By: Michael Lander
|The Civil Rights Museum is one of the best museums in the country|
in chronicling and displaying the 500 years of slavery, the civil
rights movement, and the seminal events that helped to bring
about more equality and change to our nation.
February is recognized, nationally, as being Black History Month and Memphis has at least one prominent civil rights landmark and a few other locations around the city where people can learn more about the history and struggles of black Americans.
Fortunately, for those who want to see these in Memphis, most, if not all, of them are only a bike ride away from one another.
With the close proximity of these civil rights landmarks and important sites in black history are to each other, bicycles can offer one of the best and most up close and personal ways to go to and from them in Memphis.
The best known and most frequently visited civil rights landmark in Memphis is the Civil Rights Museum that was once the Lorraine Motel where the iconic civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was slain on April 4, 1968.
The first civil rights museum in the country is located at 450 Mulberry Street and it contains artifacts, films, photographic images, interactive media, and more, encompassing five centuries of slavery, the rise of Jim Crow, and the pivotal events in the fight for equality.
From the Civil Rights Museum, it is only a very short bike ride to 143 Beale Street where the legendary Blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter, B.B. King, established his Blues Club. Nearby, is the W.C. Handy Park and museum at 352 Beale. Handy was an American Blues composer and musician who is known as the “Father of the Blues.”
Approximately three miles southeast from there is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music at 926 E. McLemore Ave.
Music, unlike almost anything else, was an integral part of the black experience that enabled slaves and former slaves to carry on some of the rich musical and oral traditions from Africa. It provided a way for black Americans to express themselves when there was no other way to do so.
From this arose blues, which, through the lyrics, often conveyed the heartbreaks, disappointments, and troubles of the difficult lives for many black Americans.
Later, soul music came about, which combined elements of gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz, and it signified the emerging sense of the identity, consciousness and pride in the people and culture that inspired it.
From the music that spoke to the hearts of those who once had no voice in their own destiny, Memphis also has other places that honor black Americans who achieved success and made a difference for themselves, their community, and for the country.
At the corner of Fourth and Beale Street is the Robert Reed Church monument and park that honors the black American entrepreneur, businessman, landowner, and philanthropist. He was one of the richest black men in the South during the late 19th and early 20th Century.
Church founded the first black owned bank in Memphis, which extended credit to blacks so they could buy homes and start businesses of their own.
He is interred in a mausoleum at Elmwood Cemetery, which is the final resting places for many famous, not so famous, and long forgotten Memphians, (both black and white), since 1852.
Elmwood Cemetery is about a three mile bicycle ride from Beale Street and is located at 824 South Dudley St.
Near the FedEx Forum is a historical marker for the civil rights advocate and anti-lynching crusader, journalist, and co-founder of the NAACP, Ida B. Wells. This marker is near the site of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper, which Wells co-owned. The newspaper was destroyed by an angry mob after it printed an article on March 9, 1892, that denounced the lynching of three black men.
Just a short bike ride from Beale Street is found the Mississippi River and Tom Lee Park. The park is named for a black man, Tom Lee, who was recognized as a local hero who risked his life on May 8, 1925, to save 32 men, women, and children from drowning in the Mississippi River. For his heroic act, a monument and a statue were erected in his honor.
Decades before Lee did this, on June 6, 1862, the Battle of Memphis took place when Union forces navigated their way down the mighty Mississippi River, defeated Confederate forces, and seized the city from the Confederacy, and occupied it until the American Civil War ended in 1865.
Prior to that, the antebellum South thrived on the cotton industry, which relied on the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of slaves. Much of the cotton from the area was loaded and shipped from the shoreline of Memphis. Memphis, inevitably, became a major slave market, and prior to the Civil War, a quarter of the city’s population were slaves.
Some slaves, in a desperate attempt at seeking freedom, turned to the Underground Railroad to escape to the free states in the North. The Memphis home of Jacob Burkle was one of their way stations on their route to freedom.
The Burkle home is now the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. It is located at 826 N. Second Street and it is approximately a three-mile bike ride to the northeast from Tom Lee Park.
From the Burkle home to other notable landmarks and historical sites, bicycling provides an opportunity for everyone to stop and experience what Memphis once was and what it is today. Perhaps, in doing this, we all can take something from it and know where we should go from here.