Hickory Hill

The History of Hickory Hill, Part II: Annexation and Aftermath

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]

In "The History of Hickory Hill, Part I: Big Booms," we detailed the development of Hickory Hill from the 1950s through the late 1990s. That article ended with a Hickory Hill that was majority-white and upper and middle-class. Residents enjoyed good schools, a robust economy, and seemingly endless chain retailers, big-box stories. Large employers in the manufacturing and logistics sectors, like Sharp Manufacturing Company of America, anchored the area. 

Here we explore the major shifts in Hickory Hill's demographics, commerce, and economy that began with its epic battle — and eventual loss — against annexation.

The Annexation Years: 1987 to 1998

In 1987, the City of Memphis approved annexation for a large section of unincorporated Shelby County. The area included roughly 50,000 residents. Most were in Hickory Hill.

At the time, Memphis was hemorrhaging people and businesses into Shelby County and adjacent areas. The city maintained that the loss left those who remained with an unfair tax burden and claimed they could provide adequate public services beyond the county's capacity.

Annexation was set for June 1988, but in January, Hickory Hill residents sued the City of Memphis. It would become one of the longest annexation battles in city history, with 11 years and one day from first approval to effective date.
The suit claimed the city could not deliver adequate services and annexation would stifle private development. The plaintiffs argued the city's only interest was in recouping lost tax revenue, which violated Tennessee law requiring annexation be mutually beneficial.

Broader public opinion also saw annexation as political. Absorbing Southeast Memphis would have restored the city's white majority. White voters were more likely to back white politicians. 

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

The suit was settled in July 1998 with the city agreeing to increase policing, lower utility fees, and build new parks and firehouses, four new schools, and two new community centers. Ultimately, they build a single center, but it's the largest in the county. 

Annexation took effect December 31, 1998.

Related: “Hickory Hill Community Center is high-energy heartbeat of the neighborhood”

In a May 2002 article in the Memphis Business Journal, the plaintiffs' lawyer, Dan Norwood, said taxes and policing were concerns, but his clients’ primary driver was education.

They didn’t want their children zoned to new schools or new students zoned to their schools. 

“First it was [mandatory] busing, and then there was no confidence that the city wouldn't bring its problems to you through annexation,” said Norwood.

While many chain retailers and large employers in logistics and manufacturing left Hickory Hill since the 1990s, many others stayed. Sharp was one of the first large employers to move to Hickory Hill and still remains, though it has downsized its labor force since its peak production. (Ziggy Mack)

The Aftermath

The most immediate consequence of annexation was a mass exodus of wealthier residents, most white, further east and south. 

It began a few years early as fears of annexation rose, but in 1998 and 1999, DeSoto County had a record number of new home permits filed with more than 2,200 per year.

"[Mississippi is] the ultimate certainty because they can never be annexed by Memphis," Norwood said in the 2002 article.

In 1980, the U.S. Census showed Hickory Hill’s census tracts were between 85% and 97% white. Estimates for 2013-2017 show less than 10% of Hickory Hill residents are white. 

Large retailers and investment dollars followed the wealthier residents. Many large employers left or downsized. With significantly fewer jobs, Power Center CDC reports the area now has a 12% unemployment rate. Home ownership is also below the citywide average.

The late 1990s and 2000s also saw a rise in the number of low-income families, as housing costs continued to fall. There were factors, like public housing closures Downtown that displaced hundreds of low-income residents.

"...of course those people had to have places to go," said longtime Hickory Hill resident Rorey Lawrence.

Crime and gang activity also increased, which perpetuated fears and feelings of instability. Commercial Appeal articles written by Ron Maxey in 1997 and 1999 highlight efforts by residents and police to work together to curb gang violence. 

At the same time wealthier white families were leaving, working- and middle-class Black and Latino families were moving to Hickory Hill, attracted by the new schools and homes that grew more affordable as values fell.

Those families kept the neighborhood from amassing thousands of vacant properties like other communities, like The Heights, now face. Hickory Hill has seen a net gain of more than 2,200 people since its annexation.

Related: "Facts and Feelings: The push to improve safety in The Heights"

Local historian Wayne Dowdy said the increasing diversity also exacerbated white flight.

"That happens less than it used to, because of economics and young people rejecting that racist mindset, but Hickory Hill was formed by that white flight dynamic," said Dowdy.

Census estimates show the neighborhood is now 82% African American and 9.5% Latinx. The number of Spanish-speaking households has grown by more than 90% since 2000.

Businesses owned by and geared towards Central and South American immigrants have become an integral part of Hickory Hill's economy. At the Winchester Farmer's Market/Merado de Latinos, shoppers can find staple items for any household, as well as items specific to Latino cultures . (Ziggy Mack)

HOPe in Hickory Hill

A third of Hickory Hill households now earn less than $25,000 a year, but the median income is as high as $50,229 in some census tracts, which is well above the city's average. 

Many of its strip malls, large storefronts, and the former Hickory Ridge Mall sit nearly vacant, but the loss of chain retailers also left room for locally-owned small businesses. Markets, retail and repair shops, legal and tax services, healthcare clinics, childcare centers, and other endeavors line its streets. Many of the owners are area residents.

"So many small-businesses, so many. That are there, that are thriving and specifically in the Latino community," said Candace Taylor, intern executive director of Power Center CDC, on a recent High Ground News podcast.

In the U.S., immigrants are twice as likely as native-born people to start their own businesses.

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

Even the former mall is now home to several boutiques, startup businesses, satellite locations for government services, and meeting spaces for various groups. Still, area residents at a recent High Ground advisory lamented the lack of large anchor stores to draw them back to the mall.

Hickory Hill has several active, faith-based community development organizations, including Power Center. There are numerous other nonprofits and neighborhood organizations as well. Its community center is busy and well-loved. Neighbors who frequent it are interested and engaged in rebuilding the area.

Many stakeholders in Hickory Hill, including Power Center, told High Ground's team of embedded journalists that while the neighborhood is still showing signs of decline, it's relatively stable compared to recent decades.

They believe their job now is to protect the area from further decline, capitalize on its current assets, encourage more residents to reinvest in the neighborhood, and attract outside interest and investment back to Hickory Hill.

“The government only does what they have to, but when people start demanding something ... that's when [progress] happens," said Dowdy. 
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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.