Explore the road with me as we journey through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee to learn about important people in black history. Originally this was meant to be part of a larger road trip. We planned to begin in Florida and head to Georgia after Tennessee. However, Covid hit and we cancelled most of our trip. Since this leg of our trip was about civil rights and history of blues, my husband suggested I write about it anyway to honor important black people in history for Black History Month.
If you plan on checking out some of these places yourself check out these sponsored links:
We begin our tour of some of the most important people in black history here in Alabama. Depending on the source, the actual dates of the civil rights movement vary. Some say it began in 1955 with Rosa Parks. Others say it started in 1948 when President Truman ended segregation of armed forces and then ended in 1968. However, we know that the fight for civil rights has not ended. This past year brought a much needed resurgence with the Black Lives Matter movement.
On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks, a seamstress heading home from work, refused to give up her seat to a white man on the bus. At the time, African Americans were required to pay their bus fare, and then exit the bus to re-enter from the back. The law required that they sit in the back of the bus whereas white riders sat in front. When the front filled, law required African Americans to give up their seats for white customers. On December 1st the bus driver asked Rosa as well as three others to give up their seats. Rosa refused while the others did not. Subsequently, police arrested Rosa and she incurred fines.
Because of this act a year long bus boycott ensued. From December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956 African Americans refused to ride city buses in Montgomery. People were encouraged to boycott due to a group of black women working for civil rights. Known as the Women’s Political Council, they circulated flyers calling for the boycott. As a result, this demonstration, with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the leaders, was the first large scale U.S. demonstration against segregation.
On June 5, 1956 the Montgomery Federal Court declared that any law requiring racially segregated seating on buses went against the 14th Amendment. This amendment to the US Constitution guaranteed all citizens regardless of race equal rights and protection under state and federal laws. Further, the Supreme Court upheld this decision on December 20, 1956. Although bus stops continued to segregate, this demonstration lead the way for other large scale demonstrations.
Here are some of the highlights we planned for our trip to learn more about this period in history:
Rosa Parks Arrest Site and Rosa Parks Library and Museum
Here you can visit the site where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, and then head over to the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. The museum teaches visitors about this era through video, artifacts, and historic documents. A life size statue of Rosa Parks as well as a replica of the bus in which she sat pay tribute to this civil rights forerunner. Later in 1999, Congress awarded Rosa Parks the Gold Medal.
Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice
This museum is located in a former warehouse where black people had been enslaved. Inside learn about the history of racial injustice and the domestic slave trade through interactive media, sculpture, and video. After that, journey outside to see the first memorial dedicated to honoring the victims of racial terror. According to the website white mobs murdered more than 4400 African Americans between 1877 and 1950.
Civil Rights Memorial Center
Sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, this center provides educational information about the civil rights movement through a 20 minute film.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church
No trip to Montgomery is complete without a visit to the church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from 1954 to 1960. Here one of the most important people in black history lead the Montgomery bus boycott which began the civil rights movement. As a result of the boycott, national attention was brought to the struggles for civil rights which led to additional large demonstrations.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which became an important group in the fight for civil rights. It proved instrumental in Birmingham in 1963 as well as the March on Washington where MLK gave his famous “I have a dream” speech.
Birmingham offers several walking tours of the civil rights district. Whether you book a tour or take a self guided tour don’t miss the 16th Street Baptist Church. In 1963 the Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb killing 4 young girls. Subsequently, the church now houses a shrine to the memory of these girls.
Now we our journey into Mississippi where we learn about the Blues. These important black people in history influenced modern music which consequently influenced white America.
Clarksdale is known as the crossroads of American music and culture. Home of legends like Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, and Muddy Waters, this is considered to be where blues began.
The Crossroads and Delta Blues Museum
This museum pays homage to the history of Blues through photos, artifacts and instruments. See the actual shack that served as Muddy Water’s home. Although he original site is on Farewell-Eagles Nest W. & Oakhurst Stovall Road, only a plaque and marker stand there now.
Shack Up Inn
Where to stay? This Bed & Beer is made up of restored sharecropper’s cabins. It originated as the Hopson Planting Company where workers processed cotton during the day and played the blues by night. Of course, ou can get a live show at the Juke Joint Chapel on site.
Ground Zero Blues Club
Owned by Morgan Freeman, this is a must for live music and good food. Dedicated to the area’s blues heritage this is the place to go for an authentic blues experience. We had planned to eat here during our trip, but now have to settle for cooking soul food at home. For some of our recipes read this and this.
The blues are thought to originate from spirituals, work songs, and chants which took the harsh realities of life to form a common bond between people. During the current times I think this is something we all can relate to.
Since the Early 1900s musicians from Mississippi would travel to the city of Memphis looking for a better life. Their rural traditions from the Mississippi delta mixed with the urban culture to form new blues styles. The music was also influenced by traveling minstrels and medicine shows that passed through the Memphis area.
Memphis: Learn About some of the Famous People in Black History
W.C. Handy began using blues motifs after encountering the music back in 1903 in the Mississippi delta. Record companies began setting up studios to capture the sound as these musicians travelled through the area. Names such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, Jim Jackson, and Memphis Minnie were the forerunners of the style. Then, post WWII, people started names like Rufus Thomas, Junior Parker, BB King. In 1951, a Cleveland Ohio DJ named Alan Freed began playing what was known as “race music” which lead to the blues reaching a multi racial audience. Elvis combined the blues with early rock, also crossing the racial barrier.
Regardless of whether you are looking to learn more about civil rights or the influence of blues Memphis combines the best of both.
Originally owned by abolitionist and German immigrant, Jacob Burkle, this home became one of the stops along the Underground railroad. A visit to this Antebellum home is a must. Visitors tour tunnels and trap doors used to hide runaway slaves.
The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange
Originally the trading floor of the cotton economy, this historic space is now open to the public. Here you will learn the story of cotton and the role it played in the history of Memphis.
Memphis Music Hall of Fame
While visiting iconic Beale Street, make sure to stop here for displays about the musicians of Memphis History. Here you will continue learning about some of the most influential black people in history. Then eat lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe for more memorabilia. Interesting fact: Riley King known as the Beale Street Blues Boy shortened this nickname to become the famous BB king.
Known as the birthplace of rock n roll, Elvis recorded his first song here at age 18. Legends such as B.B King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Howlin’ Wolf got their starts here. Sam Phillips opened the studio in 1950, and it still serves as a recording studio at night, while giving tours during the day.
You can read more about the Blues influence and history from these books you can purchase through these sponsored links:
Beale street is famous for its music clubs. Now is the time to enjoy some of this rich history of music icons such as Buddy Guy, BB King, Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie, and Louis Armstrong.
National Civil Rights Museum-Lorraine Motel
On the site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death now stands the National Civil Rights museum. Using numerous interactive exhibits, the museum retells the emotional story of 5 centuries of history.
This museum offers visitors the experience to hear the music, watch the videos, and read the stories about inductees. Displays showcase one of a kind memorabilia such as Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica, Otis Spann’s guitar, and Mavis Staples gown, to name a few.
Here are some sponsored links where you can purchase some of the classic music by these blues artists:
Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
Displays here feature instruments, costumes, artifacts, and photos tracing history from the Mississippi delta to this bustling city. Through a self guided tour you can learn music history while listening to 100 songs as well as viewing the displays.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Housed in a 17000 square foot space, this museum offers a comprehensive history of American Soul music. View vintage costumes, photographs, and records in addition to various memorabilia. Highlights include Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and James Brown among others.
Musicians come from various backgrounds, but music continues to bring people together because of its similar struggles. The blues was and is a source of motivation and hope.
Notes: I gathered information for this article from Wikipedia as well as information from the websites on the different venues.
In addition, it may not be politically correct, but I refer to these historical people as black rather than African American. These people have been discriminated against throughout our country’s history not for where they came from but for an arbitrary difference such as the color of their skin. Also, lumping everyone together as African Americans trivializes their heritage. Africa is a continent made up of many countries where the political borders do not coincide with the many rich cultures. In the words of a family member of mine, ” I know nothing about Africa. I can trace my ancestry back to the 1700s, and I am American.”
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