In 1979, Charles Williams, a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Illinois, began calling on residents of Orange Mound, a black neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee. He was conducting an ethnographic study of the neighborhood and the families who lived there. Although black himself, Williams was viewed with suspicion or alarm by many elderly residents, who, at the sight of the unfamiliar young man approaching them, would leave the shade of their front porches and duck inside their un-air-conditioned homes. Williams later learned that they were afraid he had come to rob them or were afraid of becoming known as an “informant” if they talked to the outsider from Illinois who for some strange reason found their community an interesting subject for a doctoral dissertation.
We can be thankful that Charles Williams, who went on to become a professor of anthropology at the University of Memphis, persevered with his project and endured the “snubs, labels, insults, misinformation, and in some instances, down-right ostracism” directed toward him, for the result of his study is a valuable book titled African American Life and Culture in Orange Mound, published in 2013 by Lexington Books.
The land that would eventually become developed as Orange Mound was once part of the five-thousand-acre Deaderick Plantation. At the time, the plantation was five miles east of the city, and the only way to travel from the plantation to Memphis itself was along the Pontotoc Trace, which today is Lamar Avenue. In 1889, the Deaderick family sold part of its land to a real estate developer named Elzey Eugene Meacham. As Professor Williams writes, for reasons that may never become clear, Meacham developed the land into a residential community for blacks in Memphis. The community became known as Orange Mound because of the osage orange hedgerow that grew naturally on the old Deaderick Plantation.
Williams lists in helpful detail the names of many of the families and residents who lived in Orange Mound during its earliest days. The neighborhood was originally populated by pastors and school teachers, businessmen and porters, blacksmiths and carpenters. Lonnie Briscoe Jr. was well-known for selling class rings to graduating seniors; Jessie Springer was a renowned teacher at Booker T. Washington and later principal of Douglass High School. In 1931, a physician named Wheelock A. Bisson arrived in Memphis and settled in Orange Mound. Most residents, however, worked as day laborers and domestics.
As Professor Williams explains, Orange Mound can be understood only in the context of Memphis as a whole. Memphis, of course, has a long history of racial segregation, oppression, and violence, and Orange Mound survived by developing its own institutions and “accommodating” the prevailing social order, avoiding confrontation with the white ruling class. During the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike, for instance, Orange Mound “remained peaceful” with no “outward sign of protest and demonstration.”
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of Williams’s book examines some of the “threats” that residents of Orange Mound have faced over the years. The Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which runs along Southern Avenue, brought potential environmental hazards and threatened, under the right of eminent domain, to strip homeowners of their property. In the late 1960s, Orange Mound had “one of the best public parks in the city” until the city sold it to businessmen who built on the site the Mid-South Refrigerated Warehouse Company—an indignation against which the normally quiet residents of the neighborhood rose in “great protest.” The growth of “street corner society” brought crime, harassment, and disorder. Jewish entrepreneurs were sometimes seen as exploitative; Williams discusses at length a particular merchant named Milton Evensky, who owned a grocery store in the neighborhood. Police relations are treated as well, including a 1971 case involving seventeen-year-old Elton Hayes, who was beaten to death by police officers, white and black.
Orange Mound has always been poor and remains so today. What is different, Professor Williams says, is that “the community’s legendary core values for culture, traditions, family, church, public education, hard work, ownership of property, pride in the concept of ‘community,’ self-respect, trust and appreciation of neighbors, and the alleviation of poverty have to an extent collapsed over the past several decades.” He offers as a “compelling theory” the notion that the first two or three generations of residents simply became complacent and took for granted the continued vitality of the community they had built, “failing to invest in or rebuild the community of their birth through the integration of new people with new ideas.”
Professor Williams closes his book by stating that in order to become a healthy community again, residents of Orange Mound must set aside “class stratification and provincialism” and put the needs of the community above individual interests. Home ownership must be encouraged, and residents should be given control over neighborhood institutions, especially the schools. But what’s happened to Orange Mound is what’s happened to America itself and is a manifestation of the social and economic structure we have inherited and continue to perpetuate to one degree or another. Writing in 2016 in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, the political scientist Corey Robin says that “Coates dares whites to prove that we do not believe ourselves to be separate from black people, that we understand that we cannot escape the ramifications of the fate we have assigned to African-Americans. . . . Your actions, says Coates—the daily ease with which you tolerate the policing, incarceration, and murder of black citizens; the daily ease with which your white life goes on amid so much black death—shows that you have no desire, intention, or need to end my situation.” Or, one can add, the situation in Orange Mound.