When Carolyn Michael-Banks became the general manager of a national sightseeing tour business in the ’80s, she decided to use her authority to add some African American history to the company’s script. Unfortunately, the CEO wasn’t having it. Carolyn has since taken her idea to a whole new level — she created her own company, A Tour of Possibilities, which focuses solely on African American historical tours. Meet our inspiring new FACE of Memphis, Carolyn Michael-Banks!
How did A Tour of Possibilities come to be?
It got started as a result of me working for a national sightseeing tour company. When I became the general manager, I thought I had some authority and decided I should make some changes — including adding African American history to our script. I did the research, got everybody trained, and was feeling excited. It was a national company that had never done this before; I was so sure the CEO would be thrilled. But when he called me on the phone, he said, “What’s all this Black stuff?” He told me that people would be too uncomfortable with the information. I told him that history can be uncomfortable; in fact, African American history can be extremely uncomfortable. I reminded him that our tagline was, “we relive history” — but we weren’t doing that.
What happened next?
As time went on, I was relocated to different cities. They moved me to Savannah, Georgia, and then to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — but I was eventually downsized. After that, I realized it was time to have a prayer answered. My prayer was that if I had some time, I’d create my own business; in it, I’d have the script that I wanted to. And so, in 1995, A Tour of Possibilities was birthed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was then reborn in Memphis, Tennessee, almost seven years ago now.
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Where did the name “A Tour of Possibilities” come from?
I had an opportunity to go to Ghana, West Africa, for my 14th birthday. I lived in the projects, on the sixth floor in the Bronx, and my mother came home from her job at Harlem Hospital and said a number of her colleagues came from Ghana and they wanted to charter a flight back home. At the time, it was cheaper to go to Ghana than it was to go to California, and she asked if I wanted to go with her. I thought, sure, we’ll go to Ghana this month, and we’ll go to the moon next month. It’s not that I didn’t want to go — it’s just that on paper, that didn’t seem possible. And that was one of my very first lessons: All things are possible. So, that was part of it. Then, when I was actually in Ghana, I visited one of the slave castles and stood at what is known as the door of no return — it’s the space where many stood before they got on a boat to go somewhere they’d never been, knowing they would never come back.
Sometimes, you have moments in your life when you are transformed in some way, and that happened to me there. I knew at that point I had to continue to tell stories about things people didn’t know. It was one of those “wow” moments that, to this day, I am still processing. So, when I decided to start this business and was trying to figure out what to call it, I wanted people to know that there is a story about the African American people — descendants of those who were once enslaved — that is important to learn. What I believe runs through my veins is nothing but possibilities, and when people finish an experience with A Tour of Possibilities, I want them to know that all things are, in fact, possible.
What can people expect on one of your tours?
We do a two-and-a-half-hour driving tour of the city. People usually have a sense that the Civil Rights Museum is here, but that’s kind of all they know. The excitement for me is when they finish our tour and say they had absolutely no idea there was so much history around every corner. I wouldn’t say there’s a particular place or site that’s the most popular, per se, but it’s about that sense you get when you’re done — you realize this is an incredible city with an unknown history that should be known. It really is more than a tour; it’s a journey through a very historic city that needs to be known for more than barbecue and Elvis. My purpose is to make sure people know that by the time we’re done. You can find some really interesting things here, some great information and great knowledge that will hopefully make you do and be a better person than you are today.
What would you say is the main goal of your company?
To bring awareness. I am constantly learning myself — I’m going to be 64 years old in a hot minute, and there’s still so much I don’t know. I felt if I was going to have this platform, it had to be intentional and purposeful. We still have a good time on the tours, but I believe there’s a way to tell this story so that you can kind of go on a rollercoaster. One moment we’re laughing, and the next moment I’m talking about a lynching site; it’s up and down. This is about making sure there’s a space for people to get a sense of what they’ve been missing. What has become really clear over this past year is that people didn’t understand why things were happening the way they were, and the reason why is because many people are not aware of what is happening every day, especially in the African American experience. It’s so easy for us to all live in our little bubbles and just kind of exist, and not have any connection to the realities of what some other people are living through. So, I use this platform as a way to bring awareness to things that people might not be aware of.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve received is from my mom, who is no longer with us but is in my ear constantly. Her thing was to never take a moment for granted; you’re still breathing for a purpose, so use the day for something. It’s really about understanding that there’s purpose for me being on the planet, and when my purpose is done, I’m gone. So just do it! Blow it out of the water — do whatever you have to do to leave a mark or a legacy of something so that your presence here was not missed.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
The ability to travel, the opportunity to learn new things, and — on a much lighter note — really good food!
Thank you, Carolyn! All photos courtesy of Carolyn Michael-Banks.
To meet more inspiring Memphis women, visit our FACES archives.