Memphis has a reputation. It is a Black City with a heart that pulsates Black Rhythms. Travel Guides call Memphis, Home of the Blues. Delta musicians walked up Highway 61 and made it so. Elvis Presley got wind of blues music in Beale Street Clubs. He soaked up Gospel Flavors on a mourners’ bench at East Trigg Baptist Church. And so it is—Travel Guides call Memphis the Birthplace of Rock and Roll.
The hungry think “BBQ” when Memphis comes to mind. That is a delicious vision. But, do consider a Blacker and more meaningful truth. Memphis is a reflection of Africa’s Egypt. The ancient city of Memphis was nestled along the Nile. Tennessee’s Memphis stands shining above the muddy banks of the rolling Mississippi—a chief of winding rivers in North America.
Black Folks in Memphis lead the way in all things related to food, music, sports, racial reconciliation and social justice. Take the food alone. Memphis is called the Barbecue Capital of the World. TV people agree. The Bar B Q Shop on Madison Avenue was voted #1 ribs in America by the Food Network. The Vernon family at the shop created the world’s first serving of tangy BBQ spaghetti (www.thebar-b-qshop.com.)
When it comes to BBQ turkey, chicken wings and Cornish hen—the Cozy Corner Restaurant beats all the joints preparing any kind of bird. The meat is tender, smoky and covered in sweet, yummy barbecue bark. Your soul will be glad you stopped on the corner and spent time with the Robinson Family (www.cozycornerbbq.com.)
There is more to Memphis besides BBQ. Soul Food is KING from the north, south, east and west corners of the city. Go with me to South Memphis. Stop at the Four Way Grill. It’s been serving soul food to Black Folks, famous and not, since the 1940’s. The Four Way serves regular fare like fried chicken, collard greens and jeweled candied yams. Not to be missed is the rolled salmon croquettes and the peach cobbler flavored with nutmeg and covered in flaky golden crust. Dr. Martin Luther King was a regular when he visited Memphis. And in these present times, everyone is treated like royalty when they walk into the door (www.fourwaymemphis.com.)
A few blocks away on Bullington Avenue, sits Jim and Samella’s House. It is an immaculate little home turned into a restaurant. Keep up with the time. This soul food affair opens Friday through Sunday. Call before you visit and make room in your belly for every delight, which changes day to day. They serve deep fried lobster tails, shrimp and grits, fried pork chops, collard green casserole and neck bone dressing. Red Kool-Aid is the only drink that is served everyday. The phone number is (901) 265-8761.
Bullington Avenue and the Four Way Grill is one mile away from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. You have danced to soul music on the radio. Now, be sure to visit the museum and learn how Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers overcame tribulations to reach their great success (www.staxmuseum.com.)
Don’t let the hype over soul food discourage your healthy living. Vegetarian travelers can have a good meal at a variety of scrumptious places. There is the Office@Uptown just north beyond St. Jude. Their meatless meals include fresh crispy salads, veggie pizzas, veggie wraps and a yummy Smokey City Melt on toast with sliced tomatoes. You can hold a meeting, check email and fax on the premises too (www.officeatuptown.com.)
There is more heartwarming vegan fare at the Blue Nile Restaurant, next door to the Bar B Q Shop (www.facebook.com/BlueNile901.) The Blue Nile majors in hot seasoned vegetables like beets, greens, cabbage, lentils, carrots and potatoes, all served with injera bread on a decorative plate. In the Whitehaven area, you don’t want to miss the freshly squeezed beet juice at ElectroLyfe. YUM! And farther east near Summer Avenue is the restaurant—Two Vegan Sistas. These Black College Professors are on a mission to serve delicious food that helps diners pursue healthy living and have fun doing it. Call Vegan Sistas for take-out orders only @ (800) 984-0379.
As a new Memphis tradition takes hold, no meal is complete without a cupcake. When you are in downtown Memphis, head over to Court Square and experience Cupcake Cutie. You design your own sweet treat from chocolate, vanilla and lemon cake. You choose the flavor of icing to put inside and/or on top of your cupcake. You can add drizzles of syrup, sparkles, sprinkles, nuts and candy. They make wedding cakes too (901) 249-6996.
Philip Ashley’s Chocolates is a Black Chocolatier. He owns a luxury Chocolate Boutique in the heart of the Cooper Young area. The chocolates, which look like small expensive gems, have been served at the Oscars and Grammy Celebrations. Vegans close your ears. Philip specializes in chocolate covered BACON!!! If you are “high-end”, you can “buy-in” at Philip’s (www.phillipashleychocolates.com.)
After you have feasted on Memphis food prepared with love, it is time to enjoy the offerings of Black Theatre. The Hattlioo Theatre is the only freestanding Black Repertory Theatre in five surrounding states. Black Playwrights compose each play that is featured on the Hattiloo stage. Katori Hall is the artistic director and Ekundayo Bandele is the founder. Performance schedules are online at (www.hattiloo.org.)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in downtown Memphis at the Lorraine Motel in 1968 during a local sanitation strike. The motel is now a Smithsonian affiliate called the National Civil Rights Museum. The exhibits explore the Civil Rights Movement from American Slavery until the present day. Visitors will see the motel room where Dr. King spent his last night, ate his last meal, and smoked his last cigarette (www.civilrightsmuseum.org.) Come close as I speak an important matter. On 2nd Street in the backdoor of the Lorraine Motel, there is a Makeda’s Bakery. They sell an airy banana pudding whip with crumbled butter cookies. This one treat will assuage the hurt and tears you cry, when visiting the King memorial (www.makedascookies.com .)
A few blocks from the Lorraine is famous Beale Street. It is an entertainment center lined with music clubs and restaurants. For the safety of local folks and travelers from around the world, the street is blocked off from vehicular traffic. The Beale Street Scene is one huge block party where people pub-crawl all night long–just like KoKo Taylor.
In the early 20th Century when the American South was governed by laws of segregation, Beale Street was called—Negro Main Street USA. On the street you could find Black Doctors, Lawyers, Insurance Brokers, Photographers, Banks, Clothing Stores, Theaters, and Newspaper Publishers. Black folks were accepted on Beale where they could walk through front doors, oppose to entering from the side.
At the corner of Beale and 4th, is the Home of W.C Handy. He was given the title, Father of the Blues, as the first musician to publish blues in the form of sheet music. Because he lived in Memphis at the time, the city proudly appoints itself, Home of the Blues.
When it comes to religion, there is a church on every Memphis corner. Black folks in Memphis love to praise their Jesus. Two downtown churches figure large in American history. During the 1968 Sanitation Strike when Black laborers carried protest signs for honor and higher wages, the workers began their daily marches from the steps of Clayborn Temple Church. It was during the Beale Street Riot of ’68 that Memphis police stormed the church with teargas to intimidate the strikers. The men persisted with fortitude and did not terminate their strike until better pay was received. (www.claybornreborn.org.)
While in Memphis, travelers can visit the hallowed ground of Mason Temple, the World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). The denomination was founded by Charles Harrison Mason and includes more than 6 million members. It was in the pulpit at Mason Temple where Dr. King preached his Mountaintop Sermon. The message was given on a stormy night, 24 hours before his assassination. It would be the Civil Rights Leader’s very last speech. Travelers can schedule a visit @ (901) 947-9300.
Not far from the Four Way Grill is LeMoyne Owen College (LOC). It is a historical Black college that traces its history to1862—after Federal troops occupied Memphis during the Civil war. The green manicured lawn is easy to navigate. Feel free to stop by the Hanson Student Center and pick up LOC Magician T-shirts and ball caps to take home to the family. Notable LOC graduates include former D.C. Mayor, Marion Barry, Judge Otis Higgs and Spelman Professor, Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles (www.loc.edu.)
How about that Memphis Basketball and the chiseled gladiators who make the fans jump to their feet and cheer? Presently, the city is home to Coach Tubby Smith and his Tigers at the University of Memphis. The FedEx Arena is home to the NBA—Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies play in the Western Conference and minority owners include NBA veterans and Memphis locals—Elliot Perry and Penny Hardaway (www.nba.com/grizzlies/tickets.)
As for Memphis, Black folks and Football? Thousands of visitors caravan to the city each September for the Southern Heritage Classic football game between Jackson State and Tennessee State University. The game is played at the Liberty Bowl Arena and for three days of fun, there are tailgate parties, music concerts, award banquets, a Battle of the Bands at the half-time show and yes—there is the football game! (www.southernheritageclassic.com)
I have good news for the weary traveler. While in Memphis, if you decide not to traverse the city on your own, A TOUR OF POSSIBILITIES will show you the sites in the comfort of a luxury passenger van (www.atopmemphis.com.)
And now, as I press ahead with my own travels, I cannot ignore that the earth appears to be spinning off her axis. It is a metaphor of course. And then again, no. Wars and rumors of wars abide. America stands divided on so many fronts. However, when it comes to joy, good times and positive vibrations, travelers win, and win, and win again when they roll through Memphis. You should visit. Soon!
Until then–pack light. Write home often. And wherever you travel–walk in love.
Mary Saint Luke