By Thomas Sellers Jr.
It’s official now: The city of Memphis is 200 years old.
If you know the M-Town, the bicentennial party is just beginning. May 22 was just the kickoff to all the festivities for this Southern jewel I call home. Memphis needs a break from all the corruption, crime and craziness to get back to its roots of being a strong fabric of the South.
The Bluff City’s recent headlines across America have been on the negative side with our crime rate, being one of the fattest metropolises and bad reviews for the schools.
A true Memphian doesn’t deny the bad press. A real Memphian wants to identify the problems and find solutions.
There are still positive things to be proud of when it comes to Memphis, Tenn. Memphis, the largest city in Tennessee, is situated on the Mississippi River in the southwestern corner of the state.
Home to Shelby County, Memphis has a deep connection with neighboring counties Tipton, Fayette, Desoto and Crittenden.
Those who live here know Memphis is the place for major commercial and industrial businesses. Memphis is still home to some great places for higher education and a top-notch medical district.
The nickname Bluff City comes from Memphis lying on the Chickasaw Bluffs on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Other rivers that cut through Memphis are the Wolf and Loosahatchie.
The geographic makeup of Memphis made it the hub for cotton and lumber for many years.
The climate in Memphis is a director’s and producer’s dream. The city with four true seasons drew the attention of Hollywood to shoot movies based in Boston, Atlanta and even some western cities.
This 200-year-old city has been on the world’s stage for good and bad. Over the years Memphis has been on the big stage with Lewis-Tyson world championship boxing and a few NCAA Regional basketball games.
Memphis’ 1968 race riots left a bruise on the city that can still be seen today. But all the good and bad shape the city in 2019. So what are the 10 things that define Memphis overall?
It was hard to narrow down the final column in my series to just a final 10. The list below is what shapes Memphis into the city I love and proudly call home. But before we get to those, here are the honorable mentions: Liberty Bowl, The Pyramid, Memphis Zoo, The Children’s Museum, Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Sun Studios, Mud Island, John Grisham films, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Brooks Museum, Slave Haven Underground Railroad, AutoZone Park, Peabody ducks, Peabody Hotel, Pink Palace, Southern Heritage Classic, Tiger Basketball, Memphis Grizzlies, The Orpheum, The Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, Memphis Botanic Garden, Graceland, Tom Lee Park, Medical District, Chucalissa Archaeological Museum, Memphis Cook Convention Center, Boss Crump years, Memphis International Raceway, Memphis Riverkings, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Wrestling, W.C. Handy, Memphis Wrestling and artesian wells.
10. Mississippi River
Today the Mississippi River serves as a backdrop to the city. It is primarily used for family gatherings, an exercise area and artistic viewing. Who can blame you for going down to the river to see the LED displays on the Hernando Desoto Bridge?
The Mississippi River is enjoyed by children of all ages today. When Memphis was a young, developing city, the area was a place for all work and no play.
The area of West Tennessee became available for white settlement after the federal government purchased it from the Chickasaw Nation in the 1818 Jackson Purchase. Memphis was founded on May 22, 1819, by a group of investors: John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson. Memphis was incorporated as a city seven years later. The founders planned for a large city to be built on the site and laid out a plan featuring a regular grid of streets interrupted by four town squares to be named Exchange, Market, Court and Auction.
The city grew in the 1800s as a center for transporting, grading and marketing the growing volumes of cotton produced in the nearby Mississippi Delta. While King Cotton took over in Memphis, the Mississippi River served as a departure point for Native Americans on the Trail of Tears.
The cotton economy of the antebellum South depended on the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of African-American slaves. Memphis became a major slave market.
While the river brought in commerce, another industry developed in 1842 with the Gayoso House Hotel. It was the city’s first major landmark overlooking the Mississippi River. It stood until 1899 before being burned down.
Fast forward to today, and the Mississippi River is home to many Memphis landmarks like the red monorail you see downtown that takes you to Mud Island River Park, where the Mud Island River Museum introduces you to native tribes, steamboat-era characters and Delta musicians. Artifacts and exhibits include the Belle of the Bluffs, a replica of a 19th-century riverboat.
9. Memphis in May
The Memphis in May International Festival began more than 40 years ago as a way for the city to celebrate countries around the world. Over the past four decades, MIM is now the reason thousands of visitors come to the Bluff City for music, barbecue and athletic feats.
Memphis in May showcases the best of the city each year and pays tribute to the rich history that defines Memphis. The Beale Street Music Fest is a strong opener each year. The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest smells great and is the premier event in the industry. The Bluff City is the perfect home for the showcase.
The only thing missing is the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. After 39 years, Sunset Symphony played its final note in a grand finale celebration in 2015. The night included a special performance from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, several guest appearances and an expanded fireworks extravaganza. The decision was made by the organization’s Board of Directors after several years of studying event trends and analyzing popularity of audience programs around the country.
8. National Civil Rights Museum
One of the darkest hours in Memphis’ history was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. The images of the sanitation workers wearing “I AM A MAN” posters hit the airwaves across America. Their fight for fair conditions and better treatment brought King to Memphis.
Then after his greatest speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Dr. King was taken away from us with an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel.
On September 28, 1991, the structure became the National Civil Rights Museum. D’Army Bailey was the founding president of the museum. Now new generations can see the Civil Rights Movement in person and learn of the history that not only shaped Memphis, but also the South and the United States.
The museum reopened in 2014 after renovations that increased the number of multimedia and interactive exhibits, including numerous short movies to enhance features. The museum is owned and operated by the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation, based in Memphis. The Lorraine Motel is owned by the Tennessee State Museum and has been leased long term to the Foundation to operate as part of the museum complex.
The pretenders to the throne are Carolina, Kansas City and Texas-style barbecue. But we all know the best creations from the grill come from the M-Town. Whether it’s ribs, BBQ nachos, chicken or even BBQ spaghetti, Memphis is the place to travel to eat the world’s best barbecue.
Memphis-style barbecue is mostly made using pork, primarily ribs and shoulders. But our eateries will provide beef and chicken as well.
Memphis-style barbecue is slow cooked in a pit, and ribs can be prepared either “dry” or “wet.” “Dry” ribs are covered with a dry rub of salt and various spices before cooking and are normally eaten without sauce. “Wet” ribs are brushed with sauce before, during and after cooking. Our sauce is boss, being a combination of sweet, spicy and tangy. Places like Tops, Neely’s and Corky’s are just the tip of this massive iceberg of deliciousness.
Other good places to try the variety of Memphis-style barbecue are Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous, Central BBQ and the Germantown Commissary.
6. Fed Ex
The largest industry in Memphis is Federal Express. Now known around the world as FedEx, it is the business that pumps life into Memphis’ economy on a daily basis. FedEx is the brand that hires Memphians from handlers to pilots.
In 1965, Yale University undergraduate Fred Smith wrote a term paper that invented an industry and changed what’s possible. In the paper, he laid out the logistical challenges facing pioneering firms in the information technology industry. Most airfreight shippers relied on passenger route systems, but those didn’t make economic sense for urgent shipments, Smith wrote.
He proposed a system specifically designed to accommodate time-sensitive shipments such as medicine, computer parts and electronics. Smith’s professor apparently didn’t see the revolutionary implications of his thesis, and the paper received just an average grade.
In August 1971, following a stint in the military, Smith bought controlling interest in Arkansas Aviation Sales in Little Rock, Ark. After a couple of changes and some tough moments, Smith improved on his idea, giving birth to Federal Express.
Smith named the company Federal Express because he believed the patriotic meaning associated with the word “federal” suggested an interest in nationwide economic activity.
Company headquarters later moved to Memphis, Tenn. Memphis was chosen because of its central location within the U.S. and because Memphis International Airport was rarely closed for bad weather.
5. University of Memphis
The place known as “Tiger High” is in the middle of the city. It’s the proper place for The University of Memphis because it has developed into a foundation for education and economic growth, impacting the lives of many people who will call Memphis home.
The U of M was founded under the auspices of the General Education Bill, enacted by the Tennessee Legislature in 1909. The school’s first name was West Tennessee State Normal School, and the institution opened its doors Sept. 10, 1912, with Dr. Seymour A. Mynders as president.
Then the name changed in 1925 to West Tennessee State Teachers College, in 1941 to Memphis State College and in 1957 as Memphis State University. A generation of Memphians grew to love Memphis State University. From the proud basketball program to academic success in nursing, law and business, MSU was part of the fabric of the city.
Then in July 1994, The University of Memphis was born. And it seems the school’s success in education has only gotten better.
The University has expanded to Park Avenue, Downtown Law School and Lambuth campuses. While the athletics will receive all the headlines and get the most recognition for the institution, many graduates like myself know The U of M supplies Memphis with vital resources. The backbone of the city should be located in the middle of the city, and it finds an appropriate place in the middle of this countdown.
4. Elvis Presley
A big house in the middle of Memphis’ Whitehaven neighborhood is a place of pilgrimage for many across the world. Why?
Elvis Aron Presley. Maybe the greatest music act in history, Elvis called Memphis home. The boy from Tupelo, Miss., put Humes High School in Memphis on the map. He also put his adoptive hometown on the world map.
Presley is the King of rock ’n’ roll. He became a movie star. After his break from his first passion, Elvis returned in 1968, creating the term “The Comeback.”
Elvis topped the charts in several genres. The awards and records are too many to count. If you get a chance, go visit Graceland and enjoy the history of an international icon.
3. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
To be a major city in America, you need to meet certain criteria. A city needs big-time entertainment, signature food, great landmarks and most importantly a continuous major impact on the United States. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is vital to saving lives not only in U.S. America but also all over the world.
St. Jude was founded by entertainer Danny Thomas in 1962 with help from Lemuel Diggs and Anthony Abraham. The hospital was founded on the premise that “no child should die in the dawn of life.”
This idea resulted from a promise that Thomas, a Maronite Catholic, had made to a saint years before the hospital was founded. Thomas became a successful comedian and actor, and he built St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as a shrine to St. Jude Thaddeus to honor his promise.
Since St. Jude opened its doors in 1962, American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities has had the responsibility of raising the necessary funds to keep the hospital open. Memphis was chosen at the suggestion of Roman Catholic Cardinal Samuel Stritch.
Discoveries at St. Jude have profoundly changed how doctors treat children with cancer and other catastrophic illnesses. Since St. Jude was established, the survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common type of childhood cancer, has increased from 4 percent in 1962 to 94 percent today. During this time, the overall survival rate for childhood cancers has risen from 20 percent to 80 percent. St. Jude has treated children from across the United States and from more than 70 countries. Doctors across the world consult with St. Jude on their toughest cases. Also, St. Jude has an International Outreach Program to improve the survival rates of children with catastrophic illnesses worldwide through the transfer of knowledge, technology and organizational skills.
The blues are not my favorite brand of music. I find the genre thoroughly boring. But I recognize the blues are a crucial part of Memphis’ history. To be “The Real Music City,” you have to have a foundation. The blues have given birth to Memphis soul, rock, gospel, rap and country.
The Memphis blues is a style of blues music created in the early 1900s by musicians in the Memphis area, like Frank Stokes, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis and Memphis Minnie.
The style was popular in vaudeville and medicine shows.
Then the art form became associated with Beale Street, the main entertainment area in Memphis.
Then a man in the Orange Mound area, W.C. Handy, became the “Father of the Blues” by publishing the song “The Memphis Blues.”
For some reason this depressing music pumps life into so many people. From the Delta roots using harmonicas, violins, mandolins, banjos and guitars, the blues have lasting power in this city.
Then the blues became more urban as blacks moved into the city and started using electric equipment.
Now the impact of the blues can be heard in R&B music and rock ’n’ roll. The countless list of impactful Memphis musicians can give a sincere thank you to this genre for making them legends.
1. Beale Street
The most famous street in the world is in my hometown. Welcome to Beale Street. The reason why Beale Street is No. 1 on my countdown is simple. It has impacted all the other entries on the list. Beale Street has played host to fundraisers for Fed Ex, U of M and St. Jude. Elvis performed there along with many other blues artists. If you worked at Stax or Sun studios, I am pretty sure you paid a visit to Beale Street.
Civil Rights leaders met there during the 1960s, and I venture to bet they enjoyed a plate of barbecue. Just a few minutes away from the Mississippi River, a trip to Beale Street is the perfect way to end a date night in Memphis.
Beale Street was created in 1841 by entrepreneur and developer Robertson Topp, who named it for a forgotten military hero. The original name was Beale Avenue. Its western end primarily housed shops of trade merchants, who traded goods with ships along the Mississippi River, while the eastern part developed as an affluent suburb.
In the 1860s, many black traveling musicians began performing on Beale. The first of these to call Beale Street home were the Young Men’s Brass Band, formed by Sam Thomas in 1867.
Over the next 150 years the history of Beale Street has grown stronger and stronger. It’s almost mythical some of the stories that originate from the Downtown landmark. The street even made a cameo in the blockbuster “The Firm” when Tom Cruise’s character flipped with the famous Beale Street Flippers.
Beale Street is a designation for musicians and visitors today. When walking in Memphis, it feels like your feet are 10 feet off of Beale. But I hope you allow your toes to touch the ground because it is an honor to step foot on greatness.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for Journal West 10 Media LLC. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.