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Published: January 30th 2016
We were desperate to experience Memphis. Experience the live blues and Jazz bands, all the music spilling onto the streets, and to experience the rest of the culture here: The opportunity to visit the Mississippi River, lick the barbecue sauce and soul food dripping from our fingers and delve deep into some African American history.
Only a 2 hour bus ride from Nashville and we were in Memphis. After a quick Uber ride from the inaccessible bus-station, we were walking down the streets of Memphis commenting on some creative colourful street art depicting various community scenes. Downtown
As we walked a few blocks closer to Beale Street (the area where many the music bars can be found) our noses immediately picked up on the smell of smoky barbeques sizzling away, whilst our ears immediately caught onto the blues music. Unbeknown to us we were visiting Memphis during some fancy car show and so there were many sports cars all lined up showing off their bold colours and flashy designs. We laughed at some of the designs and quirks, one car even had a spray paint scene of 2 big booted women on the underside of its bonnet. Someone
had clearly pimped this ride.
One observation we immediately made on Beale Street was that people were casually walking down it with 32 ounce cups of beer in their hand. What!! This is not legal back home. Not that we were complaining.
First things first though - Food. After wandering the streets we debated on 2 eateries; BB Kings which was beginning to form a little queue hence being very popular and its competitor on the other side of the street, Blues City Cafe. We opted for the latter. Chris ordered deep fried chicken strips whilst P ordered Creole style shrimp, both accompanied with chips (french fries), slaw and a nice dollop of BBQ sauce. What can we say? It was delicious, it was what we expected and more even if it was very unhealthy. P’s Shrimp was seasoned in an oily sauce that you would never dream of eating if on a diet, but P liking the flavour poured it all over her chips to spread to the taste.
Sitting there we formed a plan for our time in Memphis.
Slave Haven house first. With no direct bus and no fear of exercise, we walked
the 2 miles to the museum. It was a straight road from where we ate and we walked it at a leisurely pace walking through pleasant neighbourhoods. The style of houses in the US vary greatly to ours back home (mainly red brick) and we just loved those here built in wooden slats, the pastel colours they were painted in, the swinging chairs on the porches and the outdoor letterboxes. We were tempted to go and sit on a swinging chair to take a picture but thought otherwise after considering this may have looked suspicious and remembering that guns are legal in the US… I say no more.
Southern Hospitality was in full swing. People here were extremely friendly. People would pass us saying “How y’all doin’?” we happily responded “We are well thank you, how are you?”
Even people in cars stopping at traffic lights would say the same. People must just be friendly around here or we must have had tourists plastered across our faces and they felt the need to offer a welcoming hello. Either way we loved it. The Slave Haven/Burkle estate
The Slave Haven/Burkle estate was once upon a time a
part of the Underground Rail Road. The ‘Underground Rail Road’ being a euphemism for the network of free slaves and abolitionists who safely and secretly housed slaves and guided them in their journey to freedom. This estate’s efforts remained hidden until it was safe to reveal its role in history and to this day still contains its underground tunnel, trap doors and many artefacts from that time.
We took the tour which covered the challenges and barriers slaves faced when considering escape. Slaves lacked an education, were unable to communicate with each other, faced severe punishment and families were pulled apart/put together based on the needs and desires of the slave owner.
A minority did however complete their journey to freedom and this museum explored how this was possible, with Mr Burkle’s estate revealing many secrets about this. Coming so close to this history, standing in the cramped, damp, barely a basement space under the house with minimal light, air and space: an overwhelming feeling of fear, and claustrophobia came over us.
To say this experience did not take us on an emotional journey would be lie. At one point one of the workers sung the song
‘wade in the water’ and few others songs revealing their symbolism afterwards. This was enough to evoke tears thinking of the lengths and measures people faced and continue to face to escape brutality/fear in order to secure better prospects for their families and themselves.
Once we had finished at the Burkle house and walked back into town all the other sites on our list were closed. That forced us into a very comprising position. More finger licking food at same joint we had ate in earlier or in their bar area whilst enjoying a beer to the sounds of a blues band creating the most enjoyable atmosphere. Whoa, ‘There’s not another place we would rather be right now’ we thought to ourselves as we let ourselves get lost by the music. Mud Island and contrasts
The following morning, the weather revealed its usual delightful appearance so we decided to make the most of it with a visit to the Mud Island River Park found on small peninsular on the Mississippi River. It was within easy walking distance from the main tourist drag and accessible by sky rail or a walkway on the bridge. Walking through town,
we felt that Memphis had 2 faces, a happening and inviting charm which came with the many restaurants and bars, the trotting horses ferrying tourists around and the rustic trollies. Other parts of town felt somewhat ghostly and dull with many factories appearing unused with little to no life or atmosphere and people more dishevelled in appearance seemingly on the breadline.
Do not get us wrong the area felt safe. But it really made us think about how tourism here created a feel of promise and happiness, masking what life is like here for many. These contrasts always hit us hard as we realise we have fallen for the delights of a place that cannot be enjoyed to the same extent by the many who live there. Time again this has happened to us on our trip, that tourism divide now also evident in such a developed country.
We opted for the bridge walkway to Mud Island so we could take our time as we crossed. Coming face to face with the Mississippi River an overwhelming feeling came over us. Being so close to such a mighty river playing various roles throughout the course of history hit us
more than we expected it would. We looked out on the river for some time, reliving scenes of life here. Looking out at the raucous noisy and lively steams boats as they passed: music booming, singers/dancers performing, children laughing, adults drinking, whilst the crew worked around them. We envisioned complete darkness but in the distance moving shadows that were slaves escaping via the river on small boats during the night: expressions of fear and caution as they climbed onto the boats in the hope of making it to the next safe house before being caught. Being there it all felt so real to us.
Mud Island River Park provides a scaled model of the Mississippi river incorporating the many rivers, lakes and towns that it goes through as well as the surrounding sources that give Mississippi its strength. However the model covers a large area on this island, with the Mississippi river actually flowing through the very creatively moulded lines and contours crafted into the ground. We felt like it was a masterpiece enjoyed by the many people here. We especially enjoyed identifying towns we had heard of, hoped to travel to on this trip or in the future.
Afterwards we decided to enter the Mississippi Museum also on this island. This covered a time line of Mississippi River, from life around the river, the progression of boats sailing on it, and the music that developed on and around it. It even had a section of a full scale Steam-boat in it.
After these visits, it was lunchtime we were hungry but aware of time as we wanted to visit the much anticipated Civil Rights Museum. On our way to the museum we stopped at a diner. Whilst waiting for food we excitedly took in the surrounds of the diner that reminded us of the many scenes in films we had seen. Ordering the obligatory milkshakes to go with our fries and scrumptious burgers we felt pretty happy with ourselves for being there. For us it’s always the little things that you seek out of an experience. This was certainly one of them as for us this was America. Defiance, Bravery an Resistance
The Civil Rights Museum provided us with one of the most heart wrenching but also inspirational glimpse into African American history. After a few hours it was already closing and we felt
un-finished. After some deliberation we opted to leave a day later than planned disrupting our pre-booked bus travel plans but offering us the chance to delve deeper into such a well thought out, informative and interactive museum.
Rather than focus on all the brutality of slavery in America it looked at the defiance, resistance, strength
of those who fought for racial equality.
Words which for us define such an unsettling period for African Americans.
It covered the constant one step forward 2 steps back when changes came into place. Demonstrating how each positive change such as the Declaration of liberty, the outlawing of the importation and even Emancipation was followed by loopholes such as the grandfather clause, convicting slaves to imprison them and the Jim Crow Laws.
It shocked us to discover that despite the long fought journey for change, when a positive court ruling was achieved (such as the outlawing of Jim Crows Separate but Equal) this did not necessary result in implemented change. For instance, it was in 1954 that the court ruled segregation as being unconstitutional but it was not until 1970 that all schools in Mississippi were integrated.
the information was laid out with the exhibitions had us completely drawn in. In one section it had a replica of the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. You could enter this bus, even go and sit next to her.
Throughout this self-guided tour, we were silenced by the fact that despite the brutal beatings by the police, the police dog attacks or those from white mobs, the fight for equality continued in a non-violent manner. Through Car pools, in which 52,000 black people took part driving the buses out of business, the many sit inns, action protest walks and the freedom riders. All fully aware of the high possibility of a jail sentence, the violence they would face - many sacrificed themselves for the cause.
One touching quote from an 18 year old activist in 1961 read… ‘Dear mum and dad, by the time you read this I suppose both of you will be upset and probably angry… Try to understand that what I am doing is right. It isn’t like going to jail for stealing, killing etc. but we are going for the betterment of all negros. You must realise
it is time I made some decisions for myself now… So try to see things my way and give us, the younger generation, a chance to prove ourselves, please. And most of all don’t worry for us but pray for us’
The final area of the museum focused on Martin Luther King, his speeches, his involvement in marches, his final moments before his very public murder and some interesting questions around who really killed him.
One particularly moving factor about this whole museum is that it is built into the Lorraine Hotel, the very place in which Martin Luther King was murdered. His room remains as does the balcony, along with the building opposite whereby it is believed the shot was fired.
This was a deeply emotional experience and the way the information was shared left us also feeling inspired and deeply moved by the bravery of so many people from all races and ages in a fight for equality. Unnecessary apologies and shocking facts
One particularly touching moment in the museum was when an older lady
who was welling up approached Chris after they'd just watched a short but harrowing video regarding the civil rights movement and the police brutality even on children. The one thing that stood out for Chris (Precious was absorbed elsewhere in the museum) was when she started apologising for all the atrocities that had happened. Chris reassured her that she did not need to apologise but she wanted to make clear that there are still many people “in the south” with the same frightening unthinkable and violent views as in the 60’s, hence why she does not live in the south. She asked Chris where he was from and wished him a safe trip. This really shocked us both, we did not know what to say afterwards.
One thing that we also learnt later during our stay in Memphis was that a Statute of Nathan Bedford Forrest (the founding leader of the Ku Klux Klan) is still erect here in Memphis today with many fans celebrating at the statute annually. I understand Freedom of speech but this goes too far. It is unthinkable that given the history here and the hard
fought protesting that took place, that such an ugly reminder is allowed to bare its face. River Park
Silenced, sombre and in deep thought from all the history we had absorbed, we spent our evening by the Mississippi river watching the sunset. It proved to have the most enchanting atmosphere with life and activity buzzing all around us but yet still offering the necessary tranquillity.
We walked around taking in the different monuments including Tom Lee and the song Ol’ Man river. Tom Lee is remembered due to his harrowing efforts to save 32 people off a steam boat 20 miles from Memphis, despite the likely treatment he would have experienced beforehand due to being black. Another monument was dedicated to James Hyter, who sang ‘Ol Man River’ annually at the Memphis in May sunset symphony. An un-mistakable song if you have heard it before.
As we relaxed taking in the changing skies as the sun set, we also observed the many runners passing us by, excited or emotional children with their families, groups playing volleyball, dog walkers and people exercising. It did not feel touristy here in the slightest. Actually we felt like
we may have been the only tourists there. Our backdrop was the most charming grand houses overlooking the river. In front of us was the Memphis Bridge and the colourful skies during sunset. We wondered whether every day was like that here. Some people had actually brought their fold away chairs to watch the sunset too. Some with binoculars. Strange we thought.
But that day was no ordinary day. Not that any travel day is but that day was significant. It was the day when the ‘Supermoon lunar eclipse’ made its appearance. Unfortunately our camera and phone was out of battery so we only managed to snap one not so impressive picture of this rarely experienced moment later that evening from our hotel window. The enchanting food and music
By this time our stomachs were screaming at us to feed them and so we visited the famed Gus's Chicken. Whilst Chris ordered some of the best fried chicken he had ever tasted, P delighted in all the sides: slaw, mac and cheese, fries and potato salad. Neither of us were disappointed.
Later we wandered up and down Beale Street contemplating our options from the
The very same one MLK was tragically killed
many choices, all having their own appeal from food to bands playing Jazz, Blues etc. It was then we stumbled on a guy in the park with his band setting up beneath a small canopy.
We decided to wait see what he would offer and are we happy we did. This proved to be one of the most memorable nights we had there. This band drew the crowds in by the masses by the mesmerising blues sounds, the gospel music and funk, along with some Mo-town classics. The main vocalist was real charming, involving the audience and serenading all the blushing women with his voice.
Our memory of that night was that this band created pure magic. Tourists and locals were all visibly happily enjoying themselves, all getting lost in the music. Even the beaten down homeless man on the bench came to life singing along to the music.
As the night went on they invited others to sing chorus's from some Mo-town hits. Ordinary looking people (as they always are) with the most incredible voices took the mic and sang a section of the song whilst the bands singer picked up his guitar
and strummed away.
One tourist who could play the harmonica had brought it along and the band invited him to join them to perform somewhat of a spontaneous collaboration. We must have stood there for a few hours (drizzled on in the rain may I add) enjoying it all and speaking to an older local couple that we were stood next to.
Despite Memphis offering us somewhat of emotional journey, revealing a mask it puts on in the face of tourism etc... We will always still look back fondly on our time here. It proved to be one of our favourite destinations in the states (even if we do have a few).
26th September 2015
Accommodation. Econo Lodge Downtown Memphis
Transport: Greyhound from Nashville to Memphis - 2 hours $17.5 each
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