Memphis is rich in history. From epidemics and earthquakes to civil rights and rock n’ roll, a lot has taken place in its 190-plus years. Within the city’s many communities, there is a history too.
Recently, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell recognized Orange Mound resident Mary Mitchell’s dedication to preserving her neighborhood’s history by naming her as Honorary Orange Mound Historian.
“We are here to honor Mary Mitchell. But I can tell you we are using Mary as an example of just how good our community can be – if we had 20 Mary Mitchells across Shelby County in various areas – what we could do to highlight the beauty and integrity and historical significance of all our areas,” praised Mayor Luttrell during a ceremony at the Orange Mound Community Center on October 23.
Born in 1936, Mitchell's family has lived in the same house in Orange Mound for generations. In fact, seven generations have lived under its roof, taking part in wakes, funerals, picnics and all kinds of family celebrations.
“It’s an appreciation and a reverence that I have that because, even at 81, I can remember very vividly walking with my grandmother, holding hands, as they gathered petitions, as they went to Melrose to talk, as they shared their ration stamps,” Mitchell said.
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She recalled her grandparents and neighbors strategically organizing their limited resources during World War II – trading shoe stamps between neighbors for sugar or flour stamps.
Working together, they made sure the neighborhood children were fed before heading off to school. Mitchell said the children would watch the adults get up early and go to work every day, instilling a work ethic and making sure every young person knew their value in the community.
“The community had a vision and a purpose. I was not aware of it until I matured myself, but I was always in awe of it. In awe as a young girl about all these things I saw they were doing and planning to make things happen. They were united and supportive in every effort,” Mitchell said.
If one looks at any of the old Melrose yearbooks, the names of persons from the community who made contributions to the yearbook – some had children in school, some didn’t – are all there.
Residents supported the school as a united force and supported civic involvement.
Among the crowd at the Orange Mound Community Center to celebrate Mary Mitchell's recognition as the Orange Mound Historian are friends, family and community leaders.
“We went around the neighborhood to get people to vote. We acquiesced to the call of the war,” Mitchell reflected.
Over Mitchell’s lifetime, Orange Mound has experienced peaks and valleys. Like many historic African-American communities, it remained tight-knit through World War II, the civil rights era and into the 1970s. As manufacturing made its exodus abroad, the neighborhood began to decline. During the 1980s and 1990s, it was one of many inner-city neighborhoods ravaged by poverty and crime.
It’s a common history shared by many. Mitchell has been there to see it all.
“The press, the media only see and talk about the ‘expose of the dramatic.’ Losing a life in any situation through violence, or even a natural death, is not pleasant, but Orange Mound is so much more than what is on the surface,” Mitchell said.
First developed in 1890, Orange Mound was the first black neighborhood built by and for African-Americans. The land belonged to the John George Deadrick Plantation before being sold for $100 to Izey Eugene Meacham, who sold parcels of the land to African-American families. Over the years, it became home to businessmen, lawyers, and other professionals – and a source of pride. Next to Harlem, it’s the second largest community founded by African-Americans in the nation.
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“The cohesiveness, the focus in developing this great, sacred place was part of the ideals of all the people that I was nurtured by,” said Mitchell. “I can be the voice for the stories and there are so many beautiful stories of triumph, vision and faith to be told.
"I am honored and privileged to represent the spirits and the passion of the persons that nurtured and loved and guided me.”
As witness to many of the comings and goings in Orange Mound, Mitchell has crafted her specialized set of knowledge into a position of community leadership.
In 2016, she served on the Orange Mound Preserve America planning team after First Lady Michelle Obama designated the neighborhood a Preserve America Community.
That same year, the Orange Mound Gallery opened. Mitchell, along with fellow resident LueElla Marshall, worked with ArtsMemphis to secure the space for local African-American artists to exhibit their works. A small space, it was previously a liquor store on Lamar Avenue.
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Mitchell also sits on the board of the Melrose Center for Cultural Enrichment. The nonprofit hopes to retrofit the old Melrose school building to serve as a heritage museum and genealogy center for Orange Mound history.
“I hope, more than anything else, we are pointing out the example of what we need across our community and that is people stepping up and assuming those roles of preserving the history of our community with our children. We need to invest in teaching our children history. Our responsibility is to raise up our young children – our young people – so we can have more Mary Mitchells across this community that perpetuate and preserve our history,” Mayor Luttrell said.
In addition to the rich heritage present in her neighborhood, Mitchell said she sees black people in general as a source of strength and inspiration.
“Being descendants of the people who traveled the Middle Passage voyage – being from persons who survived that – there’s something within that tenacity of spirit that brought us from before 1600 to 2017.”
For Mitchell and other residents, Orange Mound, in its small corner of the world, is a tale of that same tenacity and spirit.
“The significance of Orange Mound should never be buried or covered up. Even when I’m not here to tell the story, along with my contemporaries in Orange Mound, we will set the tone and create the structure so it will be told for another 127 years,” Mitchell said.