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Tennessee offers the chance to learn about the struggles and triumphs of African Americans who helped to shape and build our country.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail connects you to more than 100 locations in 14 states that played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Tennessee has 14 stops along the trail that tell the stories of the brave men and women who brought words to action through peaceful protests and legal actions to secure their American civil rights. You can follow their footsteps through Memphis, to Nashville and end in the quiet but historically significant town of Clinton in East Tennessee to hear the stories of foot soldiers and learn the history of Tennessee’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Memphis and Surrounding Areas
The boyhood home of famed author Alex Haley, who penned the groundbreaking novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, is located in Henning. "Roots," which was made into a landmark TV miniseries in 1977, was inspired by family stories young Alex heard on the porch of the home. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Haley is buried on the grounds. The inside of the home has been restored to the way it looked in 1921 when Haley was born; exhibits feature his work, childhood memorabilia and references to the people who inspired the characters in "Roots."
This one-of-a-kind Memphis museum is built around the former Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. The motel sits on more than four acres that make up the National Civil Rights Museum. Visitors can trace the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the 17th century to the present.
Once known by many as a stop on the Underground Railroad, Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum tells the stories of the people who were traded and sold in Memphis. you can descend into the dark, damp cellar and peer through the trap doors and hidden passageways where slaves looking for a free life were harbored. Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum is temporarily closed. Follow their website for updates and reopening dates.
Experience the story of Stax Records, one of the most famous recording studios in the world, through interactive exhibitions and artifacts at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The museum shares how creative individuals came together to write, record and produce some of the best soul music in Memphis, regardless of skin color or background. The hall of records where the walls are lined floor-to-ceiling with albums and singles released by Stax gives guests a tangible view of the large impact Stax had on the world's music.
Known as The Queen of Rock ‘n' Roll, Tina Turner was born in Nutbush – which she later made famous with her hit song, "Nutbush City Limits." She attended school in a one-room schoolhouse located in Brownsville – one of the first schools built in the South for African-Americans. Visitors to the Tina Turner Museum at Flagg Grove School, located on the grounds of the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, can explore the largest known public collection of Tina costumes and memorabilia.
Dunbar Carver Museum is located on the site of the former Carver High School, and tells the stories of African American life in Haywood County through events associated with the more than a century-old existence of the Dunbar-Haywood County Training Center-Carver High School.
Now an official Tennessee stop on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery is a must-see when in Memphis. Ernest Withers made his name as a freelance photographer documenting the segregated South through iconic black-and-white images. Born in Memphis, Withers also traveled with Martin Luther King, Jr. The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery shows a glimpse into the past through more than 60 years of photographs that depict African Americans' discrimination and struggles.
Nashville and Surrounding Areas
The National Museum of African American Music is the only museum dedicated to preserving the and celebrating the music genres that were created, inspired or influenced by African Americans. With interactive exhibits, including a sound booth where you can test your own musical talents, the museum brings to life the music legends of past and present. You can easily spend a few hours going through the exhibits that touch on genres like jazz, blues, rap and pop and tell the stories of renowned artists like Isaac Hayes, Beyonce, Rihanna and Bessie Smith.
Presented in partnership with Fisk University's John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, the Tennessee State Museum has a temporary, community-focused exhibit on display now through Feb. 25, 2024 that highlights the work of alumni, descendants and organizations to preserve the legacies of Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee. Rosenwald Schools drove improvement in Black educational attainment and helped educate those who would later become Civil Rights Movement leaders. "Building a Bright Future: Black Communities and Rosenwald Schools in Tennessee" traces the history of education for Black Tennesseans, the work of Black leaders to improve educational opportunities and explores the partnerships between community entities like the Freedmen's Bureau.
The McLemore House, purchased by ex-slave Harvey McLemore in 1880, was a model of community development in Hard Bargain, the first African American middle class neighborhood in Franklin that consisted of carpenters, teachers, masons and farmers. The house now serves as a museum that promotes cultural and historical preservation, celebrating the rich African American heritage of Franklin and Williamson County.
After visiting the McLemore House, head to Franklin's historic Main Street where you can find five historical markers that share Franklin's full history that acknowledge the terrible events of the past and the "March to Freedom" statue which honors U.S. Colored Troops, one of only six statues of its kind in the U.S. and the first in the nation located in a public square.
The first African American community established in Dickson County, Tennessee, Promise Land was established by freedmen during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. Freedmen were the only residents, sheltering its community from the Jim Crow South. Up until 1881, there were a few families but they began to organize as a community when Arch and John Nesbitt - brothers who served as U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War - donated land for a church and school. In addition to these buildings, Promise Land also had several stores, so the community was largely self-contained. You can see the school on the Civil War Trails that journeys through the state, and explore downtown Charlotte today.
An unlikely friendship created maybe the greatest story you’ve never heard, told at Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville. Tour the distillery and taste Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, which honors the world’s first-known African American master distiller, Nearest Green, who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. Be sure to stay for local cuisine, Sunday Brunch or a cocktail at Humble Baron, the world’s longest bar, where everyone has a seat at the table.
Knoxville and Surrounding Areas
The Beck Cultural Center is one of the most extensive in African American history. From cultural and scientific achievements to postal stamps through the years that have honored African Americans like Ralph Bunche and Martin Luther King, Jr., you can see the vast ways African Americans have influenced political and social culture.
Learn about the courageous story of the Clinton 12 at the Green McAdoo Cultural Center, one of the stops in Tennessee on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. Step inside a 1950s classroom and see what life was like under "Jim Crow" laws. Follow the chronological story of the desegregation of the Clinton High School with life-size photographs and narratives.
The Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga promotes and preserves African American culture, history and arts. Learn the life and musical accomplishments of Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues." Education and entertainment collide to provide a venue of history and art for its visitors.
Explore even more African American history that can be found throughout Tennessee.