As Memphis, Tennessee recently celebrated it’s 200th birthday in May, the country’s oldest African-American neighborhood is also marking 100 years as an official part of the city of Memphis since 1919.
Before Tulsa, Rosewood, and Harlem there was ‘The Mound’
Elvis Presley, The Blues, Beale Street and even The First 48 have all become synonymous with talks of Memphis, Tennessee. Once you drive over the Shelby County line at the eastern bank of the Mississippi River not only does the landscape change, so do the demographics. The western side of the state is equivalent to another world when you compare it to the less diverse and hilly terrain of East Tennessee. But don’t let it fool you. Memphis is more than it’s stereotype of crime, poverty, and amazing barbecue, but one that includes a very important and necessary history.
Slavery, Jim Crow, and struggle are often a part of the narrative when discussing black history; A more melancholy reality to be tied to. But good ole’ Memphis is special. When you speak it’s name don’t forget to mention it included the first place that black folks could really do something for themselves. A city known for it’s large African American population and blues music also birthed a community that became a source of inspiration and economic progress.
In 1862 the Union Army took over the city of Memphis during the Civil War sailing down the Mississippi river from the North. Slaves fled plantations to join the Union and this resulted in an increase of the black population in the City of Memphis from approximately 3,000 to 20,000 by 1865.
Around this time the city also saw its share of race rioting, violence, and destruction of black communities that became so brutal, many black Memphians left the area for good. Yet amidst the rumble the first African American community built solely by and for African Americans known as Orange Mound was born.
John George Deaderick, purchased 5 thousand acres of land between 1825 and 1830 for his plantation. He named the neighborhood Orange Mound after the Osage Orange hedges that had lined the Deaderick Plantation. After his death his widow Mattie sold this property to a white real estate developer by the name of Izey Eugene Meacham in 1890.
During a time where land ownership was very much out of reach for African Americans, Meacham was instructed by Mrs. Deaderick not to sell any of the land to Negroes, but he made it his business to do just that. Turning a former plantation site into a black Mecca.
After his purchase he divided the land and assigned a segregated area for African Americans and sold lots for less than $100 a piece. The neighborhood was fairly autonomous, and African Americans owned, not rented, their homes. This created a haven where black people could thrive including building houses, schools, churches and businesses in which they could economically control.
Orange Mound was known to be a little rough compared to surrounding white neighborhoods, but during the Jim Crow era was a status symbol for black Memphians. It was a community sought after and distinguished as a place that African Americans should dwell in the South and became the largest black community next to Harlem in New York City by 1970. Most of its residents were labor workers and successful entrepreneurs. They flourished, raised families and successful black children who became well educated and successful teachers, doctors, and lawyers that made great strides both inside and outside of their community.
The Mound not only has a strong sense of pride among its natives, but is also rooted in Civil Rights history and progress. Mt. Pisgah C.M.E. Church, Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, and Beulah Baptist Church all played pivotal roles in the Civil Rights Movement by assisting and supporting various activists in their work and providing a place of refuge during segregation.
Music & Melrose
Underground hip hop and blues music have long been a rich part of Memphis tradition producing legends such as 8 Ball and MJG, and B. B. King who played some of his earliest gigs on the stage of The W.C. Handy Theater while staying with his cousin, blues legend and Orange Mound resident Bukkah White. The Handy Theater hosted the finest in African-American entertainment. Little Esther Phillips, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Lloyd Price, and Ivory Joe Hunter all once graced it’s stage. The theater site was demolished in 2012.
If you lived in Orange Mound more than likely you were a proud alumni of Melrose High School. Melrose, known as the heartbeat of the community produced graduate Dr. Alvin Crawford who became the first African American to earn a medical degree from the University of Tennessee. He went on to become an internationally recognized expert in childhood bone disorders with numerous awards for his pioneering work in orthopedic surgery.
The school’s famous athletes include NBA basketball star Bingo Smith, University of Memphis basketball star and coach Larry Finch, NFL football veterans Barry Wilburn, former University of Tennessee National Champions Andre Lott and Cedric Wilson who also won Superbowl 21, Ezell Jones, Jerome Woods, and Olympians Rochelle Stevens, Shelia Echols, and Kennedy McKinney.
As you know the South takes critical acclaim when it comes to Soul Food and Southern cooking. Orange Mound is no stranger to that. As you are driving through you’re well advised to pop in at the Orange Mound Grill. This quaint little hole in the wall will satisfy any taste buds. Greens, yams, ribs and all the fixins are a part of the daily menu. Established in 1947 as a family affair, it has been a long withstanding staple of the community.
In 2016, Michelle Obama proclaimed Orange Mound as a Preserve America Historic Neighborhood. This designation from the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation gives the neighborhood new opportunities for historic preservation and economic development through heritage tourism. It is joined by 904 other Preserve America communities across all 50 states, is one of 12 in Tennessee, and the first historically African American community to earn this designation in the state.
Cohen: First Lady Designates Orange Mound as a Preserve America Community
WASHINGTON, DC] — Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) today announced that First Lady Michelle Obama designated Orange…
Over the course of the 80’s and 90’s Orange Mound’ saw its share of obstacles as many black communities do but Revitalization efforts have since brought improvements. What some see as just another hood in Memphis I see as a strong hub of African Americans who take great pride in their neighborhood. People who have hope, passion, and aspirations. They are intensely dedicated and loyal to its betterment, and continue to become influential citizens of Memphis and across the country. When we remember Appalachian and Black American history, Orange Mound should remain an important part of that discussion. After all, it was the very first black community built for us by us.
Angela Dennis is a Freelance Writer residing in Knoxville, TN