Major Events and Figures in Black History in Memphis

Although national Black History Month is celebrated in February, Memphis enjoys its diverse African American heritage all year long through a variety of attractions, museums, and historic sites. Over the last several decades, a number of prominent African Americans have made their homes here; likewise, there have been some major events in black history that took place right here in Memphis.

If you're visiting Memphis during February—or you just want to experience a bit of the city's rich black history heritage any time of year—there are plenty of places worth exploring during your trip. The National Civil Rights Museum, the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum inside the historic Burkle Estate, and the Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange are all excellent destinations; you can also explore the rich cultural legacy created by prominent black artists at places like the Ernest Withers Collection, the Blue Hall of Fame, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and the W.C. Handy Home and Museum.

No matter where you go in the city, you're sure to find the influence black Americans played in the establishment of our nation and the creation of the culture of Memphis. However, it's also important to understand the historical events and people that helped shape the city throughout history. The following list details the biggest players and events in Black History in Memphis over the last 100 years.

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    Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    National Civil Rights Museum

    April 4, 1968, was certainly one of the darkest days in Memphis' history. On that day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. This crime was a blow to not only the city, but to the nation as a whole. In 1991, however, the city opened the National Civil Rights Museum at the site of King's assassination. In 2014, the museum underwent a multi-million dollar renovation and reopened.

  • 02 of 06
    GettyImages/Daniel Knighton

    Riley B. King, better known as B.B. King, was an African-American blues musician who came into fame right here in Memphis. His innovative style quickly turned him into a local and then national success. He has influenced many musicians who came after him and his music continues to be a familiar presence on Beale Street and beyond. His legacy lives on even after his passing in 2015. Third Street has been renamed "B.B. King Boulevard" in his honor.

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    Al Green

    Al Green is one of the most famous ministers in Memphis. Before that, he was one of the most popular soul singers of the 70s. His contributions to R&B, gospel, and soul are still evident today and his ministry at the Full Gospel Tabernacle continues to thrive.

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    W.C. Handy

    If there is any question about W.C. Handy's contribution to the music industry, just consider his nickname: The Father of the Blues. This name is a testament to Handy's influence and he is credited with developing the blues genre as we know it today. Because his first and most famous hit, "Memphis Blues," was written right here in the Bluff City, we pay homage to Handy with a statue in his honor, a park with his name, and other tributes.
    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Robert Church

    (c) 2006 Teresa R. Simpson, Licensed to About.com, Inc.
    Robert Church made significant contributions to the advancement of civil rights--decades before there was a widespread civil rights movement. Known as the south's first black millionaire, Church was a skilled businessman and community leader. He founded Church Park and Auditorium which soon became a gathering place for the African-American community. Today, the park is enjoyed by people of all races.
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    Bishop Charles Mason is another of the most famous ministers in Memphis. He was born to former slaves in 1866 but went on to become the founder of the Church of God in Christ. The C.O.G.I.C. is the largest Pentecostal denomination and the fifth largest Christian denomination in the United States. As such, its presence is felt strongly across Memphis as the church's headquarters are located here.