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Hey Hey! It is one of the most magical months of the year, Black History Month! We live in a city filled with black African American culture so, it is only right that I give y'all 28 Memphis Black history facts!! Let's start with a couple of facts about Memphis! Memphis is named after Memphis, Egypt, and was founded on May 22, 1819. Memphis has the largest African American population in Tennessee and is the state's second-largest city. Memphis is the creator of many genres of music, one being crunk music, and has the worlds best barbeque (not up for debate)!
1. Orange Mound
Now, y’all knew this was going to be my first fact! Lol Orange Mound(where I grew up) is the first African American neighborhood built exclusively for and by African Americans in the US! Developed in 1890 as a segregated subdivision, Orange Mound was built on the former Deaderick Plantation. Originally the neighborhood contained 982 shotgun homes and got its name from the osage orange hedges that grew on the plantation. The residents built their own homes, churches and eventually developed a black business district on Carnes Avenue. Orange Mound was home to professional doctors, teachers, attorneys, and it became a refuge for African Americans moving to Memphis.
2. The Lorraine Motel
The Lorraine Motel was a preferred safe haven for black travels from 1945 to 1968. Rebranded in 1945 by a black businessman named Walter Bailey, The Lorraine Motel was listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication during segregation that recognized businesses in America that allowed black customers as an establishment that welcomed black travelers during Jim Crow. The Lorraine Motel also hosted its share of black celebrities, checking in some of the Black entertainment's elite, such as Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, and Jackie Robinson, just to name a few. The Lorraine Motel would close its doors as a Motel in 1988 and be established as the National Civil Rights Museum in 1991. This historical landmark tells us the many stories of our ancestors and takes us through an emotional time machine of change, sacrifice, and strength. The National Civil Rights Museum at The Lorraine Motel is still involved in the movement as they continue to host a variety of events, partner with community organizations, and offer programs to help educate and inspire future leaders. Click the link below for more info on the Civil Rights Museum. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram to know what events are happening and how you may get involved.
3. Beale street
The famous Beale Street, known for its musical history, live entertainment, nightlife, and culture, was officially established in 1841. A street that would be saved by a black man named Robert R. Church Sr., the south’s first black millionaire, after the yellow fever epidemic devastated the city in the 1870s forcing the city to forfeit its charter. With the Memphis population depleted, Church bought land and made investments that helped restore the historic district as well as make it a breeding ground for black-owned businesses. In addition to Church’s efforts, it has been said that the black community helped aid the sick and rebuild the city after the disease passed. Beale Street was also the headquarters of “Memphis Free Speech”, the newspaper partially owned by Ida B. Wells. During the 20th century, Beale Street was filled with creativity, music, and black musicians gaining us the title of the birthplace of blues. W.C Handy would compose “Memphis Blues” on the ironic street. Beale Street would continue to thrive until the 60s when Memphis would endure a time of racial inequality and Beale would be left abandoned. However, Beale would be revived and become whole again in the 1980s
4. Clayborn Temple
The journey of Clayborn Temple would begin in 1949 when the property, then the Second Presbyterian Church, was purchased by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). A decade or so after Clayborn Temple emerged it would be coined as a safe haven for strategizing and planning during the Civil Rights Movement. Clayborn Temple was headquarters for the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, where the historic “I Am A Man” signs were distributed. Protesters would march from the church to city hall. Clayborn Temple would also be the location where the sanitation workers gathered on April 16, 1968, to accept terms that would end the strike. Closed in 1999, Clayborn Temple has since reopened its doors and has a $14 million restoration project in the works.
5. Bishop C.H Mason and The Mason Temple Church of God in Christ
930 Mason Street is home to the start of the Church of God in Christ. Founded by Bishop C.H Mason, who was born in 1862 on a plantation in Bartlett, TN, Mason Temple is an international sanctuary and the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. Mason Temple was also the church where thousands gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr. give his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, on April 3, 1968. The Church of God in Christ is the largest African American Pentecostal church in the world. The Church of God in Christ has an estimated 6.5 million members, 12,000 congregations, churches in every state in the United States and in 62 other countries.
Historic Black Memphians pg. 21
6. Sanitation Workers’ Strike
In February of 1968, sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were killed at work while trying to take shelter from the rain on the back of their work truck. The truck malfunctioned and crushed both men to death, the city of Memphis refused to provide financial compensation to the families. Workers had already been complaining of faulty work equipment, so the death of these two men, low wages, and long work hours without overtime fueled the Sanitation Workers’ Strike of 1968. This strike gained the support of many, but it would be the support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP that would give this cause national coverage. The strike began on February 12,1968, with 1,300 black sanitation workers. Strikers and supporters would perform sit-ins, rallies, and marches where protesters would be seen wearing the infamous “I Am A Man” sandwich board signs. Although Dr. King would be assassinated during the strike the support and efforts would be picked up by his wife and civil rights activist Coretta Scott King. Days after the assassination, she and other leaders returned to Memphis to support the workers. It would be two weeks after the death of MLK when the city and sanitation workers would come to an agreement to end the strike.
7. T.O. fuller state Park and Rev. Thomas O. Fuller
T.O. Fuller State Park was established in 1938 as the Shelby County Negro State Park, making it the first state park built for African Americans east of the Mississippi. During segregation, African Americans didn’t have equal access to recreational spaces parks such as T.O Fuller were built to reduce the lack of access. T.O. Fuller State Park is named after beloved Memphis resident Rev. Thomas O. Fuller. Thomas Fuller was a pastor, activist, and principal of Howe Institute, a private educational facility for African Americans, for almost thirty years. This park is one of three southern state parks built for African Americans that is still in operation and functioning under its original name. See what events are happening and how you can visit T.O. fuller State Park by clicking the link below.
8. Ida B. Wells and Memphis Free Speech
Ida B. Wells was an African American journalist, educator, and activist born in holly springs, MS in 1862. Shortly after losing both of her parents to yellow fever, Wells along with her siblings moved to Memphis to stay with an aunt. While in Memphis, she would become part-owner of the city’s African American newspaper called “Memphis Free Speech”. Published in the Memphis Free Speech would be her very vocal views on lynchings and unfair treatment of blacks in Memphis. This would ignite the start of her anti-lynching campaign. Due to the unfair treatment, Wells encouraged blacks to leave Memphis. Her call to vacate Memphis and writings about lynching enraged white residents so much that in 1892 a white mob burned down her office. Wells wasn’t present during the burning but was told if she ever returned, she would be killed. She didn’t return to the south for 30 years. After leaving, she would continue her fight against lynching, start a family, become the founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, and more. In July of 2021, a statue of Ida B. Wells was unveiled in downtown Memphis at the Ida b. Wells Plaza on Beale Street.
9. Stax Records & Soulsville USA
Stax is an American record label that was extremely influential in the creation of soul music. Started right here in Memphis in 1960, siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton moved their record company (Satellite Records) from Brunswick, TN to a former movie theatre on McLemore Ave in South Memphis. Stax would gain its first local hit with a song called “Cause I Love You” by Rufus and Carla Thomas selling 40,000 copies and leading them to a distribution deal with Atlantic. The distribution deal helped them get their records into stores. In the '60s Stax recorded records with artists such as Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MGs, Sam and Dave, The Emotions, Soul children, and Issac Hayes. The 1970s would bring Stax major heat by adding songs to its catalog like “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight, “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers, and Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” by Johnnie Taylor. Filled with success, Stax would soon fall upon hard times. They would be forced into bankruptcy in 1975, and although they didn’t go down without fighting, the studio wouldn’t bounce back. It would become vacant until 1981 and was torn down in 1989. Even though we no longer have the original building Stax Museum of American Soul Music still sits on the sacred ground that was once home to so much music, creativity, and power. That energy still fills that neighborhood and the museum building. Whenever you get the opportunity please go visit the museum and learn all about Soulsville USA.
Memphis is home to the first radio station in the United States that offered programming exclusively for the African American community. WDIA went on air on June 7, 1947, and around 1948 would have its first black DJ, Nathaniel D. Williams. Throughout the years' other black radio personalities would join the family and the station would feature black entertainers, news, and even led and supported projects that benefited the African American community. WDIA relocated in 1985 but the neon marquee station sign would remain at the original location of its former studio at 112 Union Avenue near Main Street. Still active, you can tune in Monday – Sunday on 1070 AM!
11. Burkle Estate
Memphis historians attribute this estate to being one of the many homes apart of the anti-slavery moment. Now referred to as "Slave Haven", The Burkle Estate was owned by stockyard owner and German immigrant Jacob Burkle. From 1855 until the abolishing of slavery, Burkle assisted enslaved African Americans in escaping to freedom by operating an Underground Railroad way station. The Burkle home had a small cellar that was used as a hideout until a boat came to take passengers up north to free states.
12. Memphis Massacre of 1866
In May of 1866, the city of Memphis would endure a deadly massacre. Led by white mobs, that included Memphis police and fireman, storming into black communities causing despair and chaos. This riot would last 3 days, leaving at least 46 dead, 285 injured, every African American school and church burned down, homes and businesses burned and robbed, and at least 5 black women were raped. The massacre occurred after an alleged altercation involving a black soldier and a white policeman. The events of 1866 would leave Memphis’ black community in ruin but it would also upset congress, so much so that it would lead to a Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the 14 Amendment.
Remembering the Memphis Massacre
Edited by Beverly Greene Bond and Susan Eva O’Donovan
A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After The Civil War
by Stephen v. Ash
13. Tom Lee
Did you know that Tom Lee Park is named after an African American man? On May 8, 1925, a boat containing 72 passengers of the Engineers Club of Memphis capsized during its voyage along the Mississippi River. Luckily for them, Tom Lee would also be traveling along the Mississippi that day in his small wooden boat, Zev. Lee, who didn’t know how to swim but was a river worker so knew the waters well, would see the wreckage, and be able to rescue 32 people from drowning. His boat was so small that he had to make multiple trips to shore to aide passengers. News of the wreckage would reach Memphis and other assistance followed. Tom Lee continued to assist in the rescue mission until the next day but when the time came for him to be recognized he would be nowhere to be found. Eventually, he would be located and rewarded for his heroic efforts with a house from the Memphis Engineers club, a job as a sanitation worker, and double the standard pension when he retired. Tom Lee Park is currently under construction but the statue in his honor remains.
Although WDIA is Memphis’ first radio station with programming exclusively for the black community it would WLOK that would become Memphis' first black-owned radio station. Getting its start in 1956, WLOK would undergo many changes before becoming black-owned. Starting with going from WBCR to WLOK after being sold to a Louisiana station. WLOK was Memphis’ second radio station that offered programming to a black audience but was said to have the attention of the younger generation while WDIA served the parents. In the 70s workers would go on strike demanding better pay, working conditions, and the station become more involved in the black community. The strike would last for 10 days but resulted in the workers getting a black station manager, a community information center, the station partnering with organizations like Operation PUSH, and more. In 1977 Art Gilliam bought the station making WLOK black-owned. In the 80s WLOK would change from bringing the city its latest R& B hits to nothing but gospel. For more history on the station or to find its production schedule click the link below.
If you're interested in more Memphis history here are a few books that I found at the
Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library:
Historic Black Memphis
A Massacre In Memphis
Memphis: 200 Year Together
Remembering The Memphis Massacre
The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers
Photographs from the Memphis World 1949-1968
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