A Road Trip through the South: Part 1
Mary Welch | November 18, 2015
A road trip through the South is a trip back to memory lane because the South is all about its heritage—good and bad. So we’re taking you on a three-part road trip to discover the South as it relates to food, music, and race.
We chose three simple routes—Atlanta to Memphis with a stop in Birmingham, Ala.; then Memphis to New Orleans; and a final trek from New Orleans to Mobile to Montgomery back to Atlanta. Each leg is about a six-hour drive, which allows plenty of time for going off the road to see the delightful quirks of this unique region. Read on to follow our path for Road Trip #1.
We start our journey at the Georgian Terrace, a Historic Hotel of America right on Peachtree Street in Midtown. Built in 1911 and listed on the National Register, the Georgian Terrace is a classic grand hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows and crystal chandeliers. Besides having a great bar, the Georgian Terrace is right across the street from the fabulous Fox Theatre, which was built in 1928 as the home for Atlanta’s Shriners and looks more like a mosque than a theatre.
Because of the proximity to the Fox, the Georgian Terrace has hosted some famous names such as Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier (who were in town for the premier of “Gone with the Wind”), Enrico Caruso, Walt Disney (when “Song of the South” premiered), Helen Keller, Elvis Presley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Rudolph Valentino. Arthur Murray taught dancing lessons while he was a student at Georgia Tech.
Walk a few blocks down Ponce de Leon to another Atlanta institution—the Varsity, the world’s largest drive-in—for a chili dog, fried apple pies, and a Frosted Orange. The Varsity has been serving since 1928 and when you leave, you’ll have their classic question “What’ll ya have!” in your head for hours.
Atlanta is the heart of the civil rights movement, and also a big stop on Sherman’s March Toward the Sea. Our first stop is to the Rodeo Drive of the Movement, Auburn Avenue. Sweet Auburn, now a National Treasure, was a fantastic example of black entrepreneurship dating back to the 1880.
Although many of the businesses have closed, one can still see the remnants of the barber shops, undertakers, churches, stores, and office buildings that were “paved in gold,” according to John Wesley Dobbs, a black business leader unofficially known as the “Mayor of Auburn Avenue.”
Along Auburn Avenue you can see the Big Bethel A.M.E. Church, built in 1865; the old Royal Peacock, built in the 1930s and host to some of the stars of the Chitlin’ Circuit; the Wheat Street Baptist Church; and the fire station, built in 1894.
The highlight of Auburn Avenue is The King Center, where Dr. Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, are buried. A few doors down are his boyhood home as well as the iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church, built in 1886, where Dr. King and his father, Daddy King, preached. Also on Auburn is the former headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where Dr. King, Andrew Young, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, and Ralph David Abernathy oversaw the marches and protest throughout the South.
While in Atlanta, you might want to visit Margaret Mitchell’s house, just a few blocks north of the Georgian Terrace, as well as two historic cemeteries. Oakland Cemetery was opened in 1850 and is the final resting ground of Confederate soldiers, Margaret Mitchell, ex-slave Carrie Steele Logan (who established the first African-American orphanage in the state), as well as former mayors, city developers and other dignitaries as well as regular folks. What’s unusual is that there is room for everyone at Oakland—tycoon and pauper, Christian and Jew, black and white, and soldiers and civilians.
About 15 miles south of the city is South-View Cemetery, which was founded in 1886 so that blacks could be buried in dignity. Today, the cemetery is the final resting place of slaves and well-known blacks, such as Dr. King’s parents.
What’s unusual is that there is room for everyone at Oakland—tycoon and pauper, Christian and Jew, black and white, and soldiers and civilians.
By this time, you’ll probably be hungry again, so head to Pascal’s Restaurant. Although it has moved from its original location on West Hunter Street, the history still remains as fresh as its vegetables. Pascal’s was the place where black and white leaders would share a table, enjoy some fried chicken and vegetable soup, and work toward integration.
From there, you can get on the road for a two-hour drive from Atlanta to Birmingham (with a one-hour time change). While it’s an easy ride, slow down or stop for another Southern institution—NASCAR—and see the Talladega Superspeedway.
Once in Birmingham, make sure to go straight to the civil rights history. Birmingham’s role in the movement was even more dramatic than Atlanta’s, and pictures of Birmingham police using water hoses and hostile dogs on Civil Rights protesters still burn in our collective memories.
A must-see is the Civil Rights Institute, which details life in Alabama for both blacks and whites from the 1800s to modern day. There are some exhibits that are hard to see, such as the picture of two young black men hanging from ropes after being lynched. To the museum’s credit, it shows the good, bad and ugly.
Similar to Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue is the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail, which features 70 sites designated by the National Register of Historic Places. Walk over to the Kelly Ingram Park, home to rallies, demonstrations, and confrontations. (Soon to be added to the trail will be the Birmingham Jail and Dynamite Hill.) Nearby is the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was organized in 1873 and was the first black church in Birmingham. It is also the church where Ku Klux Klan killed four young girls in a 1963 bombing.
When you need to refuel, try Mrs. B’s on Fourth for soul food, Green Acres Cafe for fried chicken and fish, or Alabama staples Dreamland Bar-b-que, Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q, and Jim ’N Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q. And if you have time, catch a show at the Alabama Theatre, built in 1927.
Now it’s time to head toward Memphis, but on the way, make a quick stop in Tupelo to pay our respects to the King—yes, Elvis Presley. Presley’s birthplace is about the size of today’s master bathrooms, but it’s Elvis! One highlight is the gift shop, which contains everything Elvis. Take another food break at Dickey’s Texas-style barbecue that has been feeding customers, including Elvis, since 1941.
Another stop along the way is Oxford, a beautiful town incorporated in 1837 and home to Ole Miss and such literary giants as William Faulkner, John Grisham, Larry Brown, Willie Morris, and Barry Hannah. Oxford also was the site where James Meredith became the first black to become a student at the University of Mississippi, where a statue of him stands behind the university’s Lyceum in honor of this iconic event. There is also a Confederate cemetery where soldiers who died in the battle of Shiloh in 1862 were buried.
Though many Oxford homes and buildings were burned in the Civil War, gems still exist. Be sure to stop in Rowan Oak, an 1848 mansion where Faulkner lived and wrote some of his best works. Other highlights are the L.Q. C. Lamar House Museum, which is a modest Greek Revival structure built in the 1870s; Cedar Oaks, an 1859 Greek revival; and the Walton-Young House, a typical Victorian-era home built for a middle-class hardware store owner.
Hankering for some local delicacies? Try the Ajax Diner on The Square—its cornbread and country fried steak are legendary, and it was one of Eli Manning’s favorite restaurants while he was at Ole Miss. Another local favorite is Chevron’s chicken on a stick (and yes, we’re talking a real gas station located on S. Lamar Boulevard). If you go late at night, expect to see a lot of students who are hungry after a night of hard…studying.
You’ve now reached our first stop in Memphis, the famed Peabody Memphis (another Historic Hotel of America). Coming up soon: leg #2 of our Southern road trip, featuring the sights and sounds of Memphis, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta.