Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland makes remarks before snipping the ribbon on the new "MEMPHIS" sign on Mud Island. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

May 22 marked 200 years to the day that John Overton, James Winchester, and Andrew Jackson founded Memphis.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and city officials were joined by Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and community residents as the Bluff City marked its bicentennial. And not even a rainy start to the day could dampen the enthusiasm of volunteers who simply waited inside for the rain to let up before scattering to various service projects.

The day of celebration got underway with a kick-off at the Pipkin Building at the Mid South Fairgrounds. More than 200 volunteers sang and danced their way to four impressive service efforts sponsored by the United Way of the Mid-South.

A New Century of Soul was the day’s theme. United Way of the Mid-South joined festivities with A New Century of Service.

“’A New Century of Service’ mirrors the work that United Way of the Mid-South does year-round. We empower people to affect positive change on issues that matter most – issues like poverty,” said Rev. Kenneth S. Robinson, M.D., President & CEO of United Way. ”It was a natural fit for us to partner with the City of Memphis, Wells Fargo, and Volunteer Odyssey to encourage Mid-Southerners to continue to showcase why we are named America’s Most Generous City by helping our fellow neighbor.

“Today, residents from all over this vast community are reinvesting in our blighted communities, providing basic needs to our most vulnerable, beautifying our riverfront asset, and exercising Memphis pride by volunteering during the City of Memphis’ Bicentennial celebration. And what a tremendous day it is, too.”

Strickland praised volunteers, striking an optimistic and hopeful tone as he reflected on the occasion.

“We have so much to be thankful for,” said Strickland. “Choosing to serve others and taking the time to make our city even more beautiful is just characteristic of the warm and generous spirit of Memphians. What a way to kick off the next 200 years.”

Local volunteers were given four opportunities to participate in service projects:

  • Riverfront painting – The Memphis River Parks Partnership sponsored painting the rails that border the Mississippi River parks.
  • Riverfront Cleanup – Clean Memphis sponsored the pick-up of litter that is often left behind as the river recedes.
  • Tires to Trails – Memphis City Beautiful and the City of Memphis partnered with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to clean up discarded tires and making way for a three-mile long walking and biking trail in T.O. Fuller State Park. The trail at completion will be made up of approximately 40,000 tires. It will be one of the longest, porous trails in the world.
  • Meal-packing at the Mid-South Food Bank – Volunteers sorted through and packaged donated goods for Food Bank client families.

Later that afternoon, citizens and civic leaders converged on Mud Island to unveil the new “MEMPHIS” sign.

Ten-foot letters emblazoned on the landscape can be seen from boats on the river and vehicles entering the city from across the bridge. The white letters are accented with various colors.

The installation was made possible by Memphis River Parks Partnership, Memphis Brand Initiative, City of Memphis and the Downtown Memphis Commission in honor of the anniversary.

“This Memphis sign will welcome visitors to our beautiful city and usher in our New Century of Soul,” Strickland said.

To commemorate the unveiling, Old Dominick Distillery created a specially crafted whiskey. Two hundred bottles honor iconic figures in Memphis history, such as Ida B. Wells, Tom Lee, Danny Thomas, and the founders of Memphis.

Shot glasses were distributed for a grand toast – one that perhaps best encompasses all that the day meant to Memphis:

“Here’s to 200 years of Memphis and its New Century of Soul. Here’s to 200 more…”