by Aimee Edmondson, AJHA President
My countdown to Memphis has begun.
After two years of virtual meetings, the AJHA officers and conference personnel have made the decision to hold an in-person conference this year. Our 41st annual convention will be held from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 at the Sheraton Memphis Downtown.
The Memphis conference originally was scheduled for October 2020 but was moved online due to the pandemic, as you no doubt are aware. The AJHA did not incur a financial penalty when we agreed to move the in-person Memphis conference back two years in what we anticipated would be a post-pandemic environment. Like other scholarly associations, AJHA must plan conferences years in advance to secure enough hotel rooms and meeting spaces. The contract for the Memphis conference, of course, was signed long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. In 2022, vaccines, COVID testing, and COVID treatments are widely available, so hopefully infection numbers will remain low this fall as we fulfill this contractual obligation with the hotel.
A Memphis convention in person. What a treat. We are resuming our face-to-face interactions in a town with so much rich and relevant history. Whether you are interested in civil rights history or music history or both, conference attendees would do well to arrive in the Bluff City a day or two early or plan to stay late in order to take in the many historical attractions, and of course, barbecue, while you’re there.
I lived in Memphis for almost a decade in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and so much has changed about the city and the news landscape since my own newsroom days at The Commercial Appeal. There were 100 reporters in that sprawling, glassy, five-story news building that we called “495 Union,” between downtown and midtown. I can’t wait to return to some of my old haunts and discover a few new ones with my AJHA friends and colleagues.
Soul burgers at Earnestine and Hazel’s anyone?
As you ponder submitting papers, panel proposals and research-in-progress abstracts, let me tempt you a bit more with a few recommendations on sights, sounds and eats from a (former) Memphis local.
National Civil Rights Museum (Aimee Edmondson)
The National Civil Rights Museum is not to be missed, of course, even for locals. And while the conference’s organizers are still planning the Friday afternoon historic tour, the museum attached to the iconic Lorraine Motel will most certainly be on the itinerary. You can walk through the hotel room where Martin Luther King Jr. was staying on that fateful night, and even linger on the balcony where he spent his final moments. The newest section of the museum is across the street in the boarding house where James Earl Ray fired the shot that killed King on April 4, 1968. The museum complex, though, covers civil rights history from the 17th century to present, so allow yourself plenty of time to take it all in.
Our hotel, the Sheraton, is in a fantastic location – right on the pedestrian-friendly Main Street with a trolley loop running down Main to a stop next to the trendy, revitalized South Main Arts District, which is chock full of galleries, shops and restaurants. South Main’s classic good looks were the draw for the filming of such Hollywood movies as Walk the Line, Hustle and Flow and Great Balls of Fire. But it was probably Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 Indy film Mystery Train that jumpstarted movie makers’ love affair with Memphis.
From Main Street, you can’t miss the screaming neon of historic Beale Street, which got its start in the 1840s as a vibrant Black commercial district that has since turned into a major landmark for blues aficionados. You can catch a show most any night of the week at one of the many venues with doors wide open to revelers. I once saw B.B. King and his guitar Lucille at his music club on Beale. Now that was a thrill.
Sun Studio (Shutterstock via Aimee Edmondson)
Memphis produced so many music greats, and you probably know most of them by heart: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Roy Orbison, and, of course, Rufus Thomas. If this speaks to your soul, make time for a tour of the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio on the edge of downtown. Two other fantastic music museums are the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. The latter is a Smithsonian affiliate with permanent exhibits tracing the history of blues, rock and soul music from its roots in African-American folk songs to modern day. Stax pays tribute to the legendary musicians who first laid down that Memphis sound, and even includes Isaac Hayes’ custom 1972 Cadillac Eldorado.
If you haven’t seen Elvis’ Jungle Room, now’s your chance. The opulent, colonial-style Graceland is one of the most-visited homes in the country, second only to the White House. There are whole rooms of music memorabilia, and you can even walk through the Lisa Marie, the jet that Elvis bought from Delta Airlines in 1975, refurbished and named after his daughter.
Peabody ducks (Erika Pribanic-Smith)
The downtown skyline at night is always a favorite with the swirling, swift-running gravy that is the mighty Mississippi River. It serves as the foreground for a setting sun over Arkansas to the west. Catch that view with a cocktail from the famous Peabody Hotel with its equally famous ducks, whose fancy evening digs remain situated on the roof. If you like quirky, catch the duck parade from the rooftop, down the elevator and into the ornate fountain in the luxurious lobby, where those lucky ducks get to spend all of their days. Set your clocks on it, 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., and those ducks will march on a red carpet while tourists snap photos like paparazzi.
On the other side of downtown, you might take an elevator up the 32-story glass and steel Pyramid arena which opened, unbelievably, as a Bass Pro superstore, complete with an indoor, alligator-infested swamp. Hard to believe it, but the University of Memphis basketball team used to play in here when I was in school, as did the NBA team the Grizzlies before the FedEx Forum was built over by Beale Street. The Pyramid has been a distinctive part of the skyline since it was built in 1991, paying homage to the city’s namesake in Egypt, known for its ancient pyramids, of course. The sports arena was refurbished in 2015 and includes what seems like acres of sporting goods, a hotel, restaurants, an archery range and even an open-air bar and observation deck at the pyramid’s apex.
An uber ride to nearby Midtown will get you to the hip Cooper-Young area and nearby Overton Square. There are some great restaurants and shopping in this part of town (see some recommendations below). The recently revitalized Crosstown Building – which was a hulking ruin of a 1920s Sears building when I lived in Memphis – has been reopened as an arty “mixed use urban village.” Also in Midtown, big beautiful houses in Central Gardens are worth a swoon. And if you are into checking out cool residential areas, Mud Island is a great spot for a stroll along the river or through the pedestrian-friendly streets.
Memphis might be the home of Fred Smith’s FedEx, Kemmons Wilson’s Holiday Inn, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, all on the world map. But, besides the history, I’m ready to talk food.
Here are some of my favorites:
Rendezvous ribs (Shelby L. Bell/CC BY 2.0)
I’m a sucker for the atmosphere and especially the dry rub at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous. This Memphis landmark opened in a downtown alley in 1948, and locals and tourists alike line up for sausage and cheese plates, slabs of those dry-rubbed ribs and ice cold beer. (I know some of you will argue with me on this – I’m looking forward to the barbecue debate!)
Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q on Third Street south of downtown is my favorite spot for a pulled pork sandwich. The menu is huge and the service is friendly.
Payne’s Bar-B-Que on Lamar has been around forever, and like Interstate, it’s in a simple cinderblock building that’s all part of the authentic charm. Order everything on the menu.
The Bar-B-Q Shop on Madison. Oh, the ribs, and that sauce!
Cozy Corner on Parkway– We used to head to this famous eatery at lunch time during my newsroom days. Get the smoked Cornish hen. This is more smoked meat than barbecue, but there’s plenty of that too. The strip mall housing this family restaurant has seen better days, but it’s authentically Memphis. There was a fire at Cozy Corner, so hopefully they’ll be back up and running by fall.
Other good eats:
The Four Way is a meat-and-three restaurant on Mississippi Boulevard in South Memphis. Built in 1946, it has served up soul food to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Aretha Franklin and B.B. King.
Abyssinia is an Ethiopian restaurant on Poplar in Midtown. It was close to my house and one of my go-to eateries when I was too tired to make dinner after covering a marathon Memphis City School Board meeting.
Kwik Check on Madison near Overton Square. If you want an amazing sandwich, this convenience store is the place. The international menu inspired with Korean, Greek and other influences was a staple in my diet for many years. You can dine in, but Overton Park and the lovely area around the Memphis Zoo would make for a perfect picnic spot just down the street.
The Beauty Shop is my favorite spot in the Cooper Young area of Midtown. Chef Karen Carrier created this hip, funky spot in, you guessed it, and old beauty shop. The vintage hair-dryer chairs are still there, and it’s hard to beat the voodoo stew. I hope they still serve those roasted turkey legs with mole sauce. After dinner, head next door to Bar DKDC for cocktails and live music.
Sage is a chic upscale restaurant specializing in soul food fusion spot on South Main. Try the blackened catfish.
Global Café is an international food hall in the old Crosstown building that has a rotating menu from immigrant foodies who are proud to show off the cuisine of their home countries. While you are in this neighborhood, check out the Art Bar, which displays the work of different artists each month. It’s one of several galleries in this renovated and enormous space.
Earnestine & Hazel’s on Main is a dive bar with a great burger.
For breakfast, go with biscuits and gravy at Bryant’s on Summer Avenue or Sunrise Memphis on Jefferson. Another good brunch spot is The Liquor Store in the Broad Avenue Arts District in Midtown. Sounds weird, I know, but the restaurant is in what used to be a liquor store that’s now a cool retro diner with a full bar and vintage neon.
If you are looking for a beer tour, Memphis is your spot. Ghost River Brewing has a taproom on Main with a food truck scene and another bar on Beale. Wiseacre sprouted up in the Broad Avenue Arts District and was the first brewery in Tennessee to can its beer. There’s a newer taproom on downtown on B.B. Boulevard, and you can make reservations for a tour and tasting. Bosco’s Restaurant and Brewing Company was among the first brew-your-own establishments in Memphis back in my day, and there’s good pizza at this Overton Square eatery.
Other nonfood faves:
The National Ornamental Metals Museum was originally a hospital campus built to treat civil war patients that later served as a research center to work toward a yellow fever cure. The pastoral spot overlooking the river south of downtown now has working smithy and foundry (blacksmith shop) on site as well as more than 3,000 pieces of art in its permanent collection. There are artist metalsmiths on site, and the more than three-acre museum site includes a sculpture garden and lovely gazebo that has become popular for weddings.
The Center for Southern Folklore is part night club, museum, coffee shop and bar. Listen to live music and check out the photo exhibits and local folk art. The spot is just south of our hotel on Main. There’s not a regular music schedule and the bar is only open on weekends, but it’s worth checking out to see what’s going on.
Otherlands Coffee Bar on South Cooper has a cool hippie vibe, great coffee and gift shop.
After all this eating and drinking, consider heading to Shelby Farms for a walk or bike ride. There’s also a rails-to-trails project that connects Midtown to Shelby Farms park about 12 miles out to the bedroom community of Cordova.