Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Ernest C. Withers took the photos of a disfigured Emmett Till that were published in Jet magazine in 1955. The photos were taken by David Jackson.
I live in St. Louis, so naturally I’ve been to Graceland: The Memphis monument to Elvis Presley is less than 300 miles away. But recently I decided to hit the road and explore more of what the city has to offer: that is, Memphis beyond Graceland. During a weekend visit, I found art, history, urban cool, good food — and a bit more Elvis.
My first stop, as I crossed the Hernando DeSoto Bridge late Friday afternoon: Beale Street. But not for its legendary music. It was barely 5 p.m. when I arrived, and the party-hopping and music-playing had yet to get started.
Rather, I was headed for the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery, which had opened just an hour prior. The space is home to the black-and-white works of photographer Ernest C. Withers, known for shooting some of the most iconic moments of the 20th century in the mid-South. He regularly stood side by side with Martin Luther King Jr., capturing many candid moments.
The gallery showcases those photos as well as many depicting the general life and culture of Memphis. Concert photos of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Isaac Hayes dot the walls in a separate section of the gallery. All photos on view are available for purchase, but if you don’t want to spend $50 for a print, there are postcards for $3 each.
I decided to shun the pricey hotels of downtown and stay at the Pilgrim House Hostel, in Midtown Memphis’s funky Cooper-Young neighborhood. The hostel is the only one in the city and is inside the First Congregational Church, better known to locals as “First Congo.” Bed prices are just $25 a night for a single, with male, female and coed dorms, plus private rooms that sleep up to three people and go for $55 a night. Upon check-in, I was given a tour of the place and directed to the 10-person-capacity female dorm.
I picked a bed, made it up with linens from the nearby closet and took in my quiet surroundings.
For dinner, I decided to poke around nearby Overton Square and ended up going to Belly Acres, a family-friendly burger-focused restaurant that boasts nearly every type of meat option for customizing your meal. As I dove into my bison burger (on a whole-wheat bun, with spinach, red onion and sauteed mushrooms) and fries, savoring every bite, I prepared for tomorrow’s day of museum-hopping. First stop: the National Civil Rights Museum.
Originally opened in 1991, the museum was built around the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. I visited the museum for the first time in 2009 and was awed by the weight of the history encapsulated in the complex. In 2012, the museum underwent an extensive renovation, and I arrived bright and early to see the results for myself.
A lot has been added: touch-screen maps, for example, and new or enhanced exhibits, including “The Children Shall Lead Them: Birmingham 1963,” where visitors can enter a jail cell and hear King read his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” But the old exhibits remain even more powerful.
The museum pays homage to the many heroes in the movement whose names you may have heard only once or twice (Claudette Colvin, the 16-year-old who was originally picked to be the face of the Montgomery bus boycott until it was revealed that she was pregnant; the students at the all-female Bennett College who participated in the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C.). It also uses video to break down, point by point, the steps that led to landmark moments, such as Brown v. Board of Education. When you reach Room 306 in the motel, the final exhibit in the self-guided tour through the museum, the hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” King’s favorite, can be heard wafting through the area.
The museum has painstakingly replicated the way the room looked the day King was shot when he stepped out onto its balcony. Directly across the street is the rooming house from which James Earl Ray fired the fatal bullet. As it is now a part of history, that building, too, is part of the museum experience.
After my emotional visit to the Civil Rights Museum, I needed a change of pace. I found it in the Dixon Gallery & Gardens, located in East Memphis. The mansion-turned-museum is the former home of Hugo and Margaret Dixon, philanthropists who left their home, garden and art collection to be turned into a museum open to the public.
The Dixons passed away in 1974, and their house, which has since been built out extensively to accommodate the accoutrements a museum needs, opened to the public two years later.
The collection is filled with works by Degas, Renoir, Matisse and Rodin. (You can’t even get in the front door without encountering Rodin’s sculpture “The Three Shades.”) The museum also hosts rotating exhibitions and work by local artists, as well as an extensive collection of Meissen china and French and German porcelain from the Warda Stevens Stout Collection.
I contemplated Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life,” a series of four paintings. The first three depict a man on a boat at various stages of life, followed and protected by a guardian angel. In the final canvas, the angel turns to greet the man as his boat drifts toward the afterlife, and he welcomes the bright light with a smile on his face.
How ethereal and serene, I thought, to be happy to leave after a life well lived. I was equally captivated by the girl in Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Dancer Seated on a Pink Divan” and sympathized with her apparent frustration and fatigue.
I grabbed a catfish lunch at Soul Fish Cafe and then tried a different sort of museum: the National Ornamental Metal Museum. It’s a veritable overflow of all types of metal — aluminum, pewter, steel, lead, iron — in every form possible: gates, bowls, jewelry, sculptures. You name it, they can melt it.
The museum comprises two houses: One is for traveling exhibitions, the other for the permanent collection and research facility. While passing between them, I caught an amazing view of the Mississippi River. There is also a blacksmith shop and other metalworking facilities and staff on site for serious metal artists to hone their craft. I found myself both entertained by the many works and envious that I didn’t have the ability (or patience, let’s be honest) to master such a skill.
In a special section of the gallery, “Contemporary Classics,” the exhibition showcased a selection of handbags, clutches and cross-body purses. Upstairs in the same building, the 2015 Taiwan International Metal Crafts Competition showed off a wide selection of items, including teacups, intricately created rings, bowls — and bugs, if you can picture it. If I had to choose, I’d take my creepy-crawlies in metal any day of the week.
As the day began its descent into evening, I couldn’t help but feel a bit melancholy. Had I seen enough? Had my traveling spirit been truly shaken? Not yet — and I knew just the place to end my day. Turns out a taste of the King was just what I needed.
Sun Studio draws all types of tourists: the serious Elvis-philes who want to see the first establishment to sign and record the King; the rock historians who know that not just Elvis but also Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all laid tracks at Sun and that the studio was where the historic photo of the four (dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet) gathered around a piano was taken; and at-home Memphians, who know that soul and blues greats such as Rufus Thomas, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters and others are just as integral to this story of modern-day music. The studio is still in operation, and people can rent it for recording sessions , an opportunity taken in recent years by artists including Maroon 5 and U2 (the latter of which even left behind their drum kit, which is prominently displayed in the studio).
The tour, which starts at the bottom half of every hour through 5:30 p.m., takes visitors through the upstairs, which has been set up as its own hall of fame. We were greeted by a large shot of founder Sam Phillips, followed by youthful photos of musical greats, such as “Rocket 88” singer Jackie Brenston, Wolf and Turner (whose eyeliner is so well done in his photos that one marvels at the precision). Our enthusiastic guide gave a fun tour, interspersed with anecdotes and sound clips from Brenston and Wolf and the broadcast from the day that radio DJ Dewey Phillips played Elvis’s song “That’s All Right” on his “Red, Hot & Blue” radio show, marking the first time Presley’s music hit the airwaves.
Then we headed down to the studio itself, where the guide simulated Elvis’s recording of “That’s All Right” by getting three of the tourists to play air instruments and another to grab Elvis’s original mic and sing along. The exercise left us all in a jovial mood, and I felt satisfied and filled with a heap of Memphis culture from all angles — the music, the history, the arts, the community — and the food.
The next morning, I rose early, stripped my bed and bade goodbye to my hostel space, giving a silent thank you to the four suitemates who were so kind as to turn off the lights early the night before while they were all still awake. As I prepared to hit the highway, I checked Instagram and learned that in my absence St. Louis had become even colder and was dusted with snow, with more on the way. I gritted my teeth, buckled up and rode out, into the coming storm.
Williams is a freelance writer in St. Louis.
Pilgrim House Hostel
1000 Cooper St.
Hostel accommodates individual and group travelers. Breakfast is also provided. With taxes, rates are $27.31 per person for a shared bunk (female bunk fits up to 10, male bunk up to six and shared bunk up to 14) and $60.09 for a private room, which sleeps up to three people.
2102 Trimble Pl.
Farm-fresh burgers including bison, turkey and other various patties. Entrees start at $7.50 for a custom burger.
Soul Fish Cafe
4720 Poplar Ave.
The cafe has three locations in Memphis that serve fried catfish, tilapia, salmon, trout, po’ boys and more. A two-piece fried catfish basket starts at $11.75.
Withers Collection Museum & Gallery
333 Beale St.
Museum features a collection of images from noted Memphis photographer Ernest Withers, including photos from the civil rights movement and live music performances spanning several decades. Open Wednesday and Thursday 4-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4-11 p.m. and Sunday 4-9 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Admission is $10; $7 for students 18 and younger or with ID; and free for military, seniors and children 5 and younger.
Dixon Gallery & Gardens
4339 Park Ave.
An art museum and public garden space featuring French and American impressionist paintings and German and English porcelain. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 1-5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Admission is $7, $5 for seniors and students with ID, $3 for ages 7-17, free for educators and children 6 and younger.
National Ornamental Metal Museum
374 Metal Museum Dr.
Museum solely focuses on metal as an art and craft and educational tool. Metalworking facilities and library also located on the museum grounds. Admission is $6; $5 for seniors, active military and veterans; $4 for students with ID and ages 5-18; age 4 and younger free.
706 Union Ave.
Historic recording studio known for signing Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and many other famous artists. Open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tours are given at the bottom half of every hour 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. for $12. Free for ages 5-11. Kids younger than 5 are not permitted on the tour.
National Civil Rights Museum
450 Mulberry St.
The museum traces the history of the civil rights movement in the United States from the 17th century to the present. Open Wednesday-Monday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. Admission is $15, $14 for seniors and students with ID, $12 for ages 4-17, age 3 and younger free. Open until 6 p.m. from the Friday of Memorial Day through Labor Day.