Klondike Smokey City’s history tells a story of prosperity but also one of decline with shuttered factories, white flight and racial segregation at its core.
A community’s history is possibly best told by the stories of its people specifically the everyday residents who call a neighborhood home.
In North Memphis, the Klondike Smokey City neighborhood has a rich history that is celebrated by some but goes unknown by most.
Take the story of Tom Lee. Most Memphians know of Tom Lee Park next to the Mississippi River where the city comes to party for the Memphis in May International Festival every year.
Fewer probably know the story of the black man who rescued 32 people from the M.E. Norman, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vessel that capsized on May 8, 1925, in the Mississippi River.
Tom Lee's home on Mansfield Street. Tom Lee was an African-American river worker, who saved the lives of 32 passengers of the sinking steamboat M.E. Norman in 1925. The Army Corps of Engineers gave him this house as a gift to his bravery.
His reward? A small brick house that was built for him at 923 N. Mansfield St. in the Klondike neighborhood.
That house is on the eastern side of the Klondike neighborhood, and Lee called it home until he died of cancer in 1952. That little fact is rarely known even by those who call Klondike home.
That vacant house is just one of several historical highlights in the Klondike Smokey City community that a historic preservation class in the City and Regional Planning Department at the University of Memphis researched in 2016.
That class prepared a historic preservation strategies report that analyzes Klondike Smokey City’s past so planners can better understand the foundation laid for the North Memphis community’s future development.
“This is the problem with Klondike/Smokey City. They are a community which walks in history with each step, but goes unrecognized by many,” the report states. “Klondike/Smokey City is a neighborhood forgotten. Forgotten by residents, by the community at large, by its neighbors in Memphis, and by the annals of the past elsewhere. History has been evaporating with little to be done to stop it.”
Understanding the past
Klondike’s name is associated with the Alaskan gold rush of the same name. Smokey City likely got its name from the blacksmith shops in the area.
The first recorded development in the area can be found on the 1858 map of Memphis, which shows the Porter Leath Orphan Asylum at the northwest corner of Smokey City on Manassas Street near Chelsea Avenue.
Development in the Klondike and Smokey City communities began in the early 1900s an flourished over the next few decades in part thanks to the streetcar network.
The marker outside of the former Gordon Elementary School building stands as a reminder of the history behind the Klondike children who helped integrate the Memphis's schools.
The first few decades of the 1900s saw new home construction, business growth and an increase in the neighborhood’s population. Prosperity continued in the post-World War II era until the civil rights era and white flight changed the makeup of the neighborhood.
Of course much like many neighborhoods across the South, white-black divides ruled the communities and shaped their present-day configuration.
The racial divide of the neighborhood was present in how the streets were laid out in Smokey City. Specifically, alleys existed for use by the neighborhood’s African-American residents. The main streets existed for the whites.
And, according to the University of Memphis report, many of the shotgun houses in the western part of the neighborhood were originally attached to larger houses. The shotgun houses were home to the maids who worked in those homes.
The story of 1960s and 1970s Klondike Smokey City is also about racial progress. Local school integration found its roots in these small North Memphis neighborhoods.
The Memphis 13 were a group of African-American students who were the first to attend white high schools. Two of those students, twin sisters Shelia and Sharon Malone, attended Gordon Elementary School in the heart of Smokey City. Today, the Mary Elizabeth Malone Park honors those girls’ mother.
That legacy is important to the community, said the Rev. O.C. Collins of Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church. The Malone family attended his church.
Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church on Looney Avenue in Klondike is one of a few churches in the community that is over 100 years old.
“I immediately got to know her,” Collins said of Mary Elizabeth Malone. “She was a great activist in the community. It’s evident by her bravery to send her two daughters to school. The park opened because she said we need a place for our children.”
Bethlehem still has strong ties to Gordon Elementary. The church paid for a historical marker at the school and parishioners mentor students there.
Some of the Memphis’ key civil rights leaders, such as Jesse James, called Klondike home.
The University of Memphis student report refers to James as one of the prominent leaders of the neighborhood. He served sas president of the Klondike Civic Club, “a black organization where community leaders, stakeholders, and residents would gather to discuss neighborhood concerns.”
That civic club was the precursor to today’s Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., an organization that works in much the same way to lift up the neighborhood.
Shelby County School workers move the remaining items out of Northside High School. The school closed in 2016.
In some ways, the Klondike of the 1970s is much like the Klondike of 2017. The student report states that neighborhood residents felt disconnected from city officials particularly voicing concern over the lack of upkeep of Klondike Park.
Population decline continues in Klondike Smokey City. The 2010 population was 5,290, which is less than half of the 11,647 residents recorded 30 years before in 1980.
Much of that decline coincides with the closing of major employers in the area.
International Harvester closed its Frayser plant in 1983 and a month later Firestone announced it would close its North Memphis plant, which drained an additional 2,000 jobs from the community. Eventually, other nearby plants closed as well which was a death knell for these small North Memphis communities.
The Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.’s presence in New Chicago, just blocks from Smokey City, was massive. The facility opened in 1936 and by the 1960s it was rolling out thousands of tires a day.
“When I was in high school Firestone was booming, booming, booming,” said Mary Hill, a Manassas High graduate in the early 1950s and Smokey City resident for the past 48 years.
Clint Eastwood, Smokey City resident, stands for a portrait while at a cookout near the old Firestone plant. In the 1970s he was one of the many people who worked in the community's industrial center along the shipping lines that traveled through New Chicago.
“They had three shifts of employees. We had to endure the rubber aroma in the air. … When those plants closed it was a great impact. People lost their jobs and their homes.”
There were multiple plants located in North Memphis, and they all closed through the years. HumKo Co., for example, was just a couple of miles north of the neighborhood on Thomas Street where it made vegetable oil food products.
“A lot of people lost their beautiful homes,” Hill said. “I knew some families who had lovely homes. The man drove a Cadillac and the wife didn’t have to work. They lived well.”
Collins said many of the problems that plague the community stem from poverty. He points to the loss of jobs as part of that problem.
“When Firestone was open and nice factories and jobs were in this area, people could walk to their jobs or take a short bus ride,” he said. “At one point this community was thriving. After all that closed up there was nothing to fill the gap. Those jobs aren’t coming back and that’s a reality we’re dealing with.”
The Firestone plant in New Chicago started with a few hundred employees and grew into the largest industrial employer employing over 3,000 people. It was the largest tire manufacturer in the company's entire worldwide operation. The Firestone tire plant operated until the end of the 1970s when their production began to dwindle, and finally in 1983 the plant closed its doors.
One need of today’s Klondike Smokey City residents is more grocery options. That once existed when Kroger sat in the neighborhood. But it went away when Interstate 40 was built through the neighborhood. The highway passes through where that store and many others once served the community.
The interstate’s location is near Breedlove Street, which considered the border between Smokey City on the west and Klondike to the east.
Prior to white flight, Breedlove also served as a racial barrier of sorts. White Memphians lived in Smokey City among African-Americans while Klondike was one of the city’s main black neighborhoods.
Hill did recall days sitting on front porches in the neighborhood that eventually were torn down to make way for the highway. The interstate’s construction brought progress in some ways, but destruction in others.
That story is a Memphis tale whether it’s North Memphis or South Memphis.