Orange Mound, a Memphis community created for African Americans in the late nineteenth century, is a significant example of how “Jim Crow” segregation impacted neighborhood development in urban Tennessee. In 1890, developer E. E. Meacham acquired a portion of the earlier Deaderick Plantation to construct a segregated neighborhood for African American homeowners. He named the neighborhood Orange Mound after the Osage Orange hedges that had lined the Deaderick Plantation. The new neighborhood bordered the Mid-South Fairgrounds to the southeast while a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan bordered the fairgrounds just to the west.
Meacham developed the property as efficiently as possible by arranging the streets in an unrelieved grid with narrow lots. The neighborhood originally contained 982 shotgun houses that sold for less than one hundred dollars each, an inexpensive price even for the time. Although the streets and sanitation in Orange Mound were inferior compared to white neighborhoods, living in Orange Mound became something of a status symbol among black Memphians of the early twentieth century. The neighborhood was fairly autonomous, and African Americans owned, not rented, their homes. As a black homeowners’ enclave, Orange Mound fostered a strong sense of community and identity among its residents within a larger urban environment of racial antipathy.
Churches held an important place in Orange Mound and served broad purposes. Three of Orange Mound’s oldest churches were Mt. Pisgah C.M.E. Church, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, and Beulah Baptist Church. Beulah Baptist developed a reputation as a “community church” through its involvement in activities such as providing financial support for the Orange Mound Day Nursery and promoting Civil Rights. While Beulah’s activity appears to be the most conspicuous, many churches have enriched the neighborhood.
Many Orange Mound citizens worked as laborers, but they also displayed entrepreneurial success. After the turn of the century, Carnes Avenue, not originally a part of Orange Mound but later considered the neighborhood’s commercial center, developed as a black business district. Orange Mound was also home to professionals such as doctors, teachers, and attorneys.
Another important part of community life was participation in and support for team sports. Today, Orange Mound residents look to neighbors such as former Memphis State basketball coach Larry Finch and Denver Bronco football player Tori Noel with great pride. However, no sporting event in Orange Mound has ever surpassed the importance of Melrose High School football. In bringing together family, friends, and neighbors, Melrose High School and its sports facilities take center stage in the cultural landscape.
The history of the Melrose school began in 1890 when Shelby County opened its District 18 School at the intersection of what are currently Spottswood and Boston Streets. In 1894, Melrose graduated its first class of five girls. In 1918, Melrose became a city school and moved into a stucco building with eleven classrooms. In 1937, the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA) funded a new three-story brick school across the street. In 1972, grades seven through nine remained at the PWA building while tenth through twelfth grades moved to a modern Melrose High School Building on Deaderick Avenue where the school is still located. The PWA building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, has remained vacant since 1981, although the community is now exploring new uses for the school.
Melrose has an active alumni association with chapters in Memphis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Detroit. This continuing involvement of school alumni with the old school and neighborhood in Memphis provides more evidence of Orange Mound’s significance to its residents’ sense of identity, a sense that continues to endure even for those who no longer live there today.
Charles Williams, “Two Black Communities in Memphis, Tennessee: A Study
in Urban Socio-Political Structure,” Ph.D. diss., University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1982;
Davidson S. Hill, “The Self-Defined
African American Community of Jim Crow Memphis,” West Tennessee
Historical Society Papers 54 (2000): 1-10