Any first-time visitor to the city has to make time to see the National Civil Rights Museum. (Photo at the beginning of the post.) I spent an hour on a tour with the museum’s curator and the head of Memphis Heritage this morning, and I’ve seldom been as moved as when standing between the restored rooms 306 (Dr. Martin Luther King’s room) and 307, viewing the balcony at the Lorraine Motel. One listens to excerpts from his final “Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before, and then looks up to see the boarding house across the street where history changed. Later in the tour, the view is reversed, as you stand next to James Earl Ray’s bathroom and see the balcony, with the historic cars parked outside beneath a large wreath. Very powerful.
Tracey gave us an insiders tour. We talked a great deal about the decisions behind the original exhibit and the thinking now underway for future exhibits. I was pleased to see a section added with the support of the Indian community of Memphis on Gandhi. It reminded me of my visit last year to Gandhi’s burial site in New Delhi (see photo). Today I had the same emotions and gratefulness for courageous and visionary leaders.
In my talk at AIA Memphis last evening, I quoted historian and National Trust for Historic Preservation Trustee Emeritus David McCullough:
We are living now in an era of momentous change, of huge transitions in all aspects of life – here, nationwide, worldwide – and this creates great pressures and tensions. But history shows that times of change are the times when we are most likely to learn.
We all learn about history from books, certainly, but reading history can’t compare with the experience of walking through history, seeing in the deferred dreams of the Lorraine Motel or the lively sweep of a historic Beale Street an entryway into our collective memory. We need places like this because we need our collective memory.
I also had a delightful visit with the Chairman of the Board and the Director of the Center for Southern Folklore. We shared many acquaintances (including my former professor Dr. Charles Wolfe) and I was pleased to hear of a Save America’s Treasures grant to help preserve a marvelous collection of photographs from Memphis’ African American community by the Rev. L.O. Taylor. SAT was started by the Clinton Administration and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Preservation magazine has a story on SAT’s 10th Anniversary coming up in the next issue.
A couple of other things to see: the famous Peabody Hotel ducks taking their stroll from the fountain in the lobby to the elevator. They generate quite a crowd! And June and I had an early lunch today at the Arcade Restaurant on S. Main Street, a classic diner and the city’s oldest cafe. It has a great atmosphere that capped off two very interesting days to highlight preservation work in Memphis.
This was a business trip, so I couldn’t play tourist. Things I missed that tourists enjoy: the Stax museum, which June says is terrific, and Graceland. (I joked in my talk that the last time I visited Memphis, Graceland had an occupant.) But of course, even these sites have preservation implications. Many of the Stax stars lived in homes around the neighborhood worthy of preservation and Graceland is – of course – the historic home of the King.
Back at my home now…and getting ready for next weekend’s work trip to North Carolina.
More to come…