I’m a born and raised Memphian, so I’ve always been aware of the city’s rich (and sometimes painful) history, but nothing could’ve prepared me for how my eyes were opened to its beauty during the recent #SteepedInHistory Tour Experience with Toyota. A year-round initiative that was launched to help bring awareness to African-American culture and history beyond Black History Month, this tour was unlike any other that I’ve ever taken.
Me and 5 other local bloggers/influencers and our guests (Carmeon from Nubi Interiors was mine!) were invited to take a special tour of Memphis, and with Toyota being the sponsor, we were able to do it in style! We were each loaned a 2018 Toyota Camry to drive during the tour, which was lead by Carolyn Michael-Banks (Queen) of A Tour of Possibilities. When I say Queen is an amazing storyteller, it’s an understatement. She has the most calming yet engaging voice, and is the quintessential tour guide for something like this. Not only did she share the “need to know’ facts for every location that we visited, but she also sprinkled in extra gems that allowed us to connect on a deeper level. We had a full day of stops for this tour, so in between locations she talked with us via the car’s Bluetooth system; I’ve never done this before, but it made the transitions from location to location go very smoothly.
To kick things off, we enjoyed breakfast and Jim & Samella’s House, a family owned restaurant in the heart of South Memphis. If you ever want an old-fashioned, soulful meal, this is where you need to go! Chicken and waffles with warm maple syrup, fried catfish, scrambled eggs and potatoes…we were all ready to take a nap when breakfast was over but we knew that we had to push on, lol.
Next up was a quick stop at the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, a hideaway for runaway slaves during the Middle Passage. We weren’t able to stay long, but we learned the significance of the magnolia trees on the land, which served as markers to signify that this was a safe place for runaway slaves.
Next up was the African American Museum Foundation, located in North Memphis and owned and operated by Dr. Carnita Atwater. Out of all of our stops, this was the one that caught everyone by surprise because we had no clue that it existed. For the last 25 years, Dr. Atwater has collected hundreds of thousands of artifacts from all over the world: from bondage chains + whips and African tribal masks to Sammy Davis Jr’s personal estate belongings and the original telegram that Coretta Scott King received when Dr. King was assassinated. We were only able to tour the ground floor due to time constraints, but we are all planning to return soon because we couldn’t believe how she much she has collected and curated over the years. To visit, contact Dr. Atwater at 901.502.2326 or via email Atwaterc4@aol.com.
Once we left the museum, we made a pit stop at Clayborne Temple to see the I AM A MAN monument, and then we headed down to Beale Street so that we could view the WC Handy House (WC Handy was known as the Father of the Blues).
We then toured the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery. Dr. Ernest C. Withers was a renown historian and photographer, and this fine art gallery was originally his last working studio. Photographs of Dr. King, Al Green, B.B. King and other key figures in Memphis History line the walls, and while it is a self-guided tour, the staff on duty is more than happy to answer any questions that you may have.
Once we left the gallery, Queen guided us on a few mini stops ( including the Mason Temple where Dr. King gave his “I’ve Been To The Mountain Top” speech and LeMoyne-Owen College our HBCU,) before we landed at Memphis Slim Collaboratory, located in the Soulsville Music District near the STAX Museum. The former home of famed blues singer and pianist John “Peter” Chatman (Memphis Slim), it has been renovated into a space where musicians can record, rehearse and gather as they create music.
We couldn’t learn about Memphis music history during this tour without a stop at the historic Royal Studios, one of the oldest continuously-operating recording studios in the world. A place where artists come when they want that “Memphis Sound”, Al Green (“Love & Happiness”), Bruno Mars (“Uptown Funk!”) and Ann Peebles (“I Can’t Stand The Rain”) are just some of the artists that recorded in that studio. Willie Mitchell’s daughters took us on a tour of the studio (we learned quite a few things that aren’t in history books, lol), Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell gave us a preview of some music he was working on, and we even got to sample one of the sister’s famous lemon pound cake. Ha!
Before we made it to lunch, we visited Knowledge Quest, a nonprofit organization that has actively promoted youth and community development in South Memphis for over seventeen years. Pulling up to Knowledge Quest was like being in a bubble. Though we were in South Memphis, it was like something shifted. The children that were playing were so carefree and oblivious to our cars, and although there was a dilapidated apartment building across the street, it sits next to their Green Leaf Learning Farm, a micro, certified USDA organic farm that was initiated in 2010 in what was otherwise a food desert. The initiative teaches its students how to grow food in ways that build community, so not only do they become healthy eaters, but they’re able to be entrepreneurs as well. As for that dilapidated apartment building? They have plans to turn it into student housing, so all is not wasted.
Finally, it was time to refuel so our last stop was The HM Dessert Lounge, a dessert and novelty gathering space across from Minglewood Hall in Midtown Memphis. Chef Fran Mosley prepared a delectable lunch for us (I had chicken + waffle sliders with fries and coconut + pecan cheesecake), and when I say that it was the sweetest, most perfect ending for an already fulfilling day? I mean it! We were able to recap the day and share our thoughts on the experience while we enjoyed lunch and a spoken word performance.
With our hearts and bellies full, we parted ways, forever changed by our experience. I am eternally grateful for being invited to participate in this tour. I always joke that being a blogger has its perks, but this was one of those perks that went way beyond surface level fun. I love being able to share the art and culture that’s so unique to my hometown, in hopes that when you visit or think about Memphis, you can see all of the beauty that it truly has to offer. Memphis is rich in so many ways, and I couldn’t be happier to live here.
Thank you so much to Toyota for this amazing experience!