Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities

Learn About Black History in Memphis from This Woman-Owned Tour Company

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This year has been devastating for many marginalized communities across America; it’s also been empowering to watch groups and allies rise up across the country in support of dismantling racism and combatting racial inequality. Like many, I’ve been devouring every piece of information I can find on the internet as I work on my own anti-racism education, but few resources have been as helpful for context as taking A Tour of Possibilities caravan tour to learn more about Black history in Memphis.

Growing up in the Bronx

When Carolyn Michael-Banks was growing up in the “the boogie Bronx,” she traveled to Ghana for her 14th birthday. It was there when a Tour of Possibilities was truly born, though it would be decades before she realized it and for the company to come to fruition.

“On paper, going to Ghana at the age of 14 shouldn’t have been something that could happen,” she says, “but I celebrated my 14th birthday there, and something snapped in me; something shifted. It was a transformational moment that I knew somehow I had to continue telling stories that people don’t know about. I believe it started right there.”

In fact, the ATOP logo is a nod to the door of possibilities that Carolyn saw in the very slave castles that SVV and I visited nine years ago.

Slave castles in Ghana
Slave castles in Ghana

“I needed that to be a part of it [this movement to educate on Black history]. That’s what continues to ground me—I stand on some strength that there are moments I don’t know I have,” Carolyn says. “When this pandemic hit, I had to call on my ancestors in a major way.

Carolyn Michael-Banks: Black history tour in Memphis

The birth of an idea full of possibility

Carolyn went on to Clark University in Massachusetts, where she says she was often the only Black student in her class, and graduated in the 70’s. In the early days of her career, Carolyn worked for a national sightseeing tour company in Washington, D.C., where she rose quickly to become general manager and was relocated to Savannah and later Philadelphia. “One of the things I chose to do was to add African-American history to the script,” she says.

Carolyn Michael-Banks: Black history tour in Memphis
Carolyn Michael-Banks: Black history tour in Memphis
Carolyn Michael-Banks then vs. now

Eventually, the company downsized, at which point Carolyn had already moved twice for her job—and she was let go. “It was devastating,” she says, “but it was the answer to this prayer, and the prayer was: If I had the time I could develop my own company so I could put in it what was necessary.”

A Tour of Possibilities was born in Philadelphia, where Carolyn lived at the time, but then she met her husband, a Philly native who lived in Memphis, so she followed him to Tennessee. Carolyn admittedly knew very little about the Southern city largely associated with the civil rights movement until she herself relocated there.

Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities

“When I came to Memphis, all I knew was Elvis and that it was where Dr. King was assassinated,” she recalls. “Then I started doing the research and I was floored—this was where I was supposed to be. This information was around every corner here. This would be the place to rebirth my company.”

MLK mural in Memphis Rox

Pivoting during a pandemic

Six years into launching one of the top-rated tours in Memphis “created to share the historical and cultural gems that African Americans have contributed to Memphis,” Carolyn Michael-Banks, like many tour operations, shut down in March and briefly thought about closing her business entirely.

“Then I realized that I have a company where ‘possibilities’ is literally in my title,” the owner of A Tour of Possibilities tells me. “How can you have a company called a Tour of Possibilities and not believe in possibilities? I couldn’t not see that as a sign.”

Carolyn used the downtime from the pandemic to revisit her tour structure and, symbolically on Juneteenth, rolled out a 2.5-hour guided caravan tour of Memphis’ Black history entirely by Zoom audio, in which we followed our tour guide Ms. Jackie in our car and interacted via our phones (on speaker, no video) as we traveled through various neighborhoods and generations of the Black history that shaped this area of the South.

Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities

One of the facets of my privilege to travel that I’ve really leaned into over the past few years is learning about the history of many marginalized people—Blacks, the native populations and more—that I wasn’t taught in school. It’s one thing to not be exposed to something and be able to claim ignorance; it’s entirely something else when you have the opportunity to self-educate and choose not to. I sheepishly admitted to Carolyn how much I learned about Black history in Memphis on her tour, facts and stories I felt like I should know as a born-and-bred Tennessean. She quickly put me at ease when she said she didn’t learn many of these stories and incidents until she took it upon herself to put together this business.

“We’ve never dealt with [this discomfort]. You cannot make changes about something you don’t know about,” she replied. “Now that we are much more aware, my question is where do we go from here? Do we go back to the norm or do we actually move toward change?”

“History can be extremely uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

Carolyn had endured so many changes over the years that she knew when the virus hit, she could not let her business die. She drew inspiration from a Toyota program she had been a part of a few years prior called “Steeped in History” in which bloggers toured around Memphis in a similar manner by using Zoom technology.

“I truly believe there’s an appetite for [learning about Black history], especially now. What happened to George Floyd is not new, the world just finally saw it,” she explains.

While A Tour of Possibilities vans hold 10 passengers and technically she could have continued to operate in that manner, Carolyn said she never even considered putting her team into harm’s way. “To me, it would never be enough,” she says, realizing she had to think of another way to keep going. “It was one of those Biblical moments, where I heard God say: ‘what do you have in your hand, Moses?'”

Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities
Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities

“I want people to be able to come to town and get to experience the tour and not have to rely on getting 10 people to do it,” she says of this decision. “To me, this is very important. The one thing that Memphis had been missing prior to a Tour of Possibilities is that there had never been an African-American-centric tour before that was available any day of the week.”

SVV and I set out on a guided caravan tour with beloved local thespian Ms. Jackie one steamy summer afternoon.

Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities

The contactless nature of the tour in no way detracts from the education or enjoyment of learning more about Memphis—it’s interactive, and not only does the guide engage the attendees, but Ms. Jackie also sings blues tunes to illustrate Memphis’ musical history, in addition to playing powerful speeches from Dr. King and other Civil Rights movement icons.

Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities

As a native Tennessean, I spend a lot of time in West Tennessee and have even authored a couple books that explore Memphis’ storied history, but I walked away with a notebook full of information that I did not know prior. The tour spans the Atlantic slave trade to the present, with a heavy focus on the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and is an extremely clever and innovative way not only to remain afloat in the tourism industry in a time when there’s very little tourism, but also remain a resource for Black history in a time when many are seeking to self-educate (and support a woman-/BIPOC-owned business at that).

Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities

Prominent Memphis sites you’ll visit

The tour starts downtown by the river where you’ll be briefed on the First Battle of Memphis, a Civil War battle fought on the Mighty Mississippi, then learn the role the city played in the Underground Railroad and smuggling runaways up the river to the free states.

Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities

You’ll go by Slave Haven, another key site on the Underground Railroad that’s worth a private tour later with Ms. Elaine Turner, a kind, modest woman you’ll be surprised to learn was a major civil rights activist back in the day.

Visit Slave Haven on your Black history tour in Memphis
Visit Slave Haven on your Black history tour in Memphis

The first part of the tour is rough, I’m not going to lie, because it forces us to confront our torrid past face-on; you’ll go by the slave markets where Nathan Bedford Forrest, among many others, sold humans, going as far as to advertise “negroes as cheap as you can find them” in the local papers; the place where Lee Waller was brutally torched by 3,000 white men and lynched in 1893 for an alleged crime. You’ll learn the cruel reality that an anti-lynching bill, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, has been been brought to Congress more than 200 times and still hasn’t passed; meanwhile Congress unanimously voted to make animal cruelty a federal crime.

You’ll learn about the effect gentrification has had on the Black community of Memphis and how the reason that segregation even exists today is because of years’ worth of discrimination by government policy—redlining, the refusal of banks to lend to Black people, real estate agents only showing Black families homes in specific neighborhoods, the list goes on.

Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities

Reconstruction was a period in U.S. history that’s largely ignored in the public school system—at least it was in mine. We learned about slavery, sure, but then our history teachings skip right ahead from the Emancipation Proclamation to the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, glossing over a century in our country’s recent history; this tour filled in the gaps for me on all those decades that I missed in my schooling. 

National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis

On this educational, informative and entertaining tour, you’ll travel in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Mason Temple Church of God in Christ where he delivered his prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968 to Clayborn Temple, the departure point for the Sanitation Workers’ Strike march in 1968.

Black history in Memphis: Where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stood

“Go inside Mason Temple,” Carolyn advises. “Go to the pulpit area and stand in that space where Dr. King stood less than 24 hours where he was assassinated. To stand in that space, I get a strength, a resurgence—I don’t know if it’s an anointing, I can’t even tell you, but I think that’s why being in the face of history can be so important. Something comes through me, and the same thing happens when I stood in the slave castle in Ghana. It comes up through my spirit and it gives the strength to continue.”

“I AM A MAN” Plaza was unveiled at Clayborn Temple two years ago on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death as a way to honor the 1,300 sanitation workers who participated in the strike over unfair pay and unsafe working conditions. The tour also goes by the National Civil Rights Museum, which memorializes Dr. King and still has the Lorraine Motel room where he was assassinated on display. You’ll want to loop back here later after the tour to spend an entire afternoon.

I Am a Man Plaza in Memphis

This tour of Black history in Memphis isn’t just about trials, it’s about triumphs of the Black community, too: from Stax Museum to the thousands of Black artist who helped define the Memphis Sound.

Stax Museum: exploring Black history in Memphis

You’ll drive by the former apartment of NFL football player Michael Oher, whose turbulent high school years were depicted in The Blind Side, and breeze through Beale Street, once home to both W.C. Handy and Ida B. Well’s newspaper office, before continuing on to the South Memphis neighborhood that birthed Aretha Franklin.

A Weekend Guide to Memphis: Where to Eat, Drink and Go

 

“If you don’t know your own history, you’re bound to repeat it. What if you knew your history and repeated the stuff that worked—like in Tulsa, like in Memphis around Beale Street, what if you knew about entrepreneurial spirit that was second to none?” Carolyn ponders. “I think if we all kind of got it, we could really get some stuff done. The not knowing is causing some of this angst. If we knew this, maybe we could have looked at this differently.

“Everything is so connected. I often think about us as a country with all these brilliant minds, we can’t connect the dots because the threads are hidden.”

In all, this tour is an excellent introduction to not just Black history in Memphis, but a solid foundation to learn more about Black history in the United States. I encourage all Tennesseans to dig deep into our state’s past—including the uncomfortable slave-owning years none of us want to acknowledge—and hope all visitors to Memphis are privy to the humble teachings of Carolyn Michael-Banks. 

Memphis Soul: Where to See Music in Tennessee

Want more tips on what to do in Memphis? I’ve got a few ideas:


 

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Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities
Black History in Memphis: A Tour of Possibilities
COMMENTS
  • September 16, 2020
    Emily

    I’ve never been to Memphis, but it’s on my list. That looked like a great tour!

  • September 16, 2020
    Stacy Lynch

    I always enjoy my time in Memphis – especially the amazing food. But now I am looking forward to planning another trip just so I can experience this tour with my girls! Thanks for sharing this gem with us in your amazing way!!

  • September 22, 2020

    I met Carolyn when I was in Memphis – there is such a great spirit in that city and she fully embodies it.

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