Memphis black history: Orange Mound as a haven for black Memphians

Memphis’ own neighborhood of Orange Mound has a significant spot in African-American history asit was the first residential neighborhood in the south open to African-Americans.
Memphis’ own neighborhood of Orange Mound has a significant spot in African-American history asit was the first residential neighborhood in the south open to African-Americans.

To understand the impact and significance of this, it might be a good idea to reflect back to what Memphis looked like during the mid to late 19th century. In 1862, during the Civil War, the Union Army overtook Memphis by sailing down the Mississippi River from the north. Many slaves fled their plantations to join the Union lines; because of this, the black population in Memphis increased from 3,000 before the war to over 20,000 by 1865.

Read the first article of the Memphis Black History series: "Ida B. Wells nevertheless persisted"

At the war’s end, the presence of black Union soldiers ruffled the feathers of the whites in the city. Then came the Memphis Riot of 1866 resulting from a shooting altercation between black Union soldiers and white Memphis police officers. From May 1 to May 3, 1866, 42 black Memphians were killed. Over 175 black Memphians were robbed and injured. Over 100 black schools, churches, and homes were burned to the ground.

It was so devastating, that one quarter of Memphis' population of African Americans left the city. During the yellow fever epidemics throughout the 1870s, Memphis lost 75 percent of its population. Many of the white upper and middle class residents fled to other cities leaving poor whites and blacks to pull together what was left.

The city needed so much rebuilding that the state even revoked Memphis’ city charter labelling it a “taxing district.” This is where Orange Mound enters the story.

In 1890, Elzey Eugene Meachem, a landowner with both Memphis and New York ties, bought a portion of the Deaderick Plantation from William Pitt Deaderick’s widow.





















Now, picture this: William Pitt Deaderick lived on his family’s plantation from his birth in 1827 until his death in 1889. Imagine what the plantation looked like in 1857, when he was 30 years old, at the height of slavery. Imagine what it looked like in 1867, when he was 40, post-Civil War. Imagine what it looked like in 1888, when he was 60 and Tennessee didn’t even call Memphis a city.

Meachem told Mattie Deaderick, William Pitt’s widow, that he was planning to create a subdivision with the land. Mattie, it is rumored, gave Meachem the following instructions: “Don’t sell this land to Negroes.”

So what did Meachem do? He sold the land to black Memphis residents.

It was the first place that African-Americans could own their own homes. They built a school, which still stands as Melrose High School. Black doctors, lawyers, and educators moved there. Eventually, it grew to become the second largest community of African-American residents, after Harlem, New York.

To learn more about Orange Mound, get on the ground and walk around living history. Check out the Orange Mound Collaborative and the Orange Mound Development Corporation. Go to Orange Mound Gallery. Check out the mural at the Orange Mound Community Center.

Orange Mound has an incredible legacy, and because it is such a big part of Memphis history, all Memphians should know about it.

Read more articles by Morgan Beckford.

Morgan Beckford is a long-time Memphian, performing musician and educator. Currently, she serves as the coordinator of in-school partnerships for the Memphis Music Initiative and summer conservatory director for Opera Memphis. 
 
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