Orange Mound should be a priority for historians who study Black History. It is here that African American survivors of the “yellow fever” epidemic applied their cultural courage and built a community for themselves. Within the boundaries of this all-Black neighborhood within the majority white city of Memphis during the turn of the 20th century, the injustices of the Jim Crow South had less traction.
It is here that Black Memphians built and owned homes, inspiring post-civil war African Americans to look toward one of their 1st Black Meccas. It became a community of inspiration for the progeny of freed slaves in the U.S. and an economic prototype for progress and pride. Everything to prosper a family and a neighborhood was offered within its boundary. Civic pride was certifiable with good reason.
A tract of land from the Deaderick 5000-acre plantation was scored into affordable plots for purchase in 1889, and a neighborhood in what is now the center of Memphis became a haven. It became, “a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor and beauty from the ashes,”(Isaiah 61:3) … in the very place where 100 slaves that worked the Deaderick farm are buried.
Segregated from the larger city to the northwest, Orange Mound was populated with new homes, schools, churches, theaters, parks, fire departments, libraries, medical clinics, and businesses. Future teachers, doctors, and lawyers graduated from Melrose High School and brought inspiration to those watching and thriving within its boundaries. A new refrain was written in the underground music genres that were also thriving in the city.
So, what happened? Orange Mound has lost its luster and has an unseemly reputation now.
A complicated web of circumstances precipitated the decline of this once fabled community. Following a major civil rights victory in the late sixties that required the City of Memphis to desegregate parks, the City resisted by closing the swimming pool that had been a gathering place since 1928. The City eventually sold the property to a for-profit business and filled-in the pool. This, among other events, limited opportunities for Orange Mound neighbors to gather and strengthen the sense of community that had existed.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a seminal event for the nation, the city, and Orange Mound. King was known to frequent barbershops and restaurants in the community, and a group known as the Orange Mound Mobilizers served as his body guards. Immediately following the killing of King, parts of Park Avenue burned, and the national guard occupied the neighborhood.
Only a few years later, the rising influence of the illicit drug trade and the expansion of gangs found its way to Orange Mound. Many middle income families chose to move east to more affluent neighborhoods presumed to be safer.
We are more than 50 years past the glory days, but Isaiah once again gives me hope that a renaissance is possible.
“They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”(Isaiah 61:4)
This past Saturday, another chapter is being added to the Orange Mound history book. United Housing is announcing the plans for 4 single-family homes that will be built on Semmes Street on property previously owned by My Cup of Tea and across the street from our original location. There will be more to come. A new vision is taking form, and prayers are being answered. The roots of pride in this neighborhood are still embedded in the soil, and the first families of Orange Mound are in the great cloud of witnesses encouraging us onward. The neighborhood’s legacy is intact. More Black history is in the making in Orange Mound.