History comes with highs and lows. You can’t have one without the other, and if you deny yourself the chance to fully understand both sides, you run the risk of settling into blissful ignorance. When Carolyn Michael-Banks was promoted to General Manager of a national site seeing tour company in D.C., all she wanted to do was add more African American History to the script. And when that was met with concerns from tour participants and her peers, that was the first moment in the chain of events that led her to launch A Tour of Possibilities.
“For some reason, I thought I had some authority,” Banks said. “I’m not sure why, but that’s how I felt once I earned my new title. I did all the research. I did all the training. We we were going to be the first D.C. company that did something like this, and I thought my CEO was going to pat me on the back. When he called me, his first question was, “What’s with all this Black stuff?” I thought he was maybe talking about some grease on a tour seat. But no. People were writing him and telling him that this information made them feel too uncomfortable.”
“People will say, ‘Well, you know we weren’t taught our history,’ Banks said. “It’s like, yeah, we know that we weren’t taught much about that side of history in school, but what can we do on our own end to get that education to our youth, the parents of our youth, and further down the line.”
If they felt uncomfortable, can you imagine how the people living through that painful past felt? Anyways, I digress. Banks, AKA Queen, officially launched A Tour of Possibilities (ATOP) in Philly in 1995 and re-launched the tour after re-locating to Memphis in 2014. The Bronx Native had used her story-telling abilities in D.C. Savannah, Georgia, and Philly—and much like those experiences, Memphis came with its own learning curve that Banks had to overcome.
“I got some push back when I first started because people were like, ‘You’re not from here. How can you tell our story,'” Banks said. “Well, I’m here to learn, and that’s one thing that I love about doing this—there’s always something new to discover. Because I’m not from here, there will be things I don’t know, and I welcome the opportunity to do more research. I welcome people to share their knowledge with me so that I can dig deeper. Most of our history has not been written correctly, anyways. This isn’t about the mis-education of the negro. This is about the mis-education of the entire country. I understand the power of narration, and the power that I hold, so this is not something I take lightly.”
Along the way, you’ll see staples like the National Civil Rights Museum, the Slave Haven Underground Museum, and Clayborn Temple plus you’ll make your rounds to important spots like Elmwood Cemetery, LeMoyne Owen College, Beale Street, the Mighty Mississippi and more.
“Very few people who live in a city actually tour their own city, but, often, our view of our city is based on what we know,” Banks said. “I want people to see the sites, hear the stories, and connect the dots of the past while building a better understanding of how that’s led to Black Memphis’ present.”
“This isn’t about the mis-education of the negro. This is about the mis-education of the entire country.”
And when she says past, she doesn’t want you to get stuck on the pain and the losses that the Black community has felt, but to also open your eyes to the many triumphs that have been acquired.
“A lot of the time when I tell people what I do, you can see the eyes rolling into the back of their heads because they are like, “Oh, that means you’re going to talk about slavery,” Banks said. “Well, yes, but I’m also going to be talking about entrepreneurship with Robert Church, the first African American millionaire of the South. I’m going to be talking about present-day architects like Self & Tucker. It’s not just the slavery part, because African American history is so much more than that.”
The more she learns, the more Banks hopes to add on to what the tour experience offers. I’m sure we’ve all heard Maya Angelou’s quote “You can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been,” and I don’t think that’s solely associated with the history we are learning about now—but also means being knowledgeable about the strides our Black community is making in the present so that we may pass on those stories in the future.
“I eventually want to connect neighborhoods so people can get to North Memphis and South Memphis and Orange Mound, and all of those places where great things are happening that people may not be aware of,” Banks said. “The fact that many people don’t know about the organic urban garden that lives in the heart of South Memphis where students learn how to plant, harvest, and sell in their community is unacceptable to me. The fact that many might not know about a new art gallery that’s coming to Orange Mound is a missed opportunity.”
“People will say, ‘Well, you know we weren’t taught our history,’ Banks said. “It’s like, yeah, we know that we weren’t taught about history in school, but what can we do on our own end to get that education to our youth, the parents of our youth, and further down the line.”