MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As Memphis celebrates its 200th birthday Wednesday, we’re honoring one of the city’s oldest communities and celebrating its own special milestone this week.
Orange Mound has birthed Olympic medalists, politicians, basketball greats and business women. Now WMC anchor Kym Clark is looking ahead to the community’s future by sharing stories from its past.
Mary Mitchell has lived in Orange Mound for more than 80 years, most of it in her current home.
“It’s always been occupied by seven generations of my family,” said Mitchell. “We have occupied that house for 76 years."
As Orange Mound’s official historian, Mithcell’s knowledge is matched by her love of the community.
“It was incorporated 100 years ago, but it was founded 1890. We were originally Orange Mound, Tennessee,” said Mitchell. “We were the eastern thriving, flourishing suburb of ex-slaves from 1890 until 1919, which was 29 years before Memphis decided to incorporate us. So we tell the City of Memphis people, we were the city’s 100th birthday present that keeps on giving.”
Founded on the former Deadrick Plantation and named after the Osage orange hedges that lined it, Orange Mound was one of only a handful of U.S. communities where black people could own their own homes.
“My great grandparents were one of the first settlers within, well, it wasn’t a community then, it was just a settlement,” said Ellen Perkins, lifelong Orange Mound resident. “And they came to the settlement in Orange Mound.”
The pride of home ownership and a self-sustained community led Orange Mound to become a sort of status symbol for African Americans in the early 20th century.
""I really thought we were rich because we had so much," said Hazell Glover, lifelong Orange Mound resident. “We had our own movie theaters, we had all kinds of eating places on the Park Avenue. We could just go anywhere, we had our own grocery stores. And when we went to school, then they told us we were from a low socio-economic place. I said, ‘No, baby, we rich!’ I’d argue with the teacher."
The community’s first school -- District 18 -- opened in 1890 at the crossroads of Spottswood and Boston Streets followed in 1918 by a stucco building on Dallas Street. Then in 1937 Melrose School opened in a three-story brick building.
“And my mom and her generation went to Melrose High School from first grade through 12th grade,” said Denise Williams-Greene, president of the Memphis Melrose Alumnae Association. So it’s more than just a school, it’s a family connection."
“As we know, the historic Melrose High School on Dallas Street has been blighted and vacant for 30 or 40 years or so,” said Felicia Harris, City of Memphis administrator of planning. “So hopefully, winthin the next year, we’ll see something else coming up new there.”
The current high school opened in 1972. Today’s graduates still benefit from a program started long before they were born.
“Well, years ago the classes of the 1940s and ’50s decided to band together and have their own class reunions,” said Williams-Greene. “And they said, instead of just fellowshipping without a purpose, let’s give a scholarship to graduates of Melrose High School.”
Last year, 26 Melrose High grads received scholarships from alumni.
And while schools hold a place of honor in “the Mound,” churches may be the bedrock.
Mt. Moriah, Mt. Pisgah, Beulah Baptist are more than 100 years old.
“They were a key part of the Civil Rights movement,” said Tiana Pyles with the Orange Mound Development Corp.
“This community is based on a foundation of faith, fortitude and family,” said Mitchell.
As Memphis celebrates its 200th birthday, it’s in large part to the foundation forged in Orange Mound.
Orange Mound’s centennial anniversary of incorporation into the City of Memphis is Wednesday - the same day as the city’s 200th birthday.
A Centennial Celebration is still in the planning stages, but it will include tours of the Heritage Room inside Melrose High School and a fun-filled day at Orange Mound Park.