Memphis sits high on the bluff above the Mississippi River, safe from its spring flood waters but awash in the Delta’s soul, rhythm, and grit. Memphis prides itself on a blue-collar ethos, one that is embraced by its NBA franchise as much as the Fortune 500 companies that call the city home.
Memphis’ founders were John Overton, James Winchester, and future U.S. President Andrew Jackson. The city was incorporated in 1826, some 30 years after Tennessee became the 16th state. The Chickasaw Indians sold the land that would become Memphis to the U.S. government in 1818, and Overton, Winchester, and Jackson saw the financial opportunities in a city located on the bluff.
Explorer Hernando DeSoto led the first Europeans to the lower Mississippi River, arriving in the area of what would become Memphis in 1541. The Interstate 40 bridge that connects Memphis to Arkansas is named for DeSoto, who claimed the territory for Spain upon his discovery. Over the ensuing 200 years, the land changed hands to France and later to the United States. In the years prior to the American Civil War, Memphis became a town focused on the cotton trade from plantations in the surrounding region.
Memphis played only a minor footnote in the Civil War story; the 1862 Battle of Memphis was a 90-minute gunboat battle between Confederate and Union forces. The city’s society came out to the bluff to watch the quick battle, won by the Union forces that occupied the city for the remainder of the war. Memphis wasn’t devastated like other Southern cities during the war. That devastation came later when two yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s killed thousands of Memphians. Those with the means left the city. But by 1879, the city was forced into bankruptcy and the government surrendered its charter.
The city’s rebirth began during the turn of the last century, thanks in part to better sewage and to tapping the deep artesian wells for drinking water that created more sanitary conditions. Today the city is known for having some of the best water in the world, which has helped a growing brewing scene flourish.
W.C. Handy wrote “Memphis Blues” in 1912 as a campaign song for E.H. “Boss” Crump, who ruled the city for decades. It’s considered to be the first published blues song and the start of the city’s epic role in American music history. Beale Street was the city’s main street for the African-American community. It also was home to scores of clubs where musicians brought the sound from the cotton fields to the streets, and many of America’s great blues musicians turned that sound into hits. And then in the 1950s came the creation of rock ‘n’ roll at nearby Sun Studio, where blues, gospel and country all collided. Sweet and gritty soul music followed with the creation of the Memphis Sound at Stax Records and Hi Records, and many studios have come and gone in the years since.
Memphis also is home to an unpleasant moment in U.S. history. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Memphis during 1968 to support the city’s sanitation workers’ strike. The day after giving his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the city’s Mason Temple, he was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, today’s home of the National Civil Rights Museum. That moment ushered in dark days for the city’s Downtown. Redevelopment began in the 1980s and continued full-steam ahead in the decades to follow. Today, the National Civil Rights Museum is part of the ever-expanding South Main Arts District, which, along with the nearby South End neighborhood, has brought thousands of residents back to Downtown.
Today’s Memphis is a cultural hotbed, where creative individuals have artistic and entrepreneurial opportunities that are unmatched by many cities of Memphis’ size. Memphis is home to a growing food and beer scene, eclectic neighborhoods, a booming arts scene, a passionate NBA fan base, Fortune 500 companies and an abundance of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.
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