Photo by Mike Kerr
When it comes to South Memphis, the city is ready to step off the beaten path and embark on a new journey of growth and renewal. After almost a decade of planning, the Memphis Heritage Trail project was formally launched by the Housing and Community Development Division of the Memphis City Government this spring.
As opposed to one clear route, the Memphis Heritage Trail is actually the name of an extended project which encompasses a wide swathe of the South City neighborhood. The purpose of the trail is to promote cultural understanding and economic growth within the city by highlighting the history of African American achievement in Memphis.
Their stated mission is “To recognize the significant contributions of African Americans who helped shape the rich business, cultural, and musical heritage of Memphis, Tennessee.”
While their March debut drew attention to all the progress the MHT team has already made, the trail is really at the heart of a much broader project to restore an entire neighborhood, many aspects of which have yet to be completed. The Memphis Heritage Trail region will encompass the area bordered by Beale Street on the north, Walnut Street on the east, Crump Boulevard on the south, and Main Street on the west. The MHT team is working in conjunction with the JobsPlus Program and the South City Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, which seeks to create urban renewal by replacing the dilapidated Foote Homes public housing development with redesigned mixed income housing. Fighting blight and underuse throughout the area, the Memphis Heritage Trail will support the refurbishment of neglected historical sites such as the Universal Life Insurance Building and the Robert Church Park, all while implementing new public spaces and historical monuments.
The trail is organized into four distinct loops, each of which is anchored by a series of important locations:
- The Civil Rights Historic Loop weaves throughout the National Civil Rights Museum, the Blues Hall of Fame, and Clayborn Temple, in addition to several other important sites.
- The Business-Entertainment Historic Loop features such destinations as the Beale Street Historic District, W.C. Handy Park and the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery, among others.
- The Historic Commerce Loop highlights businesses historically owned and operated by African Americans, such as the Universal Life Insurance Building, Sun Studio, and the Cornelia Crenshaw Library.
- Finally, the Historic Residential Loop features historically significant neighborhoods, homes, and schools in the area.
Beyond just the locations designated by the trails, each loop highlights a series of important historical people and events. The loops will eventually feature a series of interactive exhibits and plazas, creating a stimulating and engaging educational process.
Paul Davis, Memphis’ Director of the Division of Housing and Community Development, summarizes his motivation for the project in a video posted to the MHT website:
The city of Memphis tells the story of civil rights better than probably any other city in this country. And so for us to embrace that history–not only is it good for our residents and our children, it’s good for the nation and it’ll result in economic returns for us with visitors coming in to absorb that history.
The Memphis Heritage Trail has already begun to install new signage, develop a mobile app and driving brochure and designate new art installations, however this is only the beginning. The project’s ultimate goals will be accomplished via a three part plan, the timeline of which will be released soon.