As Orange Mound celebrates its own history, times change – but pride, hope remain

Memphis City Councilwoman Jamita Swearengen teaches Mayor Jim Strickland how to do “the Orange Mound” sign – an ‘OK’ sign creates the “O” and inverted, the three fingers creates the “M.” (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

It only took about 60-70 people to pack out the tiny Orange Mound Gallery at 2232 Lamar on Wednesday for a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Orange Mound ‘s official annexation into the City of Memphis.

The event was part of a full day of events celebrating the city’s bicentennial. Many in the audience wore some version of an Orange Mound T-shirt. Other shirts repped Melrose High School, an institution as old as Orange Mound itself.

About halfway through the program, while live-streaming the event on social media, Esther Cook-Jones began to cry. Finding out exactly why would have to wait until the end of the program – and until she hugged and posed for multiple selfies with others from “The Mound.” But the tears came again as she answered.

Esther Cook-Jones’ Orange Mound roots run seven generations deep. “Just to see that we’re finally getting the recognition we deserve . . . it touches my heart,” said Cook-Jones, sporting an Orange Mound pride shirt alongside Tamara Rowlett Brown, who volunteers with the Orange Mound Parade Committee. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

“My whole family – seven generations of Cooks – we all still live in The Mound,” she said. “And when I was a little girl, my momma instilled in me to know my community, to be proud of who I am.

“She’s gone now,” Cook-Jones said as she wiped her eyes. “So I feel like it’s up to me to carry, you know, that legacy on and everything. So just to see that we’re finally getting the recognition we deserve . . . it touches my heart.”

There’s a reason people get emotional about Orange Mound – its storied history, its post-desegregation decline. It’s the same reason they’re passionately optimistic about its future. It’s called pride.

From plantation to pocket paradise

Before it was Orange Mound, it was the old Deaderick Plantation – more than 5,000 acres of land William Pitt Deaderick bought back in the 1820s and owned up until his death in 1889. But there was no way his widow could maintain all that land and a workforce made up of former slaves.

That’s when E. E. Meacham, a real estate developer, offered to buy some of the land to build a residential subdivision. Legend has it that Deaderick’s widow agreed, but with one condition:

The Orange Mound historical marker sits on Park Avenue, in front of the Orange Mound Community Services Center and Vertie M. Sails gymnasium. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

“Don’t sell to ex-slaves or negroes,” said Dr. David Acey, executive director of Africa In April and an Orange Mound native. “And he promised her he wasn’t going to do it. But he saw an opportunity to make a lot of money.”

Whether he changed his mind or just outright lied, Meacham promptly went right out and began selling the long, narrow lots to former slaves who would build the long, narrow “shotgun” houses of the era. Lots sold for $100 a pop, some as low as $40. The neighborhood would take the name of the mock oranges that lined the side of Deaderick’s old plantation.

Meacham may have provided the land. The people? They did the rest.

“Carpenters, bricklayers, everyone began to build that community up themselves,” Acey said. “It was a cohesive, strong community – not only the physical aspect of it, but the communal and social aspects.”

Even it its infancy, segregation wouldn’t allow freed slaves and their descendants to participate in mainstream society, so they created their own. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, shoe cobblers, barbers, grocers — and perhaps most importantly, homeowners — made Orange Mound into a safe place for residents. And it was a sense of pride that was passed on to Acey at a young age.

“When mama and I got on the bus to go downtown, we had to go to the back,” Acey recalled. “I always got nauseated because of the carbon monoxide back there. And all the department stores were segregated. One clerk was giving my mama her change back but put it on the counter, because he didn’t want to touch her hand.”

But when they got back to the Mound . . .

“It was total comfort,” Acey said. “We weren’t the only ones, there were other black neighborhoods doing well. But what made us unique was we owned our homes in Orange Mound. It made it that much sweeter.

“We had everything we needed in Orange Mound.”

Desegregation and the law of unintended consequences

So what happens when white folks can’t tell you where to live anymore? You live wherever you want to – or wherever you can afford.

Hastily passed after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Fair Housing Act of 1968 opened up housing markets that had been closed to even the most affluent African Americans. Those who could afford to purchase more expensive homes in other neighborhoods often did. Those who couldn’t stayed.

According to U.S. Census data, Orange Mound roared with new home construction in the 1940s and 1950s, a trend which steadily declined through the 1960s and 1970s.

Still, Orange Mound was home to a solid working class who made their living at the factories and warehouses that fueled the city’s economic boom.

But when those companies left the city, everything changed, said Orange Mound native Curtis Stone, 73. Firestone. International Harvester. Stroh’s Brewery. Caterpillar.

“They got rid of all of the main sources of income for the lower middle class. Then the unions killed off all the truck lines,” said Stone, himself a retired truck driver. “At one time, Memphis had 112 truck lines. Deregulation killed them all.”

By the 1980s, the community’s economic struggles became amplified by the crack epidemic and the crime and violence that came with it. Orange Mound’s reputation for blight, poverty and violence began to overtake its otherwise rich history.

“It is really special, to be alive this time to see the wonderful things that are happening, to be able to look at and see the growth that’s happening in this community,” said Shelby County Commissioner Reginald Milton.

“Communities are like human beings,” said Shelby County Commissioner Reginald Milton, who spent Tuesday afternoon talking to constituents at the Orange Mound Community Services Center on Park Avenue. “They live. They exist. They can get sick. They can even die if not treated.

“This community has not been treated as well as it deserves,” Milton said. “The reality is that this is a community with a great deal of pride, a great deal of history. Unless we invest in these communities and invest in the people who are fighting on the front line to change things, you won’t make anything different.

“You have to help the people who are trying to help themselves,” Milton said.

‘It’s different for each generation’

Even as Orange Mound struggled, the pride never left, recalls Britney Thornton, a 29-year-old Baylor-educated native who returned home five years ago.

“I didn’t know the history of the community, but growing up, my experience reeked of pure blackness,” said Thornton, founder of JUICE Orange Mound. “I attended private school, so coming back to Orange Mound after school was like coming back to black.”

Elders like Acey and Stone can nostalgically rattle off who owned the shoe store and how the neighborhood pharmacist whipped up quick remedies. Thornton, who grew up in the 1990s, has different memories.

“The things I recall are both nostalgic and dysfunctional,” Thornton said. “Like, playing ‘drive-by.’ A car comes down the street and one of us yells out ‘Drive-By!” and all the kids drop to the ground. Like, where would we have learned that?

“We had a lot of dysfunction on my street, but there was also a sense of connectedness,” Thornton continued. “The elders talk about something warm and connected in a different way. And as I hear younger kids now, it’s even different for them than it was for me.

“Everyone seeks that sense of connectedness,” she added. “But it’s different for each generation.”

Teach for America brought Thornton back to Memphis after grad school. And with what she describes as a sense of “frustration and responsibility,” she dove headfirst into community engagement and involvement in Orange Mound. She bought a home there and attended all kinds of community meetings.

“I just showed up and that was my ‘give back’ to the community,” she said. “That led me to see things from a place of responsibility. These issues aren’t for me to passively look at. I started to do something about them.”

The Mound on the rebound

When Merritt Bailey decided to upgrade Ball Hoggerz BBQ from a food truck to a bricks-and-mortar location, he quickly settled on his location on Airways just off Lamar. “Everybody’s pretty very nice around here,” said Bailey, 38. “I love to see the neighborhood do things and you know, the ‘hood is only what you make it, mane. You try to do good and bring good stuff to the ‘hood – so you can get that stigma off its back.” (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

Thornton launched JUICE Orange Mound in 2016 and literally went door-to-door to engage with her neighbors. And that’s just one of more than a dozen organizations whose sole purposes are to uplift and serve Orange Mound and its people. It helps that there are now allies in city and county government – including Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

“Orange Mound is the gift that keeps on giving. And Memphis is lucky to have this gift,” Strickland said in his remarks Wednesday. “The people of Orange Mouind have created a lasting and powerful legacy of creativity, leadership and service to one another. There are many, like me here today, that believe that legacy is just beginning.”

Thornton agrees.

“The future is bright. We’re on the cusp of a heyday,” she said. “Orange Mound is identified as prime real estate of the future, and we’re on the radar of people who can do more. If we are to become what WE want to become, this is the time.”

Not surprisingly, new Shelby County Historian James Rout III offered remarks at Wednesday’s celebration. Rout, who is white, placed an old photo of his grandfather on the podium and told of his own connection to Orange Mound.

“He lived over on Kent Street, as he says, the foothills of Orange Mound,” said Rout, who won some ‘street cred’ with his mention of Kent Street. “He talked about his best friend Gerald, a little black boy, and they played every day for six years together.

“He used to tell me stories about how they would walk down Spottswood – two little boys barefoot and dirt roads, no sidewalks,” Rout continued. “They would hear the choirs singing on Wednesday and Sunday nights because there was no air conditioning and the doors were open. And as the sun was setting, they would walk back home counting the fireflies in Orange Mound.

“I may be blonde and blue-eyed, but my heart runs deep in Orange Mound,” Rout said to raucous applause. “This picture is evidence of what our future holds – faith, fortitude and family. Togetherness, black and white.

“It can happen. It has happened. And it will happen (again) – because of people like you.”