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American heroes started here

Courtesy Colbert County Tourism Convention Bureau

Nobody could have known it at the time, but the little boy born in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, would become one of the most iconic performers ever to come from the South.

Elvis Presley made his mark on Mississippi and beyond in the middle of the 20th century, bringing a new look and sound to American popular music. He’s one of many Southerners who rose from humble beginnings to international acclaim. Musicians, actors, athletes, presidents and inspirational figures have gotten their starts in the South, giving locals an enduring sense of pride.

Today, groups that visit Southern states can learn about some of the great men and women who grew up their by visiting their birthplaces, their adult homes and large museums dedicated to their memories. A tour through the region can give travelers a glimpse into the lives of George Washington, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohammad Ali and Bill Clinton.

On your next trip to the South, take some time to learn about these famous Southerners.

Helen Keller Birthplace

Tuscumbia, Alabama
In the early 1900s, a Tuscumbia girl grew into a national hero when she overcame both blindness and deafness to become a noted author and lecturer. Today, Helen Keller’s birthplace, called Ivy Green, memorializes Keller’s remarkable life and story.

“The house was built in 1820 by Helen’s grandfather,” said Sue Pilkilton, executive director of the Helen Keller Birthplace. “Eighty-five percent of the furnishings belonged to the Keller family. We have some original Keller china and a beautiful rug given to her by a Chinese family.”

Groups that visit Ivy Green get a tour of the home and an overview of Keller’s life and accomplishments. The tour includes a stop at the famous water pump on the back porch, where teacher Anne Sullivan made her first language breakthrough with Keller as a child.

The home also has a museum exhibit that contains items such as Keller’s Braille writer, watch and alarm clock, as well as photos of Keller with different American presidents.

Each summer, Ivy Green stages a production of “The Miracle Worker,” a dramatic retelling of Keller’s story.

“This is our 51st season for the play,” Pilkilton said. “The play is just like the movie. We average 6,000 visitors from all over the world in six weeks.”

Elvis Presley Birthplace Park

Tupelo, Mississippi
Elvis’ two-room birthplace was a humble home, even by 1937 standards. His family lived there for three years after his birth. It wasn’t until Elvis returned to Tupelo as a music star that anyone took note of the small house.

“Elvis did a concert in Tupelo in 1957 and discovered that the property that the house sat on was for sale,” said Dick Guyton, director of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation. “So he told the mayor of Tupelo that he would give the proceeds of the concert to the city if they would buy the property and turn it into a park.”

The city did buy the property and later restored it and opened it to the public for tours. Today, visitors to the birthplace park can see exhibits that explore rural Mississippi life in the 1930s and 1940s. Outdoors, the park has a story wall that gives a timeline of Elvis’ life, as well as a life-size bronze statue of Elvis at age 13.

For church groups, a highlight of the visit is a re-created service in the Presleys’ original church.

“Five years ago, we discovered the building that had been the original Assembly of God church that they attended,” Guyton said. “So we moved it to the property and restored it to the state it was in when the Presleys went to church there. We re-enact an Assembly of God church service there every half hour, with a little boy that portrays Elvis and gets up and sings.”

Clinton Presidential Library

Little Rock, Arkansas
Overlooking the banks of the Arkansas River, the William J. Clinton Presidential Library gives visitors a look at the work of the last president of the 20th century, who was born in Hope, Arkansas, and lived much of his life in Little Rock.

The first floor of exhibits at the library highlights various aspects of Clinton’s presidential record.
“There are alcoves that cover different sections of the administration, like foreign policy, conflicts abroad and the economy,” said the library’s deputy director, Kurt Senn. “On the second floor, there are exhibitions on the gifts that he was given as president and some of the head-of-state gifts that he was given by world leaders.”

Special items on display include a bicycle that Lance Armstrong rode in the Tour de France, a glass tree created by artist Dale Chihuly and a number of saxophones and golf clubs that Clinton used.

Groups that visit the library can also experience a little bit of presidential glamour. Exhibits include a full-scale replica of the Oval Office, decorated as it was during Clinton’s time there, as well as a reproduction of the White House’s Cabinet room.

Other exhibits at the library deal with the work that Clinton has done since leaving office.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.