Segregated Memphis didn't offer many places where the white and black musicians of labels like Sun and Stax could gather outside the studio.

With no air conditioning, the artists recording for Stax especially had no desire to spend the hot summer days sweltering away. They opted, instead, to head to the one place in town with a pool, where they could mingle, despite racial differences - the Lorraine Hotel.

The blacks living in the neighborhood were accepting of the white musicians, and it wasn't an uncommon sight to see people of both races sharing the hotel's swimming pool.

On April 4, 1968, the same hotel would be the site of a game-changing incident that brought racial tensions to the music industry that had escaped the issues for years prior.

That day, while standing on the hotel balcony outside of room 306, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray, believed to be positioned in an upstairs bathroom of a dormitory across the street.

The blacks in the neighborhood were a lot less accepting of the white musicians in the wake of the assassination. Segregation had finally arrived in the Memphis music scene.

Today, the two buildings used in the hate-filled killing represent a memorial to the past and a lesson preserved for the future.

"It's a very engaging - interactive in some ways - but compelling experience," said Connie Dyson, marketing coordinator for the National Civil Rights Museum. "We need to tell the story, so generations from here on will know the freedoms they enjoy today came with a cost."

The museum houses 25 exhibits in the two buildings. In the hotel, visitors will find a chronological telling of the history of civil and human rights, leading up until 1968. The boarding house displays examine the aftermath and legacy of the King assassination.

The stories of the civil rights movement are told through static displays, as well as multimedia presentations. Most of the exhibits are static, though the museum will go through an updating and renovation project later this year.

"We are the keepers, the stewards of history," Dyson said. "We preserve that through our collections, as well as our exhibits."

But, the museum does more than that; it also advances the societal knowledge of the civil and human rights movements and the key individuals involved. Administrators and staff organize a number of educational events for school children and adults alike. Last year, they began a community forum series focused on different elements of life in the city.

The museum also honors a number of individuals each year with Freedom Awards, recognizing their commitment to the advancement of the cause. These individuals come not only from Memphis, but from around the country and the world.

"It wasn't just a Southern problem," Dyson said. "It's an American story; it's for all of us."

Masters of metal

A visit to the National Civil Rights Museum acquaints guests with Memphis' past, and several other attractions around the city provide a glimpse into the present and future of the city.

A true highlight of the city, especially for those with an interest in art, is the National Ornamental Metal Museum, a site with deep-rooted ties to Southern Illinois.

The museum campus houses three buildings, each filled with various forms of artwork centered on different metalsmithing techniques and uses of metallic elements. Some of the pieces date back centuries, while others are crafted in an on-site blacksmith shop.

"We showcase new works, contemporary works, but we also celebrate those traditional ways of making, too," said Collections Manager Leila Hamdan.

Among the works on the grounds and in the halls of the museum are pieces by notable Southern Illinoisans, including John Medwedeff of Murphysboro and Rick Smith, a professor in the metalsmithing program at SIU Carbondale.

The ties to Carbondale run deep at the museum, which accepts apprentices to train. Many are SIU graduates. Mention Carbondale to museum officials or curators, and they'll respond with nothing but praise for the university and its contributions to the art form.

While many of the pieces, especially in the outside garden overlooking a double bend in the Mississippi River, are permanent installations, the inside exhibits rotate and change every 10 to 12 weeks on a staggered basis. So, upon any visit, there will almost certainly be something new to take in.

The museum also houses an extensive collection of art books, including several old and rare volumes. These materials are available for researchers and those interested in learning more about metalsmithing to peruse on site.

Classes round out the offerings of the museum, bringing exhibition, education and hands-on training onto a single campus and creating a centralized opportunity for anyone with an interest in the art of metalsmithing.

"We cover as many aspects of it as we can," Hamdan said.

Plenty to do at the Peabody

Just a few blocks from the lights and sounds of Beale Street, you'll find one of the city's true gems - the Peabody Hotel.

The 13-story venue is a symbolic representation of Southern hospitality, a tradition that has lasted since the first guests arrived in the original hotel in 1869. That facility closed in 1923; two years later, the modern one was constructed, with a $5 million price tag.

In the hotel's early days, musicians and radio stations used it as a recording and broadcast studio, tying it to the city's illustrious music legacy.

Other elements of the Peabody's past remain. Guests can visit Lansky's, a tailor shop that serviced celebrities, including Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes and B.B. King.

Perhaps the most renowned tradition of the historic Peabody Hotel is one that began as a practical joke. In 1932, hotel manager Frank Schutt and a friend returned from an Arkansas hunting trip that included a little too much Jack Daniels whiskey. The duo thought it would be funny to put live ducks in the hotel's central fountain; surprisingly, they remained there the rest of the day, content to be swimming and receiving much attention from the hotel guests.

In 1940, bellman Edward Pembroke, who had experience as a circus trainer, offered to teach the animals to march to and from the fountain from the hotel elevators. He accepted the official role of duckmaster, which he maintained for 51 years until his retirement in 1991.

Schutt and Pembroke, as well as their original feathered companions, are long gone, but their legacy remains. Each day at 11 a.m., the ducks emerge from the elevator, coming down from their home on the hotel's roof, and walk the red carpet to their perch in the fountain. At 5 p.m. each night, they return to their nest.

Though the entire ceremony lasts less than 10 minutes, the march of the Peabody ducks has become one of Memphis' most popular pastimes and attractions.

Take me out to the ballgame

Fine arts and sports aficionados can also find a plethora of activities to pass their time in Memphis.

The historic Orpheum Theater was renovated in the 1980s, and is one of the few remaining movie palaces of the 1920s. It continues to host Broadway shows, concerts and film events.

For larger events, visitors can head down the street to the FedEx Forum, which opened its doors in September 2004. National touring arena concerts and performances make frequent stops in Memphis, and they'll more than likely be playing at the Forum.

But, the building has another purpose, as well. It's the home of both the Memphis Grizzles NBA team, which made a playoff run last year, and the collegiate basketball program at the University of Memphis, annually considered a national title contender.

In the spring, sports fans can also take in a baseball game at AutoZone Park, found at the end of Beale Street, home of the Memphis Redbirds, the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.

No matter the season or the personal preferences, the city of Memphis offers an almost endless array of entertainment possibilities. 


Load comments