Memphis Tennessee – The History

Memphis, our soulful home, has one of the most important and interesting histories in all of America. Our home by the river is steeped in moments that define the soul of our beautiful city, and within it a lineage that celebrates and honors the diversity, struggles, and triumphs so deeply ingrained in our culture. Here’s a short history of the Bluff City and some interesting facts you may not have known.

The area that was to become Memphis has always been historically important and notable, finding its humble beginnings more than 200 years before the idea of America was formed.

The first mention of the area that would later become Memphis was first noted in 1541, as the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto visited the area and encountered the original inhabitants, the Chickasaw Native American tribe. As time went by and the tumultuous beginnings of our Nation began to take shape, both the French and Spanish constructed forts that existed briefly in the area, but ultimately didn’t last. But that all changed in 1797, when the newly minted United States of America built Fort Adams.

In 1819, Memphis was officially founded by future President Andrew Jackson on the land that was previously inhabited by the Chickasaw. As inspiration for naming the city by the river, Memphis was named after the Capital of Inebu-hedj, the first iteration of what would soon become Lower Egypt, which was similarly nestled upon the Nile River. When translated, Memphis means “Place of Good Abode.”

During the Early days of the city, Memphis expanded rapidly, as it was one of the very first and most important hubs of transportation in the nation due to the railroads, river, and central and easy access to the south during a time of booming economic growth. Incorporated in 1826, Memphis played an involved role during the Civil War, originally being part of the confederacy. Captured by a Union navy force on June 6, 1862, Memphis remained occupied by the Union army until the end of the war.

During the 1870s Memphis was struck with an outbreak of Yellow Fever, devastating the city and much of the progress it had made during reconstruction. But from the ashes of this devastation came drastic and necessary reforms and advancements that would bring the city back to life, bolstered greatly by the growth of a new emerging market for hardwood. The need for these building materials furthered the advancement and importance of Memphis as a transportation hub, as this much sought-after resource needed to be distributed around America.

As America moved forward into the new century and the hardwood and cotton industries went on to become the world’s largest markets for both commodities, Memphis grew into one of largest and most important distribution hubs in the world.

Memphis was one of the most important and notable cities during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Tragically, in 1968 while supporting workers in the sanitation department of Memphis, the great Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In 1991, the motel was turned into the National Civil Rights Museum, memorializing the history of our nation’s struggle for civil rights. Dr. King’s room has been preserved as a reminder of the man who inspired and pushed forward the movement for equality.

The History of Memphis wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its singular importance in music and cultural history. Memphis is known as home of the Blues, Soul, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. The hallowed ground of Sun Studio, a famed and legendary music recording studio and distributor, launched the careers of countless blues musicians including B.B. King and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself, Elvis Presley. After the death of Elvis in 1977, his incredible Graceland Mansion became a shrine to the fallen musician and was opened to the public in 1982.

Memphis was also the home of some of the most notable Soul musicians in history, with major talents such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Al Green finding themselves recording and calling Memphis home. In fact, Memphis was a place where musicians of all faiths and races came together to create music that changed the world – and that’s the true legacy of Memphis music.

Memphis, a City of American Culture

Memphis has always been a city of changemakers, legends, and innovators. The importance of our city’s history, individuals, and contributions to the fabric of the American tapestry cannot be understated.  From musicians who changed the way the world hears music to becoming the pork BBQ Capital of the world, Memphis is authentic, original, and just getting started. Here are a few of the most notable events, people, organizations, and historic moments that have roots in Memphis. Enjoy a bit of our history and those who made Memphis what it is today.

  • Memphis is known throughout the world as the Home of Blues and Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll. However, the city of Memphis and the artists that have come through our home have also made major contributions to the evolution of rap, gospel, jazz, R&B, and soul music.
  • Close to 20 percent of the earliest inductees in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame come from a close proximity to Memphis!
  • Memphis is described or mentioned in more songs than any other city in the world. According to Billboard Magazine, the City of Memphis has been mentioned in more than 400 Songs.
  • The first Holiday Inn was opened by Kemmons Wilson in 1952 in his hometown of Memphis.
  • Memphis is home to the Memphis Grizzlies, a professional Basketball Team.
  • St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was founded in Memphis by Danny Thomas, a notable entertainer. Opening in 1962, St. Jude has treated more than 16,000 children who are suffering from catastrophic and often deadly diseases, and focuses on researching cures and treatments for these afflictions as a leading research institution fighting to find the cure to Cancer.
  • Peter Doherty, Ph.D., chairman of the hospital’s immunology department was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1996.
  • Memphis is home to one of the largest urban park systems in the country, boasting over 7,000 acres of developed parks within the city limits!
  • Memphis is the home of Beale Street, the iconic and classic row that defines the music of Memphis as much as those blue suede shoes.
  • Beale Street was voted as the second most popular entertainment district in America, with only Bourbon Street in New Orleans edging it out in the survey.
  • Legendary recording studio Sun Studio, known as the original birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll, is located just outside of Downtown Memphis.
  • Elvis Presley found his home in Memphis shortly after moving from Mississippi to follow his dreams of becoming a recording artist.
  • Elvis’ home, known as Graceland, opened in 1982 to the Public to honor the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Graceland is the second most visited private residence in the United States, only surpassed by the White House in Washington D.C.
  • Memphis is regarded as “The Pork BBQ Capital of the World,” boasting more than 100 notable specialty Barbecue Restaurants in the City.
  • Every May, Memphis holds the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, attracting tourists, foodies, and contestants from around the world to sample and celebrate the Memphis delicacy.
  • Founded in 1873, The Memphis Musicians Union is the oldest Musicians’ union in America.
  • Memphis was the home of Robert Reed Church, the South’s first black Millionaire.
  • W.C. Handy, a composer and musician, who is one of the most influential and celebrated American Composers, made Memphis his home.
  • WDIA, the first African American formatted Radio station in the country, was founded in Memphis in 1947.
  • Blues Legend BB King began his career at WDIA in Memphis as a DJ in his younger years. King’s Nickname, B.B. was shorthand  for his moniker of the “Beale Street Blues Boy.”
  • WHER, another Memphis radio station founded in 1955, is known as the first all-female radio station founded by Sam Phillips and Kemmons Wilson.
  • The Famous MGM Movies roaring lion, Volney, lived in the Memphis Zoo until 1944.
  • Memphis is ranked in the top 100 Vacation Destinations in the world by ‘Dream Vacations: 100 of the World’s Best Vacations.’ Also mentioned in the book are worldwide tourist destinations such as Costa Rica, The Vatican, and Montezuma Mexico!