Memphis is known worldwide for its connections to Martin Luther King Jr. and Elvis Presley, but there’s a lot more to our city’s history than those famous names. Read on for five Memphis history facts that we bet you haven’t heard before!
- Memphis’ largest maritime disaster occurred in 1865
On April 27, 1865, a steamboat known as the Sultana exploded just north of Memphis, killing more than 1800 of the union prisoners aboard who had just been released from Alabama and were headed to New Orleans. Despite having a capacity of just 376, the boat was holding more than 2,100 passengers, and the excess weight caused three of its boilers to explode. If you can’t believe you’ve never heard of this tragedy, here’s some historical context for you: It happened the same week as the assassination of President Lincoln.
- Tom Lee Park is named for the hero of another steamboat disaster
You’ve probably heard of Tom Lee Park, but did you know that Tom Lee saved 32 passengers from a sinking steamboat on May 8, 1925? Lee, a river worker, saw the M.E. Norman capsize and rushed to assist the passengers. At 23 deaths, the loss of life was still significant, but Lee’s intervention prevented a far bigger tragedy.
- Memphis was home to the South’s first African-American millionaire
Robert R. Church, also known as the South’s first African-American millionaire, developed his riches by purchasing real estate. After amassing his wealth, he paid it forward by opening the first black-owned business in Memphis—a bank that extended credit to black entrepreneurs and residents looking to build homes or establish businesses of their own. Church is also known for paying a $1,000 bond to restore the city’s charter. To honor his memory, modern-day Memphians can head to Robert Church Park, which is located adjacent to the FedEx Forum.
- Memphis didn’t have parks until the late 1800s
The parks we know and love in today’s Memphis were created as part of the City Beautification Movement, a reform philosophy that took off in North America in the 1890s. Before then, Memphis was an agricultural city known for having the world’s largest market for spot cotton, hardwood lumber and mules. Today, Memphis is home to a wide array of green spaces—notably Shelby Farms Park, which is one of the 20 largest urban parks in the country.
- A quartet of Memphis thoroughfares used to be named after the four seasons
Modern-day Memphis residents and frequent visitors to the Bluff City will probably be familiar with Summer Ave. and Autumn Ave., but did you know there used to be a Winter Ave. and a Spring Ave. to round out the set? The former is now known as Faxon Ave., while the latter’s current name is Forrest Ave. We bet you’ll remember this fun fact next time you’re driving in the city!
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