

Ms. Smith is open to visitors who stop to speak with her. She explained to me that she worked at and was the last occupant of the Lorraine Motel before she was forcibly removed by deputies in 1988.

Each day, she sits at a table, with books, pamphlets and old articles written about her protest across from the museum entrance. Ms. Smith is unemployed.

She doesn’t talk about any living arrangements away from her post on the streets, but she mentioned that someone helps her with food and other necessities. Although it is not updated, she has a website, fullfilthe dream.net.

 

THE TASTE OF MEMPHIS

You’ve never had fried chicken until you’ve eaten at Gus’s Fried Chicken. The downtown location is a tiny hole-in-the-wall with a limited menu, but all you need is its chicken. With its reputation, be prepared for a wait — one that’s well worth it.

The restaurant has been featured on Food Network shows and on its walls are certificates and plaques deeming the place “best.”

BB King’s is the epitome of Memphis nightlife, with its large portions of Southern dishes and live entertainment on Beale Street.

Blues City Caf←, across from BB King’s, is another small joint, and is famous for its fall-off-the-bone ribs. It has attracted the attention of the Food Network’s Bobby Flay.

Huey’s Restaurant is a bar and burger joint downtown. There, customers have a choice from numerous types of burgers including their world famous Texas toast burger and a trio of sliders. Their onion rings are big enough to wear as bracelets.

A bonus for customers, particularly kids, is the opportunity to shoot toothpicks into the ceiling. The toothpick-covered ceiling has been a tradition at all of its locations. The restaurant has also been featured on the Food Network.

 

MUSIC, DUCKS AND DINOSAURS

The Stax Museum is a venue for music lovers. The exhibits tell the stories of Memphis soul artists and administrators who were integral parts of Stax Records.

The record label had great success in the 1960s and 1970s, cranking out hits for artists such as Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers. It’s a fun experience for all ages and you get to act goofy in 1970s clothing for a souvenir photo.

Downtown, the Peabody Ducks are a set of five ducks that take two-a-day marches from a beautiful marble fountain to their rooftop palace at The Peabody Memphis, a lavish hotel.

The tradition stuck in the 1930s after then-general manager, a hunter, placed his decoy ducks in the hotel’s fountains.

The Pink Palace Museum is chock full of history. It’s a 36,000-square-foot pink marble mansion that houses a local cultural history museum, and is adjacent to a natural history museum, planetarium and IMAX theater.

Clarence Saunders, the owner of the Piggly Wiggly chain, the first self-serve grocery store, began construction on the mansion in 1922. Exhibits include a replica of the first Piggly Wiggly, Memphis relics, dinosaur displays, fossils, and numerous other natural history artifacts and exhibits.

A current exhibit — “Race: Are We So Different?” — recognizes that race is a social construct and that we aren’t that much different between ethnic groups. It runs through May 4.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum (the Burkle Estate): Unfortunately, traffic delayed our arrival into Memphis, so we missed going to this museum, which is on the site of what was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. If you’re a history buff, this is a must see, but check its varying hours as it changes between seasons.

Little Rock Central High National Historic Site Visitor Center and monument at the Arkansas State Capitol: Little Rock, Ark., is about two hours from Memphis. If you’re driving, stop by the state capitol, where sculptures can be seen of the Little Rock Nine, the high school students who were escorted by federal troops amid the desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High in 1957.

A facility across the intersection from the high school has exhibits that follow the journey of the Little Rock Nine. Tours inside the school, which is operational today, must be made two weeks in advance.