Klondike Smokey City’s history drives its future

For the next three months embedded On the Ground writers, photographers and videographers will focus on the North Memphis neighborhoods of Klondike and Smokey City.
Maybe you’ve heard of Klondike and Smokey City. The two North Memphis communities were among the first African-American neighborhoods in the city of Memphis, and they have a rich story to tell. The neighborhoods sit between Jackson and Chelsea avenues, from Manassas Street on the west to Watkins Street on the east. Uptown is nearby; so is the redevelopment surrounding Crosstown Concourse.
 
But Klondike and Smokey City stand alone in African-American history and culture in North Memphis, neighborhoods where some of the city’s civil rights leaders called home.
 
“One of our greatest assets is our history,” said Quincey Morris, a lifelong part of the community and executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp. “I don’t think it’s known and it should be.”
 
Lines of Segregation
 
The lines of segregation are real in the city’s history, and studying a map of Klondike and Smokey City reveal some of those stories.

For more of Andrea Morales' photos of Klondike Smokey City, visit this article's related photo essay. 

Lanterns are released at a vigil for victims of violence at Northside High School over the summer.
 
Smokey City’s street grid features larger lots separated by tiny alleys. Antonio Raciti, an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning with the University of Memphis, points out how those alleys signify what the community once was. Whites lived in larger houses while the African-Americans who worked jobs serving those houses lived nearby.
 
“All the memories of people we talked to are connected to alleys, not streets,” Raciti said. “They weren’t allowed to walk on the main streets. They had a system of alleys to keep them invisible.”
 
Just to the east in Klondike is a different story. The streets are tighter, with houses of similar size. This neighborhood was for African Americans.
 
The larger community played a role in integrating Memphis City Schools, when in 1961 13 African-American children enrolled in four elementary schools in the city. Twins Sheila and Sharon Malone attended Gordon Elementary School, which sits between Decatur and Breedlove streets along the border between Smokey City and Klondike.
 
In a 2004 Memphis Flyer story looking back at schools desegregation in the city, now Sheila Malone Conway recalled her fears those days attending the school. She and her sister were placed in separate classes.
 
“The first six weeks was rough,” she told the Flyer. “We were 6 years old. We couldn’t hurt anybody.”
 
Today, Mary Elizabeth Malone Park sits in the neighborhood just to the west of Gordon Elementary. It’s named for the Malone twins’ mother. And that is part of the community’s rich history that Morris said needs to be understood.
 
Klondike’s name came from the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s. And since this community was one of the first experiments in Memphis of having African-Americans own their own houses, the idea made sense. Smokey City is a different story.
 
“Certain people say it was Smokey City because of the craftsmen and a lot of smoke from their work,” Raciti said. “Others say that was a name that came out later after desegregation. There was a lot of white flight. The neighborhood was abandoned.”
 
Reclaiming Community
 
Today, the separate communities of Klondike and Smokey City are joined at the hip, so to speak. The Klondike Neighborhood Association and the Klondike Community Development Corp. began in 1996, and later merged in 1999. The Smokey City community was added in 2003, forming the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.
 
Its mission is helping the residents of the community with everything from job readiness to food access. The CDC assists neighbors with community gardens, for example. At its core, Morris said, is to improve the economic health of the community.

Shelia Williams and her son Tailor Jackson, 3, read a book together while at a bus stop.
 
The Klondike Smokey City communities include some 5,000 people, the majority of whom are African-American.
 
One challenge Klondike Smokey City has in sharing the story of its role in the city’s history is an identity crisis of sorts. The Klondike and Smokey City communities often are just lumped into a greater North Memphis description.
 
But that’s too broad; North Memphis extends from the Mississippi River and Uptown east across New Chicago, Hyde Park and Vollintine Evergreen all the way to Nutbush. And, yes, Smokey City and Klondike sit in the heart of North Memphis.
 
Stand on the western edge of Smokey City and look across Manassas at the new urbanism developments of Uptown. A few miles away on the eastern edge of Klondike, look south and catch a glimpse of the former Sears Crosstown building rising in the distance. That Crosstown Concourse redevelopment anchors a neighborhood teeming with potential.
 
But what about Klondike Smokey City?
 
“When the powers that be decide to do their city planning they don’t plan on North Memphis,” Morris said. “They plan everywhere else. If you look at us they’ve done economic development around us. Look at what’s in Uptown and Crosstown. You look at us and there’s nothing as of yet.”
 
But all it takes is a moment to see changes in Klondike Smokey City. In late 2015 Morris contacted Raciti, and the Department of City and Regional Planning with the University of Memphis got involved, including students who went out to better understand the community.
 
Students from two classes got to know residents and other people connected to the community. It’s an effort that continues.
 
There is plenty of pride in the community, although some people keep it from afar. Raciti said it hasn’t been unusual to talk to Klondike property owners, only they live outside the community in other neighborhoods, such as Harbortown. They keep a connection to their youth or their family by owning property in Klondike, and maybe also attending one of the community’s several churches.
 
Continued Struggles
 
The neighborhood has struggles. Drug addiction and mental health are concerns. And so is education. Lack of job access isn’t a new story. It’s a story that has plagued much of North Memphis and Frayser in light of various manufacturers that closed a few decades ago.
 
“There is a desperate need to have jobs,” Raciti said. “People want to see the neighborhood like it used to be, which means more housing. People want to improve their quality of life through public amenities.”
 
In a 1996 Commercial Appeal article titled “Klondyke activists want official cleanup,” Klondyke Booster Club president Alma Morris said, “We need jobs out here. We need someone to go from corner to corner and ask people why they’re not working. They’ll tell you they used to work at Firestone. Some of these people have just gotten disgusted and they go sleep in the park or under a tree.”

Customers come through The Barber School on Jackson Avenue on the edge of Klondike.
 
Quincey Morris fights that struggle from the Klondike Smokey City CDC offices at 943 Vollintine. What she calls a resource center for the community sits in a house built in 2009 on a site that was given to the organization by the old Klondike Civic Club.
 
Much like other communities in Memphis, education is another challenge facing Klondike Smokey City. It recently was announced that Klondike School will close at the end of the academic year. Northside High School closed before the current school year. The buildings are adjacent along Vollintine in the heart of the neighborhood.
 
“Closing two schools is not helping this community at all,” Raciti said. “How can you start with strategies if there are no efforts that complement your work in this community, especially from the public?”
 
Those empty buildings are one concern. Children leaving the heart of the community to attend school is another.
 
Eric Dunn grew up in the community. Today he’s working to better understand the education dynamic in Klondike Smokey City. He’s considering a campaign for a seat on the Shelby County Commission with education his main focus.
 
He said he’s talked to plenty of parents who are concerned about safety for their children who will have a longer walk to get to Vollintine Elementary. He’s also concerned about the community pride he grew up around that he believes will diminish as students no longer attend a neighborhood school.
 
“We took pride in neighborhood schooling,” he said. “We were one big family. We walked home together. We had a lot of parents and teachers who cared about our education. Pride starts at home.”
 
Turnaround Story
 
The Klondike Smokey City narrative is one that is Memphis at heart. It’s part challenge and part hope. In fact, the CDC, with assistance from the U of M students, is working on an economic development plan. There is talk of building new houses in the community as well as bringing a renewed focus on an urban garden business. It could include an indoor farm and cooking school.
 
The addition of public parks and strengthening the community gardens in place is an important step, Raciti said. Identifying grant opportunities will be important for the community in the months and years to come.
 
Yes, there are some blighted houses. But there are also beautiful structures with well-maintained yards and gardens. Morris said blight removal is one of the main improvements over the past few years.
 
She credited the Klondike Smokey City partnership made up of various community stakeholders with cleaning up much of vacant lots and boarding up abandoned houses. It’s an exciting time in Klondike Smokey City for those who are ready to move forward.
 
“The average person might want us to go away,” Morris said. “We won’t go away.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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