5 Star Stories: A Tour of Possibilities

Published: Feb. 7, 2023 at 11:26 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Conde Nast calls the subject of this week’s 5 Star Story one the top six best Black history tours in the country — from California to Charleston.

In our ongoing effort to honor the people, places and things that make us proud to call the Mid-South home, we’re celebrating Black History Month with A Tour Of Possibilities (ATOP).

The owner/operator is actually a “Boogie Down” Bronx native who fell in love with Memphis years ago.

Each tour starts with a hearty, “Well, great morning, great morning and welcome to A Tour Of Possibilities,” from Carolyn Michael-Banks, also known as “Queen.”

She’s the owner and operator of the historical African American touring company, which will be nine years old in August, and is a labor of love for Michael-Banks, who said she fell in love with this city by the river shortly after moving here dozens of years ago.

“I had no idea what was here,” she marveled.

Queen uses her years of tourism experience in other cities to share a Memphis many don’t see or feel, whether you’re from out of town or around the corner.

“And I really feel for people that don’t get it. And I think of the gazillions of people that come through here and they have no idea,” she said. “And not only those who come visit don’t have an idea... those of us who live work and play here, have no idea.”

As a conductor of history, ATOP tour guides take passengers on a journey through our city’s uncomfortable and tragic history.

“You may have heard the term ‘being sold down the river.’ We’re talking about the Mississippi River,” she pointed out while driving past the Big Muddy, adding, “Not only was it used to bring those enslaved into the area, but also... those escaping the institute of slavery used this as a way to get out.”

ATOP tours also celebrate our people’s resilience.

“So when I decided to call my company A Tour Of Possibilities, I had people like Tom Lee in mind... who saw things that appeared to be impossible, yet made them possible in spite of all that’s around them,” she said of the man who, despite not being able to swim, saved the lives of 32 passengers from a capsized riverboat back in 1925.

But ATOP journeys aren’t just about the past; each trip also highlights Memphis’ inspiring future. Like when “Queen” pointed out, a mound of rubble on the corner of Front and Union Avenue Downtown.

“... this may not look appealing to you... I can understand that... but this is part of Memphis being reimagined... this is where the Brookes Museum of Art will be coming to,” she explained.

The two-and-a-half-hour tour also shares information that will take many by surprise, like how the owner of the Burkle Estate, now the Slave Haven Museum on North 2nd Street, which was believed to be a stop along the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves, planted non-indigenous magnolia trees in his front yard.

“So, if you were enslaved here... and particularly during the winter months... look for the trees in front that still have their leaves on them,” Queen explained.

ATOP tours span Uptown where Queen asked us to visualize.

“I want you to be aware that this is where the very, very wealthy Memphians once lived, and just imagine mansions here.”

The tours also reach the Pinch District near the Pyramid. “This is where a lot of Irish chose to settle,” she explained.

And onward through Downtown Memphis, we learned about the early life of the building that now houses Blues City Cafe on Beale Street.

“But this was once an African American-owned hotel called the Hotel Clark... and there used to be a sign out front that read, ‘Best Colored Service Only,’” extolled Queen.

The tour also points out various sights of interest in South Memphis, including the World Headquarters of the Church of God In Christ (COGIC).

“This is where Dr. King gave his famous and his last and prophetic speech, ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,’” Michael-Banks breathed.

She hopes her tour gives people a true taste of “the richness of this city.”

“I hope they get what they probably won’t get on a traditional tour. I hope they understand that we’ve gotta tell the whole story to really get the bigger picture.

“And that’s why, you know, one of the reasons why I started doing this was because I knew there was a missing, and the missing was not necessary. Just tell the story,” she said of her eye-opening journeys that enlighten and entertain in the Home of the Blues.

“... there is an ordinance in Memphis that states you are to hear Blues music within the first hour of your feet touching the ground when you get out of bed,” Queen crooned as she played some of the music we all know and love.

She added, “My favorite part is when, at the end, people will say that ‘I just had no idea,’ or they say, ‘I can’t wait to come back.”

Queen says ATOP also stands for A Tour On Purpose, “cause as much fun as we have, we have a lot of information to share.”

ATOP — sharing what makes us proud to call this city our home.

A Tour Of Possibilities has regularly guided tours Thursday through Sunday, private or group tours throughout the week, as well as virtual tours.

For more information, you can find ATOP on Instagram and Facebook, or click on this link.

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