The History of Hickory Hill, Part I: Big Booms

High Ground’s On the Ground embedded journalism series includes a deep dive into the history of our focus neighborhoods. We seek to synthesize general trends in growth and development and spotlight the fascinating people, places and events from the past. Know a tidbit of Hickory Hill history you think we should highlight? Email [email protected]

Hickory Hill was part of unincorporated Shelby County until 1998, making it one of Memphis’ newest neighborhoods. It's by far the youngest neighborhood in High Ground's On the Ground series, but its short history is packed with swift and dramatic economic and cultural shifts.

What started as a smattering of upper- and middle-class, majority white suburban developments on the outskirts of the city is now a middle-class and low-income Black and Latinx neighborhood with more than 55,000 Memphis residents.

The 1970s and 80s saw booms in business, housing and population in Hickory Hill. The 1990s and 2000s brought an epic battle against annexation and the mass exodus of businesses and white residents.

Today, many of its once bustling strip malls sit nearly vacant. Since 2000, unemployment has risen and median household incomes have declined. Crime has increased, and Hickory Hill’s reputation has suffered. ‘Hickory Hood’ entered the Memphis lexicon. 

Despite its reputation and very real struggles with disinvestment, today’s Hickory Hill also has assets, opportunities and a complex range of individual experience.

The U.S. Census estimates 32% of Hickory Hill households earn less than $25,000 a year, but the median household income is as high as $50,229 in some tracts. That’s $12,000 higher than the citywide average.

The neighborhood offers affordable housing and better infrastructure than much of the city. It’s home to Memphis’ largest public community center and longest public golf course. Many chain retailers and restaurants are gone, but their absence left room for small businesses and local entrepreneurs. A significant portion are Black or Latinx. Many are residents of southeast Memphis.

“You can ride down Winchester and you see all of these thriving businesses,” said Candace Taylor, intern executive director of Power Center CDC, on a recent High Ground News podcast.

Related: “Podcast: Agape and Power Center CDC talk community, collaboration and careers in Hickory Hill”

“The idealism and the creativity that really fights against the [disinvestment] that happened is so inspiring. It keeps the spirit up, it keeps the spirit healthy in Hickory Hill,” Taylor continued. “ refuses to dim in Hickory Hill, and I think that that is one amazing culture aspect of Hickory Hill.”

Most houses in Hickory Hill were built between 1970 and 2000. They area features a wide variety of home sizes and styles. Bright colors are common throughout Hickory Hill. (Ziggy Mack)

The Biggest Booms: 1950 to 1988

Through the 1950s, Hickory Hill was primarily rural farmland. There were few established roads, fewer still were paved, and less than 1,000 homes.

The end of World War II marked the birth of the American suburbs. Average-income families flocked from cities to purchase their first new homes in the newly built burbs. However, a series of intentionally racist housing policies and practices kept most people of color from participating in the new American dream. Many suburban developments were explicitly whites-only.

The vast majority of Hickory Hill’s early residents were part of this nationwide trend.

Related: “Seeing Red I: Mapping 90 years of redlining in Memphis”

“Developers started going into southeast Memphis,” said local historian Wayne Dowdy. “People were starting to buy homes in the southeastern section of Memphis in the 1950s.”

Some of Hickory Hill’s earliest notable development was the Fox Meadows area. Fox Meadows’ golf course opened in 1957 as part of the Fox Meadows Country Club. The Memphis Parks Commission purchased the facilities in the early 1960s. Today, the Links at Fox Meadows is the longest course in the Memphis Public Links System.

Hickory Hill’s growth was steady but modest until the 1970s when an influx of several large companies ushered in the area's first economic and housing booms.

Schlitz Brewing Company was one of the first large-scale manufacturers. The Milwaukee-based beermaker opened its plant at 5151 East Raines Road in 1971. It was later sold to Coors Brewing Company and is now a packaging center for City Brewery.

In 1978, the Sharp Corporation opened its first U.S. facility at Mendenhall and Raines roads. Dubbed the Sharp Manufacturing Company of America, it produced color televisions. It switched to producing solar panels in 2003.

“If you get a job at Sharp, then you’re going to want to live in the area,” said Dowdy of the connection between the new employers and the neighborhood’s explosive growth in the 1970s and 80s.

Sharp Manufacturing Company of America opened in Hickory Hill in 1978. (Ziggy Mack)

The 1980s started strong with the opening of the Hickory Ridge Mall in 1981. That same year, the Press-Scimitar reported on plans for an expansive new distribution facility on Mendenhall Road. The Commercial Appeal made similar announcements for large-scale industrial developments in 1984 and 1987.

Also in 1987, the City of Memphis announced it was annexing southeast Memphis. That announcement was the beginning of Hickory Hill’s next major evolution.

Don't miss "The History of Hickory Hill, Part II: Annexation and Aftermath." Subscribe to our free weekly e-edition.

A special thank you to High Ground reporter A.J. Dugger III and the staff of Memphis Public Libraries' Memphis and Shelby County Room for research assistance.  
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.