Memphis History

Memphis has a turbulent history but one that has played a significant part in America's civil rights and musical history.

Native American Indians lived along the Mississippi River for 10,000 years. The first Europeans to arrive were the Spanish in the 1540s, followed by the French and English. There were skirmishes between the Indians and the settlers until Tennessee became a US territory in 1790, and then a state in 1796.

Although the land legally belonged to the Chickasaw Indians, the new settlers eventually took control. In 1818 the Chickasaws have up control of the northern territory, including the land that would become the city of Memphis.

From the outset, Memphis was an important location for trading and travel. Before the Civil War, the economy was cotton-based underpinned by West Africans slaves. The cotton trade tied Memphis to northern industry so many did not wish to secede to the Union at the start of the Civil War. However, the plantation owners were dependent on slave labour, so loyalties were split.

Eventually, Memphis became part of Union territory. After the war, Black Memphians made socio-economic and political progress and black activism continued into the early 20th century. Robert Church founded the NAACP here in 1917. Despite segregation and poverty, Memphis prospered. By the mid-20th century, Memphis became one of the busiest cities in the South, with the world's largest cotton market.

In 1968 Memphis became the focus for the civil rights struggle. Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Martin Luther King to Memphis was subsequently killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968. Riots ensued across America.

In 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum was opened at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated.

Did you know?
• Memphis was the world's largest mule market in the 1950s. 
• The city was named after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile river.
• Elvis Presley's Memphis home, Graceland, is the most visited private home in the US after the White House.

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