A Community Called Orange Mound is the story of a southeast Memphis neighborhood with a surprising legacy. While the name may be familiar, few outside its boundaries know anything about Orange Mound apart from fleeting and usually negative images on the evening news.
With roots going back to the time of plantations and slavery, Orange Mound grew at the end of the nineteenth century out of the remains of that defunct way of life. Established on the grounds of the former Deaderick plantation, it was one of the first communities in the United States to be built entirely by and for African Americans. At a time when Jim Crow laws made property ownership out of reach to most black southerners, white real estate developer Elzy Eugene Meachem purchased a portion of the plantation on the eastern fringes of Memphis owned by the once-prominent Deaderick family.
Despite the primitive and sometimes harsh conditions that marked its early years, the self-contained community that emerged attracted not only laborers and domestic workers, but also doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and teachers, all of whom were proud to call Orange Mound home. Amid the blend of diverse influences, a disproportionate number of neighborhood children grew to become successful and influential members of a wide range of professions.
Although probably best known for athletes such as pro-football players Andre Lott, Jerome Woods, and Dewayne Robertson, to name just a few; Olympic Gold medallists Sheila Echols and Rochelle Stevens; and, of course, basketball’s Larry Finch, sports is by no means the only vocation to which Orange Mound has contributed.
B. B. King played some of his earliest gigs on the stage of W.C. Handy Theater while staying with his cousin, blues legend and Orange Mound resident Bukkah White, while other music greats such as creators of the “Memphis Sound” Willie Mitchell and Carl Cunningham, and Grammy Award Winner and current Stax CEO Kirk Whalum played their first notes as members of the Melrose High School band.
1957 Melrose graduate and the first African American to earn a medical degree from the University of Tennessee, Dr. Alvin Crawford is an internationally recognized expert in childhood bone disorders with numerous awards for his pioneering work in orthopedic surgery.
Civic activism has always been its hallmark. Leaders in the political and legal professions that call Orange Mound home include Harper Brewer, the first black Speaker pro tem of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Kenneth Whalum (Junior and Senior); and Justices Otis Higgs, Jr., Gwen Rooks, Walter Evans, and Ernestine Hunt-Doris.
“One of the closest-knit groups in Memphis, the residents of Orange Mound are still intensely loyal to the neighborhood that has been home to many families for generations,” said producer Jay Killingsworth. “And they all say the same thing: even though they can live elsewhere and have had opportunities to do so, Orange Mound is home and that is where they intend to stay.”
Killingsworth, who moved to Memphis as a teenager, has worked in video production for more than thirty years, producing corporate and instructional videos. This is his second independent documentary film to air on WKNO, after the 2010 feature Memphis & Charleston Railroad: A Marriage of the Waters.