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Take a Road Trip Through Tennessee's Black History

From Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of civil rights protests in Memphis to the group of 12 students in Clinton who attended the first integrated public high school in a segregated South, Tennessee’s history is fraught with tales of sit-ins and non-violent marches, punctuated by stories of heroism and fights for equal rights. As Black History Month kicks into gear, here’s an overview of some of the more pivotal moments in Tennessee Black history—even if you only have a day to explore, you’ll find plenty to see and learn in the South Central region and its neighboring counties.

Start your education in Memphis

For those traveling from west to east, any Tennessee road trip that starts in Memphis will offer key insight into the state’s early Black history, with fundamental spots along the Underground Railroad like Slave Haven open to the public. Blocks from the Mississippi River, iconic blues spots like W.C. Handy Home and Museum thrum right on bustling Beale Street, with Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Blues Hall of Fame Museum rounding out the bigger picture of Black history in the region and their impact on the zeitgeist of American music.

Photo: Kristin Luna / Odinn Media

Spending a day at the site of Dr. King’s assassination—the Lorraine Motel which, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum—is crucial. For those on a time crunch, A Tour of Possibilities is the best way to get a feel for Memphis’ Black history in just an afternoon’s time, but it’s also easy enough to self-guide your way around the city in search of historical understanding and deeper knowledge of the events that shaped the state over the past two centuries.

photo: Kristin Luna / Odinn Media

Learn about the Battle of Spring Hill at Rippa Villa

Heading east along the interstate from Memphis, you’ll get off on I-840 and find yourself at the crossroads of Maury and Williamson counties and the home of Rippa Villa. Managed by the Battle of Franklin Trust, this is the site of a former slave plantation and the Battle of Spring Hill in late-1864 toward the end of the Civil War. Open daily to the public, this Greek Revival building was built in the 1850s. Maury County also has a self-guided African American History driving tour for those who want more in-depth knowledge of the area.

photo: Nathan Zucker / Visit Franklin

Up the road from Spring Hill, Franklin plays its solemn role of being host to one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. With the Tennessee Campaign Ticket, you’ll get access to the Carter House, Carnton, and Rippa Villa and be able to better understand how more than 64,000 troops fought through this area in 1864. A statue honoring the U.S. Colored Troops right in the heart of downtown Franklin is part of the Fuller Story Project, which represents nearly 200,000 men who fought for their country, their freedom and the freedom of four million enslaved Americans.

photo: Nathan Zucker / Visit Franklin

Not far from the statue, the McLemore House doubles as the African American Heritage Society Museum and was the first house in the area purchased by a freed slave. This Franklin neighborhood would go on to be known as the “Hard Bargain” thanks to many freed slaves occupying homes and opening businesses here.

Explore quilting culture in Pulaski

Drive an hour south of Franklin and you'll find yourself in Giles County where, at the Wolf Gap Education Center in Pulaski, you can unravel the rich tradition of African American church quilts. Displaying two quilts on a rotational basis, the center uses textiles to highlight some of the heritage left behind by Black Americans and to keep alive the church’s role in the lives of enslaved and formerly enslaved people. This cultural heritage facility is open seven days a week.

Follow in Rosa Parks’ footsteps

Just beyond the South Central region is Monteagle up on the mountain of the Cumberland Plateau. Home to Sewanee: The University of the South and some of the best trails and waterfalls in the state of Tennessee, Grundy County also houses the historic Highlander Folk School, which was instrumental in the training of civil rights leaders in basic Constitutional law.

Founded in 1932, Highlander Folk School’s original aim was to improve the living conditions of area residents and educate workers, operating under the philosophy that progressive social change would forge the path for a more democratic society. Global figures like Eleanor Roosevelt supported the institute, recognizing such education played an important role in the fight for racial equality, and the school went on to host many civil rights movement leaders including Rosa Parks and the reverend, Dr. King Jr.

photo: Kristin Luna / Odinn Media

The school closed in 1962 but remains an important civil rights monument in the state of Tennessee. The Grundy County Historical Society Heritage Center, open six days a week in downtown Tracy City, shares more of that South Cumberland history, as well as the struggles coal mine laborers—many of whom were Black prisoners—faced with the implementation of the Zebra Laws, which allowed the government to lease them as workers in the mines.

Detour to Nashville for a lesson in civil rights

On your way out of the region, you may find yourself departing from Nashville’s BNA airport, in which case you’ll want to spend a few hours—if not a full day—visiting the sites that were central to the Freedom Riders’ fight of the 1960s. The late congressman Rep. John Lewis, who now has a downtown avenue named for him, was arrested in Nashville many times for non-violent protests. There’s nowhere better to dive into that history than the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library downtown where you can read the Ten Rules of Conduct protestors abided by during sit-ins.

photo: Kristin Luna / Odinn Media

Nearby is the Davidson County Courthouse, where 3,000 protestors marched for integration; the Witness Walls on the lawn depicts that history through art. A few blocks away is the 56,000-square-foot the National Museum of African American Music and, in North Nashville, Fisk University, Nashville’s oldest university that also bears the distinction of being the first Black institution to receive accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Founded in 1866 for the education of freedmen, Fisk’s legacy includes notable alumni like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Thurgood Marshall and Rep. Lewis.


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