A great shout of joy resounded in Orange Mound last week as Memphis-Shelby County Schools and City of Memphis leaders staged the long-awaited groundbreaking of a “reimagined” Melrose High School building.
“That great shout of joy was a war cry of victory,” said LaTonia Blankenship, chair of the Orange Mound Collaborative Group and City Council candidate for District 4. “We have fought for so long to save our school. This is the day of our dreams.”
The event unfolded last Friday afternoon (Oct. 7).
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland told the crowd that “every community deserves investment in its people and its space.”
The project’s investment is $13 million — $10 million from the city. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen secured $3 million in federal community development funding for the project.
Melrose was built in 1938 as a federal Great Depression Work Project Administration effort. From the day it closed in 1981, former students and teachers had envisioned a second-chapter reopening building.
In 2001, a grassroots community effort resulted in the original Melrose High School officially declared “historic” and entered on the “National Register of Historic Places.
The final push to Oct. 7 and a jubilant groundbreaking started in 2017 when a wide-eyed, eager Jevonte Porter came to the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development.
“I came to work at the Division of HCD when Paul Young was director,” said Porter. “I had just graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and I was an analyst. Mr. Young saw how I loved Orange Mound because I was born and raised there, and he put me on that project.”
The complex will house a state-of-the-art community library, a genealogy center to research family history, and two floors of affordable senior living units.
Young recalled assigning Porter the project of heading the “Re-Imagine Historic Melrose project because Porter’s heart was in it.
“I could see the love and dedication Jevonte had for his school and his community,” said Young, who has announced a run for Memphis mayor next year. “Our young people want to come back home and work, and new projects such as this one will create new opportunities for economic development in Orange Mound. We as a city must be committed to investing in underserved communities and neighborhoods.”
The day was bittersweet for Porter.
“My grandparents, aunts and uncles, and my parents all went to Melrose High School,” said Porter. “Some of them died before they could see what we are doing now. But I know so many are singing in heaven and celebrating along with us.”
Porter graduated in 2014 from the second Melrose High School at 2870 Deadrick Ave. He was valedictorian of his class and captured the Mr. Golden Wildcat title his senior year.
“We realized that our school had become a blight and an eyesore, but it was my playground coming up,” said Porter. “I was so happy, so proud at the groundbreaking. This project is life-changing for the community, life-giving for all who long to see Orange Mound return to its former glory.”
Hazell Jones, a 1963 Melrose graduate, was as excited about breaking ground as anyone.
“My parents had 13 children, and we all went to Melrose,” said Jones. “I was captain of the cheerleaders and president of the Thespian Club. Those were the days. I attended Melrose when our campus was plush and beautiful. What a joy to witness a new chapter for our building.”
Jones said Orange Mound was a true “village” growing up.
“We couldn’t get away with anything because our teachers went to church with us and knew our parents,” said Jones. “But Orange Mound was self-sufficient and a city unto itself. Reopening our beloved school as a repurposed project will recapture the village spirit.”
An emotional balloon release honored those who died still holding on to the dream of reopening their beloved Melrose High.
“They were messages to heaven,” said Jones. “We did it.”