Black Legacy Lives Here Black Legacy Lives Here

Juneteenth in Memphis

Juneteenth doesn’t just celebrate freedom–for so many Black Memphians (and Black communities across the nation), it’s a day to unapologetically celebrate Black joy, expression, accomplishment and so much more. From the movers and shakers who are leading the path to a better and brighter Memphis to the young Memphians ready to make their mark on our city and the world, this day is all about celebrating the legacies they’re creating.

Here’s a history lesson for you. Nationwide slavery was officially ended on June 19th, 1865 and this comes two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. On this day, Major General Gordon Granger along with his Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced that the war had ended and enslaved people were now free.

Black Music Month

We all know that Memphis wouldn’t be the musical city we all know and love without the generations of contributions from Black musicians. President Jimmy Carter created Black Music Month in 1979 and, now, we’re using this month to celebrate all of the talented Black musicians in the city. Of course, in Memphis, honoring our city’s musical legacy is a 365-day thing. From iconic gospel and blues singers to the many rappers and soulful R&B artists that called the M home, we’ve got a lot to be proud of!

Join the Conversation

In celebration of Juneteenth, We Are Memphis is focusing on sharing stories from our Black community. While the holiday commemorates freedom, for so many Black Memphians (and Black communities across the country), it’s so much more! With the many stories and perspectives to share, we’ve sat down with the city’s favorite creatives, influencers, civic leaders, and more to highlight their stories of freedom of expression, joy, and living unapologetically.
Want to get in on the conversation? Share your story with us! Use #bringyoursoul and #wearememphis. We’ll be reposting stories throughout the month!

Black History Month in Memphis

Memphians know that Black History is Memphis’ History. Since the beginning, Black innovators have shaped everything from the streets we walk on to the places we all know and love. Their legacies live on through the countless Black Memphians who inspire, encourage, uplift us all to make Memphis the best place it can be. Black history isn’t a one-month thing—especially in Memphis. We celebrate the Black community 365 days and year and will continue to uplift our community’s inspirational stories every single day.

Black History is Memphis History
In Memphis, Black History is celebrated year round. Want to pay tribute to the past and look towards the future? Check out these shirts! Shop Now

Memphis- like all cities, has a history of both highs and lows. We’ve been touched by the best of mankind, but also the worst. The one constant in Memphis, however, is our relentless pursuit of positive change to make our city a better place.

We attract the fearless- those with innovative spirits and the drive to create something special. People who rise above and see a brighter future for themselves and others. And it’s those people- from Tom Lee to Ida B. Wells to Danny Thomas- that’s made Memphis what it is today.

We are the City on the Bluff

Memphis, with its prime position on the Chickasaw bluff, has always been a magnet for people. The land was claimed and populated by the Chickasaw Native Americans who inhabited the space until European Colonists arrived in the area in the 16th century.

Offering protection from Mississippi floods and with a shelf of sandstone perfect for boat landing, the land atop this bluff was perfectly suited for commerce and began Memphis’ business success.

African American history

Following the Jackson Purchase in 1818, West Tennessee was opened for settlement by Europeans and on May 22, 1819 the city was founded by a group of investors that included John Overton and James Winchester. With an economy largely supported by the cotton industry, early Memphis relied heavily on the labor of slaves for its success, and continued this model for its economy until after the Civil War.

Post-Civil War Memphis, which had been a valuable Union (outpost) for most of the war following the capture of the city in the Battle of Memphis, provided an opportunity for African Americans to take their share of Memphis’ wealth.  Notable businessman Robert Church, Sr. founded the first African American owned bank in the city, and bought real estate- including land on Beale Street – that he used to create a new cultural epicenter for African Americans.  Although they experienced great economic strides in the years following the Civil War, African Americans once again found themselves disenfranchised in a repopulated Memphis following the Yellow Fever Epidemic. With only small gains in their economic status in the early 20th century, African Americans in Memphis wouldn’t see true change until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

The fight for equality

Following the deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker, Memphis sanitation workers officially went on strike in February 1968 to protest the years of discriminatory treatment and demand better working conditions. With support from the African American community, the strikers marched for months and called on Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. to join them in their protests.

On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Fearing rioting, Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, who initially refused to meet with the strikers and employed methods to undermine them, reached a settlement and the strike officially ended on April 16, 1968. The National Civil Rights Museum now stands at the site of the Lorraine Motel.

A new generation of sound

With Beale Street as its home, Memphis’ sound was uncontainable. W.C. Handy wrote the first blues song published in America- Memphis Blues in 1912, Elvis Presley began his recording career at Memphis’ Sun Records, and B.B. King got his start on Beale Street. Memphis’ music has a history that spans decades and genres. In the 1960s, the Memphis Sound, a mixture of blues, R&B, and soul, was created at Stax Records featuring the work of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, The Bar-Kays and more.

Unstoppable City

Memphis has always been a city for innovators and groundbreakers- those among us who refuse to accept the status quo, instead pulling us all into change. This is our greatest legacy and a birthright we continue to embrace today. In the city where the first modern supermarket was created, ideas and innovation now ship goods globally in moments; where music found its soul now a new beat is being born; and where a King of civil rights fell now a National Civil Rights Museum prominently stands.

The magic of Memphis is this city’s resilience. Civil Rights struggles, economic downturns, and even widespread illness are part of Memphis’ history, but always, our creativity, innovative spirit, and strong sense of community allow us to overcome the challenges and emerge stronger than ever.

Learn more/get engaged

For more information about the history of Memphis, visit The Memphis and Shelby County Room on the 4th floor of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.

You may also be interested in: Moving to Memphis Tennessee: All You Need To Know