Orange Mound

New leaders bring progress to historic Orange Mound

This article serves as an introduction to High Ground News' On the Ground engagement in Orange Mound. For the next three months, a team of embedded journalists will create coverage about the challenges and strengths of this historic neighborhood.

Orange Mound is one of the first neighborhoods in the country built specifically by and for African Americans.

Many families have lived in Orange Mound for generations and remember the community as a self-sustained source of pride for African Americans in Memphis.  Both younger and older generations have ideas to improve, preserve, and expand the community’s economic, educational, and philanthropic footprint. By doing so, they hope to remain a relevant and vibrant neighborhood in Memphis.

Orange Mound, which is currently home to nearly 6,000 residents, was birthed from the pieced-off Deaderick plantation purchased in 1890 by developer Elzey Eugene Meacham.

The founding of Orange Mound was 25 years after the passing of the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery and 78 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act which, “prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of homes based on race, religion, national origin and sex.”

Meacham sold the land in 25-by-100 foot lots for $40 each to African-Americans.  A deposit of fifty cents and weekly payments meant that a black person in Memphis could own, not rent, land and a home in Memphis.

The Deaderick family cemetery along Park Avenue. The Deadericks are the original landowners of what would become Orange Mound. Many of the streets are named after members of the family.

Orange Mound, originally bounded by Cable Avenue to the north, Trezevant Avenue (now Airways Boulevard) to the west, Park Avenue to the south, and Marechalneil Street to the east evolved into a small metropolis for black businesses and homeowners. By the 1970s it was one of the largest concentrated areas for black life in the country and stood out among peer neighborhoods like Harlem and Watts in Los Angeles.

As of 2015, approximately 97 percent of Orange Mound residents are African American with 15 percent of the population representing people over 65 years old, according to a Community Development report by the Orange Mound Community Development Corporation.

Angela Barksdale, a longtime resident of Orange Mound and president of the Melrose Center for Cultural Enrichment, has watched the area evolve over the past few decades.

The Melrose Center for Cultural Enrichment, Inc., which operates out of the Orange Mound Senior Center on Park Ave., was formed with the mission to preserve and restore the historic Melrose School Building. The old school, which has a rich-history and alumni base all its own, is directly behind the senior center and closed in the 1980s.

Orange Mound had its own churches, grocery stores, beauty and barber shops, movie theatres, restaurants, and schools. The neighborhood attracted doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers, and other well-to-do black people in the city and across the country moving from rural to city life who wanted to own their own homes.  

Melrose High School opened in 1914 and closed its doors in the 1980s.

“I think it’s important to preserve the history of Orange Mound so our future (generations) will know where we came from and understand the struggles we went through to build and maintain this community,” Barksdale said.

“Orange Mound has lost a lot if its originality. We were a self-sustaining community. By knowing their history, people will be motivated to make Orange Mound a self-sustaining community again.”

The economic stability of Orange Mound has deteriorated over the decades. While some small businesses remain, there are many abandoned houses and storefronts.

Orange Mound is now bounded by the thoroughfares of Southern Avenue to the north, Semmes Street Kimball Avenue, Lamar Avenue and Airways Boulevard.

The 127-year-old neighborhood is named after the Osage Orange, a green, wrinkled fruit with small edible seeds that used to be found on the grounds of the Deaderick Plantation. The wood from an Osage Orange tree is strong, thorny, and rot resistant. Also known as the horse apple and Bois d’arc, the trees’ wood was used by Native Americans to make wooden bows and by the 1850s it was used to fence in prairies. Though rare, because of the invention of barbed wire, it is still used today for fence posts.

The Osage Orange now serves as the symbol of JUICE Orange Mound, a non-profit organization founded in December 2016 whose mission is, “to unite, empower, and support each resident in Historic Orange Mound by finding and funding innovative ideas within the community.”

A game of basketball along Radford Road in Orange Mound.

The group meets monthly at Melrose High School and offers personal development opportunities to Orange Mound residents by hosting guest speakers, interactive discussions, and workshops on topics ranging from financial management to education. They also introduce new initiatives in the neighborhood and work as a homegrown funding source for programs that are geared towards investing in the area.

“We are the funding source of Orange Mound, raising money and giving it directly back to the Orange Mound community,” Britney Thornton, executive director of JUICE Orange Mound, said. “The neighborhood has everything it needs to thrive in the future.  Our resilience and pride are unmatched.  I look forward to motivating disconnected residents to join in the efforts to better the community. In order to do this, we have to make more room at the table.”

Thornton said the key to the community’s success will be making sure everyone’s voice is heard, including those that are sometimes ignored such as, “drug dealers, prostitutes, loiterers, and the homeless.”

“Historic Orange Mound will do things differently by developing current residents and showing that we care about the dignity and worth of each person residing in our community. No longer can we attend the same meetings, with the same people, at the same times.  Our community is special so naturally our solutions have to be creative,” she said.

“The future of Historic Orange Mound is bright.”

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Read more articles by Erica Horton.

Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here