Some towns just don’t make the radar when it comes to a weekend visit. I’m afraid Memphis has that kind of reputation. Let me change your mind – you’re missing so much goodness.

Let’s focus on its significance in history. When you think of Memphis in history, you probably think of Elvis. If you’re older, Martin Luther King, Jr. may come to mind. While these two remarkable individuals alone make Memphis a historic destination, there’s so much to see. From all the way back to the early Native Americans all the way through the Civil Rights Era, history is present in this Tennessee city.

This trip will have a greater impact on your kids if you do a bit of learning ahead of time. With the Civil Rights Museum as a highlight, just focusing on reading books about this era in history will provide an excellent Black History base for your learning. For earlier history fighting against slavery, check out these excellent books about the abolitionists. To dive deeper, study picture book illustrator Kadir Nelson will add a few more names to your history list.

A Little History Lesson About Memphis

Positioned right on the mighty Mississippi River, Memphis is positioned for important events throughout history. Thousands of years ago, the Mississippian culture built their mound homes in the area, and the Chickasaw Nation settled in the area until this southwest Tennessee corner was purchased by the government. After European-American settlement, it became a strategic location for cotton transportation in the 1800s and was captured during the Civil War.

A decade later, it became the center of the Civil Rights Movement with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. This birthplace of rock and roll took on an important role as the hometown of Elvis Presley and with the development of the blues with its live music along Beale Street. Sounds like lots of good history lessons, right?

Getting off the bus while learning about the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the MLK Museum
Learning about the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the MLK Museum

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis

After all our family learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his role in the Civil Rights Movement, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel was the next logical stop. With the museum built around the site of Dr. King’s assassination, this top-notch museum is more than just MLK.

If you have time for only one Memphis museum, this is the must-see. It’s so well-done. As a bonus, even if you don’t have time to go into the museum, there is a lot of learning to be done just outside off the parking lot by reading the placards and seeing the infamous balcony. You don’t pay for admission until walking past the MLK memorial and into the museum. With easily accessible plaques to read along the pathway, at least spend thirty minutes for free honoring the man and history before continuing your trip.

This museum has a story to tell as you walk through the 1960s and all the main events including the Pettis March in Selma, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King’s Birmingham jail cell, and much more. When you’ve spent several hours here, head across the street for a quick visit to the assassins’ hideout.

If you’re headed south, plan to continue your story to visit other King sites along a history trip through Montgomery, Alabama, or Atlanta, Georgia. Leave time to either start or finish your trip to this museum by partaking in some Central BBQ across the street. Some say this is the best barbecue in town; others vote for Rendezvous. Why not try both during your short visit so you can make the decision yourself?

Outside the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in Downtown Memphis
Underground Railroad Museum in Downtown Memphis

Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum

According to tradition, Slave Haven was a stop on the Underground Railroad. In the basement, there’s a small passage in the rock wall is where escaped enslaved people would escape. After a short run to the nearby Mississippi River across the street, they would be free.

This museum has a bit of controversy because some would say the truth of this site is questionable. However, despite the skeptics, this museum is truly a passion project full of so much history. Since we learn best from other people’s interests, this is the place to go because every wall of the small house is lined with Black History through the centuries.

  • Messages through slave quilts
  • Authentic slavery artifacts
  • The Atlantic Slave Trade told through photographs and stories
  • Stories of famous runaway slaves and African American leaders
  • The story of the Underground Railroad

Definite truth? I pulled up to this museum to find no one else in the parking lot and almost left. In a tiny old house in a small neighborhood, it doesn’t look promising. However, don’t turn your back here. You will listen to an audio recording by the founder of the museum who knows and loves her history as she walks you through the halls. After all, there also isn’t a way to disprove the history of the house so why not believe it? Support the little museums; you don’t have to be big and fancy to get support.

two kids digging and filtering Indian artifacts in the kids area of the Archeology at the Chucalissa Museum
First Hand Archeology at the Chucalissa Museum

Chucalissa Indian Mounds Near Memphis

The C.H. Nash Museum at Prehistoric Chucalissa Archeological Site is another hidden treasure in the Memphis area. Operated by the University of Memphis, this is more than just another Indian mound site. Believed to have been constructed between 1000 and 1500 A.D., this Mississippian mound site has platform mounds which would have been used for ceremonies and the houses of high-ranking people in their culture.

The highlight of this trip for us is all the archeology. After seeing all the artifacts in the museum, there is an amazing archeology study area which, while probably targeted to kids, has so much for all ages. Compare pottery, learn about the weapons, make your own observations… If you have kids who love history or want to make history come alive, this unassuming museum is a must. With all our travels, I have never seen this depth of archeology to spark interest in my kids. We stayed for hours.

If these Native American mounds have sparked your interest, plan a trip to check out the best place we’ve visited just east of St. Louis at the Cahokia Mounds.

A Reconstructed mud and thatch Native American House at Chucalissa in Memphis
A Reconstructed Native American House at Chucalissa in Memphis

The Memphis National Cemetery

Before you leave town, take some time to drive the family through the Memphis National Cemetery in the northeast part of Memphis to pay honor to those who died while making history. With more than 40,000 graves that date back to the Civil War, there are plenty of stories to learn here. Take the time to learn about the tragedy of the Sultana when more than 1,500 rescued Union prisoners of war drowned on their way back north.

Looking at all the white stone graves while Remembering veterans at the Memphis National Cemetery
Remembering at the Memphis National Cemetery

Once you feel thoroughly pushed into history, take some time to have some fun in downtown Memphis. Be watching for my post about a family-friendly day on Memphis’ Beale Street and the downtown area. Don’t forget that music history is important too!

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