Hidden History: Historic Orange Mound changing lives since the late 1800s

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) - The history of Orange Mound is unlike any other neighborhood in Memphis.  Nestled in Southeast Memphis, it is the second largest community in history, behind Harlem in New York City, to be discovered by African-Americans. Thriving since the 1890's, Orange Mound has been tested through the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King several miles away. 

In the 1890's, the Deaderick Family sold the land to Elzey Meacham for $100.  Meacham then sold the land to African-Americans living in Memphis. 

"So much love, so much innovation.  So much community, unity here," said Mary Jones-Mitchell, Orange Mound Historian. "It's the first community in America founded and developed exclusively for African-Americans to buy land and own their own home."  

Black business owners, doctors, and lawyers built homes in the neighborhood over the following decades.  By the 1940s and 50s, it was a thriving African-American community. 

"We knew that this place was just rich with jewels," Jones-Mitchell said. 

Jones-Mitchell, 81, vividly remembers how Orange Mound endured the civil rights years. 

"We had meetings, we had marches, voter registration, Orange Mound Civic Club was dynamic in getting people to vote," she said.

The churches in Orange Mound became a place of refuge during segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. One of those prominent churches was Mount Pisgah CME Church. 

"We believe from a holistic perspective that we have a responsibility, not just to build big buildings and continue to expand without giving back to the community," said Reverend Willie Ward Jr., Senior Pastor of Mount Pisgah CME Church. 

The church burned down on the first Sunday of the year in 1948.  To this day, no one knows what caused the fire. 

"I remember standing outside and watching. I remember my mother was crying," said Lillian Jean Bumpus, an Orange Mound native. 

During the 1980s and 90s, Orange Mound started to go downhill.  

"A lot of property became rental property. Many people have bought into the community, but they are not living here," Bumpus said.

Revitalization efforts started in 2000 and included building a new Orange Mound Senior Center, where seniors can now enjoy dancing, playing cards and shooting pool.  Most recently, the community welcomed its first art gallery. 

"It was like tapping into old dreams, they were very active in high school with their theatre department," Joyce Louise Dukes-Shaw, a volunteer at the Orange Mound community center said. 

It's no secret, for those who were born and raised here, there is something special about Orange Mound that binds them together.  You likely ate a hotdog from Ms. Bradley's, enjoyed live music at Handy Theatre, and graduated from Melrose High School.

"We dominated football in the city and in the state, in the 50's and the 60's," said Eldridge Pete Mitchell, who grew up in Orange Mound. 

In 2015, Orange Mound received a national honor.  President Obama gave the neighborhood the "Preserve America Presidential Award.”  It honors a community which has best used its historic assets for economic development and community revitalization.  

There are also dozens of notable athletes who came from Orange Mound, and they are all graduates of Melrose High School.  Barry Wilburn played for the Washington Redskins when they won Super Bowl 21.  Cedrick Wilson played for the Pittsburg Steelers when they won Super Bowl 40, and Andre Lott-Washington won a national championship with the University of Tennessee Volunteers in 1998. 

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