Memphis, Tennessee is famous for music – blues and rock ‘n roll in particular. With Graceland just a short drive from downtown, the city has a special connection to Elvis, and Beale Street is famous for soul food and blues. However, it’s about an eight-hour drive from where we live, so I was a little confused when my mom said we were taking a girls trip there – essentially we spent Monday and Wednesday in the car and only had one day actually in the city. With only that one day and so much to see and do, we actually skipped Graceland in favor of seeing several other awesome locations…and eventually we found out why we took such a seemingly random trip to Tennessee. There was not a ton of planning that went into the activities of this trip, but we did our best to see as much as we could, and I really enjoyed even just one day in such a cool city. Memphis has a lot to offer, but in one day, we condensed it to about four activities, which I now present to you ranked in order of my favorites.
#4: Beale Street
Beale Street is the famous place for blues bars and soul food restaurants. I should probably say that I didn’t really get to go to any of these, but I did really like walking down the street and seeing all the signs, even if they weren’t lit up as they would be at night. Being the middle of the afternoon though, there was hardly anyone around, meaning there was no line for fudge at the candy store we discovered. There were also some performers in the street, old cars parading down the road for no discernible reason, and there was live music at an outdoor bar. Of course, I wasn’t old enough to walk past the gate and sit down to listen, but it was good music and fun to listen to on the sidewalk as well. I’m ranking this last only because there wasn’t a lot going on while I was there (and I’d be too young for a lot of the highlights anyway), but it was still great even like that.
#3: Riverboat on the Mississippi
The Mississippi River has been the lifeblood of several American cities, including Memphis. For a surprisingly affordable rate, you can book tickets on a cruise along the river that lasts about an hour and a half. There is food to be bought on board – including lunch, which was good for us – and a narrator provides commentary for the duration of the ride about the history of Memphis and the Mississippi. Our narrator was funny and personable, and he had a lot of fun anecdotes both personal and about the city that really added to his narration. This was a lot of fun and a very relaxing way to spend the hottest part of the afternoon.
#2: Dixon Gallery and Gardens
I’m a big art lover, and when I was reading up on the museums in Memphis and discovered an Impressionist Art Gallery on about 17 acres of property, I had to go. My sister is less thrilled by art than I am, but even she loved the gardens which were all in bloom. The layout of the area is really amazing in itself, with some areas as open lawns, others reminiscent of forests, and one area designed like a monastic garden with different spaces for different kinds of plants. There are also fountains, streams, and benches that make for beautiful photos. The art gallery is fantastic as well, and I was really excited by the focus on American Impressionism and women artists; it’s a small museum, but percentage-wise the Dixon definitely had more women artists than any other museum I’ve visited.
#1: The Lorraine Motel
This is the famous motel where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 while in Memphis to support a strike by Memphis sanitation workers. Prior to this, the Lorraine famously hosted musicians like Count Basie and Aretha Franklin who could not stay in white hotels while performing in Memphis. In fact, it was partly because of the motel’s significance to the black community that Dr. King stayed here. Today, the motel is both a memorial and a museum – The National Civil Rights Museum. The layout of this museum is one of the best in my opinion. The first exhibit hall is about the slave trade, followed by a video summarizing the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. From here, visitors walk through the entire history of Civil Rights from early writers and activists all the way to modern issues. It also includes reconstructions of the bus Rosa Parks sat on as well as the Freedom Riders bus that was firebombed in 1961.
However, as well-done as this museum is, it also sparks controversy. The museum includes the building across the street where Dr. King’s assassin waited, and this part of the museum traces the events of that day and the FBI investigation. You can even look out the window where the shot was fired. To many, this seems to glorify a tragedy and even commercialize it via the museum gift shop. The argument then, is that the Lorraine should be a memorial but not a museum and gift shop; these should be somewhere else, possibly somewhere that was a victory for the Civil Rights Movement rather than a tragedy. I put this as number one for a few reasons, but partly it’s because of the controversy. Obviously, this is an important site where many people will come for Dr. King and stay to learn at the museum, but I can also see the argument about commercializing the tragedy. This is a question we have to consider when we make museums and write our histories, and the fact that there are still signs protesting the museum’s location almost thirty years after it opened shows that people care. At the very least, a visit to Memphis requires taking a few moments to stand quietly outside room 306 where Dr. King spent his final moments and to think about his legacy in Memphis, in the US, and around the world.
After spending the day absorbing all this history, we eventually got to the reason we came to Memphis in the first place: Hamilton. I was not expecting this at all, and it was absolutely incredible to see in person. It also fit, I think, with the atmosphere of Memphis – not just the history of music in the city but also the questions of race that Hamilton addresses both through discussions of slavery in the early US and through the musical’s race-blind casting. But even if I’m not getting metaphorical about why I loved seeing Hamilton in Memphis, it was great. It was indescribable! This was not a trip I expected to go on this summer, but I’m so glad I was able to. (Thanks, Mom!)
Bonus fact: Memphis is mentioned in more songs than any other city. My personal favorite is Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Motel in Memphis” about Dr. King and the Lorraine Motel.