South City

Five sites you may not know about along the Memphis Heritage Trail

The National Civil Rights Museum and Beale Street cannot contain all of Memphis' cultural heritage. An innovative project, the Memphis Heritage Trail, brings the history of Memphis' streets and structures from South Memphis to Orange Mound to life through art installations and signage.
The National Civil Rights Museum and Beale Street cannot contain all of Memphis' cultural heritage. That heritage permeates the streets of Downtown and stretches as far as Orange Mound.

Many neighborhoods and businesses, especially those located just south of Downtown, are integral to Memphis' overall narrative of African-American history. And yet, South Memphis is burdened with vacant lots, substandard housing, a high poverty rate and a negative public perception.

Backers of the Memphis Heritage Trail want to connect those who are drawn to gems like Beale Street and the National Civil Rights Museum to the greater grid of sites of African-American significance.

R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home on Vance Avenue is a black-owned, multi-generational business most notable for preparing Dr. King's body for burial.
"What's unique about the Memphis Heritage Trail is that it encompasses Downtown and parts of South Memphis. One has been heavily invested and on the other side of our boundary has not been invested in as much," said Felicia Harris, project manager of the Memphis Heritage Trail, a development project housed at City of Memphis Department of Housing and Community Development.

The trail, which reinterprets 7.2 miles of territory in Memphis, is categorized by sections. The boundaries of the district are Beale Street to the north, Crump Boulevard to the south, Walnut Street to the east and Main Street to the west.

"We present them in one collective story," Harris added.

The civil rights loop includes major sites such as Clayborn Temple, a gathering spot for organizers of the 1968 sanitation workers strike, which drew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis. The adjacent business-entertainment historic loop contains sites such as the Orpheum Theater and W.C. Handy Park. The historic commerce loop contains important businesses owned by African-Americans, such as the Universal Life Insurance building and Solvent Savings Bank.

The largest area of the Memphis Heritage Trail is the historic residential loop. Here, sites such Booker T. Washington High School and Foote Homes are highlighted. Both of those sites are anchors of the upcoming South City redevelopment, which will replace the 80-year-old Foote Homes housing complex with mixed-income housing and strengthen the surrounding grid with neighborhood assets, such as a grocery store.

The Memphis Heritage Trail project was instrumental in the City of Memphis' securing of a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to support the South City project.

"As the community comes back, we want to never forget where we have come from and those shoulders that we stand on as citizens of the city," said Harris.

"But also, (we intend to) to use the history to tell the story, to engage the future and educate residents about the neighborhood and keep those historical and cultural assets and use them as opportunities to do creative placemaking around the arts and education curriculum."

The bust of Robert Church, a black entrepreneur, businessman and landowner in Memphis, sits in the Downtown park that bears his name.

Local and federal funds support specific efforts of the Memphis Heritage Trail, such as installing signage by the end of the fall and creating an app to bring the hidden history of Memphis' streets to life. Priority projects related to the civil rights loop will be completed before the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination in April 1968.

More than 50 points of cultural significance make up the Memphis Heritage Trail. Below are a few unsung examples that contribute to Memphis' rich narrative of African-American history.

R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home

R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home is located within a well-kept house on Vance Avenue. The business has been operating continuously since 1914, but it is best known for preparing Dr. Martin Luther King's body for burial after he was assassinated in 1968. The Lewis family, led by Robert Lewis Jr., also held a wake and memorial service for Dr. King, an event that drew hundreds to the two-story building.

R.S. Lewis & Sons, a historic African-American owned business, is still in operation today.

"In respect to the civil rights loop, we hope it tells the story in the way that it has not been told before. Much of what people know about Memphis when they think about civil rights is Dr. King coming here, but what brought him here is important. The neighborhoods, as well as the businesses and music, played off each other to create the soul of Memphis," Harris added.

The patriarch of the family, Robert Lewis Sr., was a significant benefactor of African-American cultural assets. In the 1920s, Lewis owned the Memphis Red Sox, a Negro American League baseball team. The team had its own field, Martin Stadium on Crump Boulevard, which was a rare asset for African-American baseball leagues. Even more rare was the instance of a black family owning a Negro American League baseball team and its related stadium. The 3,000-person stadium, also known as Lewis Park, was demolished in the mid-20th century following the dissolution of the Memphis Red Sox.

St. Paul Historic District

The St. Paul Avenue Historic District is tucked away south of Crump Boulevard. The stretch of homes covering 751-53 St. Paul Avenue; 775-77 St. Paul Avenue and 558 Boyd Street represent residential architecture dating back to 1875.

A view of the St. Paul Avenue Historic District.

The single-family homes, many of which are still inhabited, represent notable examples of Queen Anne mansions as well as Colonial Revival and Craftsman-style architecture. Today, residents enjoy the nearby St. Paul Avenue community garden, which is a plot of herbs and vegetables maintained by Advance Memphis and Memphis Tilth.

The historical residential loop highlights the architecture and historic residences such as those of A. Maceo Walker, Ida B. Wells and the Hooks Family.

The Withers Collection

The Memphis Heritage Trail represents one of the most concentrated collections of museums in Memphis. Within walking distance of each other are the National Civil Rights Museum, the Cotton Museum, the W.C. Handy House, the Blues Foundation, Memphis Music Hall of Fame, the Memphis Railroad, the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum and the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery.

A Beale Street visitor is reflected in the window of the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery.

The Withers Collection, located at 333 Beale Street, contains 7,000 square feet of Memphis history as told through the lens of photojournalist Dr. Ernest Withers. As a notable photographer during the Civil Rights Era, Withers provides a glimpse into the city of Memphis from 60 years ago. The building where the gallery stands was the site of Withers' final working studio.

Robert R. Church Park

To those who aren't familiar with the underground history, Robert R. Church Park is a patch of land punctuated by a curious sculpture that resembles the frame of a house.

Robert Church, a self-made millionaire born to enslaved parents, built the park to serve black Memphians at the turn of the 20th century. Black Memphians were not allowed in city parks at the time, and Church spared no expense in creating a green space and open-air amphitheater that drew notable speakers to Memphis.

Robert Church Park, located Downtown next to Beale Street Baptist Church, is about to get a massive facelift.

The frame-like structure is an homage to the long-demolished amphitheater. Over the next couple of years, the park is set to undergo another renovation that will further highlight Church's contributions to Memphis. Those additions could include interactive elements, an amphitheater and a historic plaza. 

"The thought is to bring it back to its full fruition of what it was meant to be to the community at one point," Harris said.

"We want to make it park destination for both residents and tourists to enjoy because of its location to historic Beale Street and historic First Baptist Beale and its proximity to other major things such as Clayborn Temple and Universal Life building."

Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.