More than Graceland: Whitehaven's 200-year history

When I graduated college I lived in Whitehaven for a few months in a home on Neely Road. The street I lived on was mostly populated by elders, so the yards were kept neat and it was quiet except for about an hour or so when school let out and kids walked home.

Unlike when I started my On the Ground engagement in Orange Mound as a novice, Whitehaven and I have already shaken hands before this year (and I’m excited to be back in the proximity of the combination fried rice from Neo China and one of three Krispy Kremes that I know of in the city. Both are on Elvis Presley Boulevard.)

Developed from Chickasaw Native hunting ground, the Whitehaven-Levi community has come a long way from the time of its first known settlers in 1819, Benjamin and Daniel Hildebrand who built a log cabin near present-day Millbranch Road and Shelby Drive.
The cover of a 1979 Whitehaven Community Association newsletter illustrates the merged city and country life of the neighborhood.
The neighborhood is clean; I felt safe when I lived in Whitehaven and most importantly, as a young professional it has amenities less than 10 minutes away from my former home—a grocery store on Shelby Drive, the Whitehaven Library at the intersection of Millbranch Road and Raines Road, and decent restaurants for Saturday nights when I didn’t feel like cooking.

I didn’t feel like I was missing anything that some of the newer neighborhoods in Memphis claim to offer.

The neighborhood has its own mall, old and budding businesses, proximity to the airport, locally owned eateries, and a major tourist attraction in Graceland.  For days where I wanted to visit my friends in other parts of the city, the drive still wasn’t far with easy access to Interstate-55, Interstate-240 and Interstate-40.

Whitehaven is bounded by Nonconnah Creek to the north, Airways Boulevard to the east, the Mississippi state line to the south and Third Street to the west.

Completed in May 1856, the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad was built by Francis M. White, giving the then small town of Whitehaven its name. People began to call Whitehaven White’s Station and then later White’s Haven. It’s unclear how Levi got its name.

Councilwoman Patrice Robinson pointed out during a tour of the community, there are few if any signs that indicate that one is entering or leaving Whitehaven, despite its closeness to the airport and its draw of nearly 600,000 people annually to visit Graceland, earning it the reputation of the “front door” for Memphis tourists.

A souvenir shop in Whitehaven near Graceland. (Brandon Dahlberg)

Related: "The next chapter for Whitehaven"

Before it was a thriving urban area, the Whitehaven-Levi community depended heavily on slave labor. In 1860, Whitehaven had 653 whites, one free black and 1,671 slaves. Levi had 192 whites, four free blacks, one Native American and 840 slaves. 

From the end of the Civil War through the 1960s the Whitehaven and Levi communities made strides in education, industry, and housing.

By 1960, if Whitehaven had been incorporated by the state, it would have been considered the fifth largest city in Tennessee behind Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. Whitehaven and Levi had a combined population of 45,734 people and of that number, 16,834 or 36.8 percent were black.

Residents were strongly opposed to being annexed into Memphis.

A 1967 article from the Memphis Press-Scimitar, “Whitehaven Group Promises Fight on Annexation,” by James Reid revealed residents did not want to be annexed. Jack Aday, a past president of the Whitehaven Homeowner’s Association, led the article with a quote saying residents would fight annexation, “all the way to the Supreme Court,” if they had to.

Despite strong resident opposition, in 1969, Whitehaven was annexed into Memphis and by the 1970s, Whitehaven boasted more than 87,000 residents. A newsletter from the decade by the Whitehaven Community Association said there were 17,714 jobs and 1,044 businesses in the community alone.
A 1979 community newsletter illustrates that Francis White built the first railroad in Whitehaven. After its completion, people called the small town White's Station and then later White's Haven.Today, large businesses continue to be attracted to Whitehaven with Old Dominion Freight Line Inc. investing $30 million into a facility in Whitehaven in 2014. The Memphis International Airport also announced a $200 million, 3-year renovation and modernization of Concourse B.

Related: "Old Dominion to create 100 jobs with new Whitehaven service center"

As the On the Ground Team researched Whitehaven in December, we spoke with nonprofit leaders, council people, residents, pastors and business owners. They all agreed that people take pride in homeownership and college education in Whitehaven. But, as one stakeholder said, Whitehaven’s largest export seems to be its youth with many not returning after college.

In April 2016, Whitehaven High School announced 51 seniors were awarded at least $1 million in academic scholarships.


Related: "Whitehaven high school celebrates million dollar scholars"


As we begin our On the Ground engagement in Whitehaven, with our offices located in the library on Millbranch Road and Raines Road, the community shows signs that like all long-standing neighborhoods, there have been victories and successes in continuous development.

Community meetings have yielded talk of increased interest in small business investments by banks, concerns about resident health, the impact of Elvis Presley Enterprises on the surrounding community, and the importance of engaging youth.

As the On the Ground Team explores the present state of Whitehaven, residents and community stakeholders are invited to follow High Ground News on Instagram, where we will post a photo from the community every day and on Facebook, where we advertise weekly community open newsrooms. 

Send your ideas, thoughts, and concerns about Whitehaven to [email protected].

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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