Memphis is a city with a wealth of African-American history. Immediately following the Civil War, many newly freed blacks moved to Memphis in search of economic opportunities and the coveted education that could be acquired at the various Freedmen Schools. One of the earliest of these schools was located at the corner of Main and Beale; this became the center of a large African-American population centered on Beale Street. Merchants on the street began to cater to the African-Americans of the day and at the turn of the century, the street was known as the "Main Street of Black America". On weekends, it took on a carnival atmosphere with vaudeville clubs offering black showgirls; young men srutting in the Zoot Suits; restaurants offering homemade chili or ribs in the front and illegal gambling in the back; characters such as Machine Gun Kelly peddling bootleg whiskey; and the famous Palace Theatre, where countless musicians got their start.
Memphis’ first black millionaire, Robert R. Church, owned a saloon on Beale Street and a mansion on nearly Lauderdale Street. He founded Church Park and Church’s Auditorium, where Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and the like performed.
As a young man, W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” booked gigs for his band from PeeWee’s Saloon, as did many musicians of the day as PeeWee had a pay phone, one of the few in Memphis at that time. Rufus Thomas, along with Nat D. Williams, was emcee at the famed Palace Theatre. A teen-aged Elvis Presley found his way to Beale Street and absorbed the sounds. Future STAX stars like Issac Hayes, David Porter, and Steve Cropper were heavily influenced by the music of Beale Street. Later, they formed the nucleus of the vast talent pool at STAX Records, whose other artists included Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Maurice White, Rufus & Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers and on and on. The site of the old STAX Recording Studio is now home to Soulsville and the STAX Academy, also included in our African-American Memphis Tour.
The heydey of STAX coincided with the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and many STAX hits were written at the Lorraine Motel. This was the motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was staying in April, 1968 and where he was shot by James Earl Ray. The motel is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum, one of the highlights of our tour. The cassette-guided tour through this museum takes you through the struggles of those who fought for equal rights for all minorities and of course highlights the situation in Memphis and the work of Dr. King.
Throw in some soul food like fried green tomatoes and peach cobbler from the Four-Way Grill or Alcenia’s, a stop for shopping at the Center for Southern Folklore, a delve into the roots of slavery at Slavehaven and a stop at the W.C. Handy House, a drive by Mason Temple, a chance to view the pulpit at of the late G.E. Patterson at Bountiful Blessings Temple of Deliverance and you’ve still only sampled vast amount of African-American history and culture you’ll find in Memphis, Tennessee.