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World Travel Guide > Guides > North America > United States of America > Tennessee > Memphis

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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.

Featured Hotels

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Gen X Inn

A chic boutique-style hotel in Midtown from the Best Western chain. It's in the heart of the Medical District and less than one block from Interstate 240, ideally located on the trolley line and only two miles from downtown. The décor in the 32 rooms is knowingly contemporary, and the king and queen rooms feature complimentary WiFi and cable TV. Breakfast is included and there's an exercise room and free parking.

Madison Hotel

Transformed from an original bank building, this Memphis hotel now boasts Beaux Arts architecture and 110 well-appointed rooms. The interior has been transformed: for example, the fitness centre occupies the original bank vault and includes an indoor heated lap pool. One of the hotel's best features is its rooftop terrace. In the summer on Wednesday to Saturday nights, parties there feature live DJs and afford sunset views over the Mississippi.

The Peabody

The South's 464-room Grand Hotel is the epitome of elegant Southern hospitality, and the social hub of Downtown Memphis. This 1869 historic landmark was restored to its original splendour in 1981. See once, but only once, the famous Peabody Ducks' twice daily march at 1100 and 1700 to and from the marble lobby fountain. Sunday brunch and Thursday-night rooftop parties for dancing under the stars are the social highlights.

Days Inn Memphis at Graceland

Elvis fans on a budget should take a look at the Days Inn for an adequate alternative to the expensive Guest House at Graceland. With 60 rooms not far from the airport and a short walk to Graceland, the hotel has a guitar-shaped outdoor pool and inclusive WiFi, breakfast and parking.

Sleep Inn Downtown at Court Square

A none-more-central Downtown location is the draw for this higher-end motel, squatting between Court Square and the mighty Mississippi. There are 116 rooms on six floors, the place is clean and modern, and includes breakfast and free WiFi. Book early for big events.

The Hotel Napoleon

In the renovated five-storey Winchester building, this 58-room boutique hotel was opened in September 2016. Designed with modern touches to complement the historic 1902 building, it's conveniently located Downtown near to several Memphis sights including Beale Street. Part of the Ascend Hotel Collection, it includes the farm-to-table Luna Restaurant and bathrooms that feature wooden sliding barn doors and luxurious marble showers.