A look at Orange Mound, the oldest all-Black neighborhood in the U.S.

January 18, 2020 at 04:30 pm | History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

January 18, 2020 at 04:30 pm | History

In 2019, Orange Mound, a neighborhood located in southeast Memphis, Tennessee, marked its 100th year of existence. Orange Mound is the country’s oldest African-American neighborhood which has officially been part of the city of Memphis since 1919.

The first African-American neighborhood to be built by and for African Americans was built on the grounds of the former Deaderick plantation, the Orange Mound subdivision was developed for African Americans in the 1890s to provide affordable land and residences for the less wealthy.

Drugs and crime infected the neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s. In the first decade of the 21st century, revitalization efforts were started with its attendant positive effects.

Early row houses built by African Americans in Orange Mound. These plots of land were sold to them by Izey Eugene Meacham for less than $100 a piece.

Orange Mound was built on the John George Deaderick Plantation. Deaderick purchased 5,000 acres of land between 1825 and 1830, and the neighborhood got its name from a local fruit called the mock orange that grew in the shrubs there. The Deaderick plantation was sold to a white real estate developer, Izey Eugene Meacham, in 1890.

Young men and women get relief from the summer heat, swimming at the Orange Mound swimming pool in this undated photograph. (Courtesy Memphis & Shelby County Public Library and Information Center)

“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.

“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.”

By the 1970s, Orange Mound had one of the largest African-American presence in the U.S. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, there were high rates of drugs, crime, and violence as a result of the poverty in the area. Despite the hardships, business owners, lawyers, doctors, attorneys, teachers and other influential members emerged from the community.

Piggly Wiggly was the first true self-service grocery store. It was founded on September 6, 1916 at 79 Jefferson Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, by Clarence Saunders.

“Churches including Mt. Pisgah C.M.E. Church, Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, and Beulah Baptist Church played a role in the Civil Rights Movement by assisting and supporting various activists. Blues legends B.B. King and Bukkah White played some of their earliest gigs in the community. Prominent athletes also have their roots in Orange Mound, such as former Memphis State basketball coach Larry Finch, Denver (Colorado) Broncos’ Tori Noel, and Olympic gold track athletes Sheila Nichols and Rochelle Stevens.

“Education is also a source of pride in Orange Mound which includes schools such as Dunbar Elementary and Melrose High School. In fact, the creators of “Memphis Sound” (Willie Mitchell and Carl Cunningham) and Stax CEO Kirk Whalum first played in the Melrose Band. Moreover, Melrose graduate, Dr. Alvin Crawford was the first African American to earn a medical degree from the University of Tennessee and became internationally recognized for orthopedic surgery.”

Ever resilient, Orange Mound continues to foster a strong sense of community and identity within a large urban environment.

The Handy hosted the finest in African-American entertainment. In 1953 alone, Little Esther Phillips, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Lloyd Price, and Ivory Joe Hunter played at the Handy. The theater site was demolished in 2012.

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