By Denise Gallagher, CHP Graduate Research Assistant
Orange Mound is one of Memphis’s oldest and best-known African American neighborhoods. For the past few semesters, the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) has been working with the Orange Mound community to document historic landmarks as part of the neighborhood’s upcoming 125th anniversary celebration. The CHP’s work has highlighted eight historic churches but has also included multiple schools, a day nursery, a park, and a cemetery. Over the course of several visits, CHP students and staff have met quite a few community leaders, including Ms. Mary Mitchell and Ms. Tiana Pyles, who have shared their vision of the past, present, and future of Orange Mound. The CHP is producing a printed driving tour of community landmarks in conjunction with the 125th anniversary celebration scheduled for May 2, 2015.
Long-time residents sometimes refer to Orange Mound as the largest historically black community in the United States other than Harlem, New York. The statement’s accuracy is less important than its reflection of Orange Mound’s pride as a community intended for and, most importantly, built by African Americans. Unlike Harlem, which was initially settled by Jewish and Italian immigrants, who then moved on to other parts of New York, Orange Mound was developed specifically as a residential suburb for African Americans. However, like Harlem, Orange Mound grew to be a large, self-contained, thriving urban black community that fostered upward mobility.
When Orange Mound was founded in the late 1880s, Memphis city boosters were pushing to increase the population after the devastating effects of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, which collapsed the tax base and bankrupted the city. Elzey Eugene Meacham, a white land speculator from Memphis, recognized the emerging market of African Americans who wanted to own their own homes. At the time, Shelby County had a total population of 112,000 people, of which half were African American.
In 1889, Meacham purchased a sixty-acre section of the Deaderick Plantation, located five miles from the city center. He named the subdivision Orange Mound after the row of Osage orange trees that grew near the plantation house. The rural subdivision was organized as a grid and contained more than 900 narrow lots measuring 25 feet by 104 feet, which were sold for as little as $40. The small “shotgun” lots provided maximum profit for the developer, while also offering affordability to new residents.
During the early 1900s, a great wave of African Americans migrated to Memphis, overcrowding the inner-city and fueling Orange Mound’s expansion. Because African Americans were systematically excluded from equal participation in Memphis’s economic and political development, they sought to create their own institutions in communities like Orange Mound. In the recent ethnography titled African American Life and Culture in Orange Mound (2013), Charles Williams describes the community as “a web of complex and enduring relationships based on kinship, friendship, church membership, business partnership, employment in community schools and businesses, and participation in mutual aid societies and voluntary associations….” (p. 24). Williams emphasizes that the lower, middle, and elite classes shared a bond through common religious values and a spirit of racial pride and uplift.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Orange Mound continued to prosper despite the limitations created by Jim Crow laws. An economic boom after World War I caused unemployment to be low and wages high across the city. In 1919, Orange Mound was annexed by the city of Memphis, along with several other independent communities.
The prosperity of the 1920s can be observed in the building patterns of Orange Mound’s historic churches. The two oldest congregations, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church and Mt. Pisgah Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, constructed new buildings in 1925 and 1929, respectively, that continue to be impressive community landmarks today. The churches are located on main thoroughfares near the commercial districts of Carnes and Park avenues.
Two other historic churches, Greater New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and New Era Missionary Baptist Church, constructed buildings in 1924 and 1925, respectively. The two churches are located a few blocks from each other on residential streets. Both churches expanded laterally with impressive new sanctuaries that complement the original structures. At some point, lots across from the churches were purchased and turned into parking lots to accommodate the growing congregations. The adaptive reuse of the old sanctuaries as multi-purpose fellowship halls was practical but is also likely indicative of Orange Mound residents’ reverence for the past.
As the dates of the church expansions indicate, Orange Mound continued to grow in the decades after World War II; however, by then many social and political changes were underway that would greatly alter the community. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision set into motion a new relationship between blacks and whites that led to the Civil Rights Movement and increased racial equality, while at the same time undermining many of the sacred institutions in segregated communities like Orange Mound.
In the last half of the twentieth century, long-time Orange Mound residents struggled to maintain the strong community bonds that had shaped their collective identities. Although many of the residential and commercial structures have suffered from physical deterioration and blight, many of the foundational institutional buildings remain. In addition to historic churches, the community has remarkably preserved a gigantic reminder of Orange Mound’s celebrated past—the New Deal-built Melrose School, completed in 1938.
In the wake of school desegregation, the city opened a new Melrose High School a few blocks away in 1972. The historic Melrose School closed in 1979. In recent years, the looming historic complex has been threatened with demolition, but the community refuses to let it go. Alumni hope to see the building renovated and repurposed in order to once again serve the needs of the community. No other institution more fully unites and excites the community than the original Melrose High School, with its proud legacy.
On Saturday, May 2nd, Orange Mound kicks off its 125th anniversary celebration with a ceremony that will include many guest speakers and a procession of respected matriarchs and patriarchs escorted by the community’s youngest generation. The idea that the past can inform the present is deeply felt by the elder generation, which wishes not only to recognize Orange Mound’s rich history, but also to inspire the neighborhood’s youth. At the CHP’s most recent visit, the planning committee explained that the purpose of the celebration is to honor Orange Mound’s past achievements and to attract much-needed public and private resources back to the community.
What: Official Kick-Off Celebration for Orange Mound’s 125th Anniversary
Where: Melrose High School Auditorium, 2870 Deadrick Ave, Memphis, TN 38114
When: May 2, 2015, 12:00 PM
Charles Williams, African American Life and Culture in Orange Mound: Case Study of a Black Community in Memphis, Tennessee, 1890–1980 (Lexington Books, 2013).