On a Friday morning in August, six men stepped with trepidation on to the grounds of 843 Dallas Street in Memphis, Tenn. They wore thick black boots, held varying instruments for their individual work, and warned of broken glass and nails that littered the grass, leaves, and dirt.
The Old Melrose High School loomed with windows like chipped and snaggle-toothed mouths, stained with age and according to one of the men wielding a gray instrument, a copious amount of lead. A historical marker was the shiniest and newest thing on the property. It reads:
Melrose High School
Melrose School was an educational, cultural and civic center of the Orange Mound African American community. Completed by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration in 1938, this structure added to the original Rosenwald School’s capacity to accommodate students in grades one through twelve. The first senior class graduated in 1946. Well known for academic programs, theatre and sports, the school closed in 1979. This building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 2, 2001.
The old Melrose High School closed in 1979.
The building is fenced in and had banners with alumni from the school facing the street.
I intended to go to the school that morning to introduce myself to the engineers working to figure out how much asbestos and lead contaminated the structure, but with one signed waiver, a flashlight, and a paper mask covering my nose and mouth I followed the men, some of whom fully donned blue Haz-mat suits, while I wore a floral jumper and thin gray flats, into the dark building.
Once I crossed the threshold, I looked up into light flooding through the windows and holes in the building revealing a hefty set of stairs glazed in dirt mounds. I followed the men’s overlapping voices up the stairs. More dirt, more broken windows, but more light. It was beautiful.
The old Melrose high school is in disrepair but residents are inspired to return it to a place of community growth.
What I saw is much like my experience in Orange Mound during my first month so far; there were spots where the light reached and spots where it didn’t. There were parts of the building I wouldn’t dare enter alone because I was ill-equipped and parts that were so welcoming, I almost forgot it was abandoned. There were places I stepped lightly and carefully and places where my feet hit the ground confidently.
The residents of the historic Orange Mound neighborhood have many stories to tell and many ideas for their neighborhood. They are working to create solutions often times on their own and sometimes with help from other non-profits or mission groups that come into the neighborhood with high expectations, get discouraged after a few failures, and leave.
One woman told me a couple of weeks ago that sometimes these outsiders leave things better and sometimes they leave things worse. Another said that there are so any initiatives and ideas among residents that it’s hard to keep track of whose doing what project and who is getting what done. The conversations, meetings, and interviews so far all culminate to one conclusion: everyone wants to see change in the neighborhood.
The Melrose High School marching band lines up in the hallway before a performance at a fundraiser for the band.
When I became the On the Ground Editor, I was excited and nervous because I knew of Orange Mound and its history, visited the community center, met a couple of people, but never really experienced it. I knew of some things happening but never took a deep dive.
One of the blessings and curses of being born and raised in Memphis is knowing of the city. It’s easy to run into life-long Memphians who have never been to the river, the STAX Museum, Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum or other city jewels where thousands of tourists congregate every year. It’s a thing. We can tell you about it, we can tell you where it is, and recommend people go there because we know of these things and what they’re supposed to be, but in the humdrum of everyday life in a city where every corner has history, it’s easy to become numb or indifferent and put these places on the “do-later” list.
Emily Trenholm, engagement manager; Andrea Morales, On The Ground photojournalist; Angela Barksdale, president of Melrose Center for Cultural Enrichment and Erica Horton, On The Ground editor, stand in the High Ground News Orange Mound office.
As I cover Orange Mound through November, I will share stories about housing, education and community development, entrepreneurs and also history and culture. I will also do profiles of the older and new generations and spotlight Orange Mound pride. I hope these stories encourage people to explore the neighborhood and get to know another historic and fun part of Memphis.
I am on the ground in the Orange Mound Senior Center Monday through Friday at 2572 Park Ave, Memphis, Tenn. 38114. My office hours are Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 8:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m. and Tuesdays, Thursdays 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I want to hear more from the community stakeholders and residents of Orange Mound.
Since I’m literally on the ground often, I suggest emailing before coming by to make sure we catch each other. Beginning in September, I will post a photo a day to Instagram with the hashtag #OMLOVE. If you’re in the neighborhood sometime, feel free to take a photo and use the hashtag too. Catch a glimpse of Orange Mound life every day at Instagram.com/highgroundnews.