Picture it: It’s 1943 and Harlem is hopping up North, but down South, Orange Mound is in a groove. Noted as “the second-largest Negro community in the world” in 1947 by the Orange Mound Civic and Welfare Club, the neighborhood’s history exemplifies black self-determination. As America’s first community for African-Americans developed in 1890 on a former plantation, by the 1940s, Orange Mound had the highest rate of black homeownership in the nation.
Today, however, the neighborhood is a shadow of its former self.
Blighted and under-resourced, the community mildly brims with new redevelopment opportunities: But what of the old can be rendered new and useful? Institutions like Melrose High School, Orange Mound Gallery, and long-time eateries like Orange Mound Grill have a story to tell about Memphis and the black experience. This rich history begs the question of why Orange Mound and similar black communities around the country aren’t routinely targeted for tourism?
Truly inclusive tourism marketing would honor black contributions by showing the world the communities African-Americans built that produced the people they love. Case in point: Memphis enjoys a piece of the Aretha Franklin mythology, as her birth home at 406 Lucy St. near Soulsville is being redeveloped.
But in Memphis and across the nation, blinders appear quickly when the question of driving tourists into black communities comes up. Crime is usually to blame. But Tonika Johnson, a photographer and creator of #FoldedMapProject, which highlights the devastating impact of segregation in Chicago, calls out the hypocrisy of touting the cultural value of certain communities over others, while investment falters in areas that most need it.
Caribbean countries are the perfect example of that, Johnson said: “Everyone understands the issues, the social issues, the crime in certain parts. But everyone expects you would get to know someone to go around the country.”
She finds it interesting that “people and governments can’t apply that way of thinking” to their own hometowns.
“People have a different way of thinking when it comes to out-of-the-country places that are supposed to be dangerous,” Johnson said. “They’re willing to take the risk or challenge their own perceptions of a specific location. But it’s difficult to do that in your own city.”
From Beale Street to Park Avenue, Memphis enjoys a special narrative place during a period of civil rights milestones and commemorations, a time when African-Americans are newly invigorated to find their roots: Enthusiasm shows up as trips to civil rights landmarks, including the National Civil Rights Museum, an officially recognized stop on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. It looks like getting reacquainted with The Negro Motorist Green-Book, whose reprints of the beloved and vital Jim Crow-era travel guide evoke African-American families who took for road trips during the South, pointing them to food, lodging and safety. Even the marketing for the Oscar-nominated film The Green Book tapped into this nostalgia, even if the movie, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, never quite got the point.
Black history, ‘bread and butter’ of Memphis
In the summer of 2016, Toya and Reuben Levi visited a number of sites in the original Green Book during a cross-country trip that lead to The Green Book Project, a web documentary that includes stories and photos about the black travel experience.
Reliving the Green Book experience on the road with their children was all the more poignant during that racially volatile summer, said Toya Levi. That was the period when Alton Sterling, 37, was shot by a cop in Baton Rouge, and five Dallas police officers were murdered.
“While taking precautions during that heightened racial time,” she said, “it made us reflect on what our ancestors and great grandparents had to do.”
The couple, who also own Grits Co., a Southern lifestyle brand, secured an artist residency with Crosstown Arts, making Memphis their temporary home away from their Houston home, as they became enamored with the city’s rhythm and blues lifestyle.
“The black history of Memphis is the bread and butter of Memphis,” said Levi, who easily found the attraction of this city to the tourist class. “It is the fried chicken, the beans and cornbread you’re looking for. It is the Four Way Restaurant. It is going out of your way to hear the stories.”
“If someone, if they focused their light on that, that’s what people are looking for,” she said.
The recent opening of The Collective, a black artist incubator and creators’ space in Orange Mound, and ongoing developments in South Memphis at the Stax Museum with the Memphis Slim Collaborative and Stax Academy “help drive demand and elevate awareness for this new arts and culture asset,” said Regena Bearden, chief marketing officer for Memphis Tourism.
The spirit of Beale Street
In the annals of Memphis history, the rich legacy of black entrepreneurship, wealth and resilience is evident in the stories and ads in the 1943 Negro Business Directory compiled by the Negro Chamber of Commerce. Black Memphians contributed to war bond fundraisers tallying $303,000 ($4.6 million at 2019 inflation rates), resulting in a fighter plane named The Spirit of Beale Street named in their honor.
That name is no coincidence. Beale Street was the economic center for a black business district that connected to adjacent communities like Greenlaw, Glenview, Orange Mound and South Memphis. The condition of those areas today stopped Levi as she delved into their backstory.
“It was the way the city had started redoing [plans] in urban areas and putting projects in the middle of really thriving African-American areas,” she said. “If you let the wrong people spin it, it will be in the wrong light…we need that spotlight in the right areas.”
For example, she recalled places like Travelers Hotel at 347 Vance, Bessie’s Chicken Shack at 338 Vance, or Lynom Brothers Grocery and Market at 589 Mississippi Boulevard, once at the heart of a thriving black business district and supported by the chitlin circuit of entertainers and the civil rights caravans of days past.
Inclusive framing of these community stories can do wonders for residents and the people who come here to visit, Levi said.
“When you think of Memphis, it’s that,” Levi said. “It is that black soul, the black heritage, that black culture that you’re looking for.”
As the newly installed president and CEO of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Beverly Robertson said economic initiatives, like a planned workforce summit, could bolster the business infrastructure in such historic communities, activating renewed tourist attention.
“It is the intent of the chamber to explore ways in which we can extend the economic development opportunities of downtown to the neighborhoods and grassroots communities in Memphis,” Robertson said.
Here, have a taste of Memphis
Talbert Fleming, known for his Southern hospitality and communal seating at Jim & Samella’s House, remembers a time when black communities like his in South Memphis began to lose their stronghold during desegregation.
Today, Jim & Samella’s boasts a diverse patronage. Memphis’ racial divide, politics, and history is evident in the stories told around his tables. He mentioned the underground tunnel that runs underneath his house and across South Parkway to what used to be an escape route when a former speakeasy at Kerr and Mississippi would get raided.
“There was so much here.” Fleming said. “The old community and commerce in this area, we didn’t call it supermarkets. We had sundries. We had upholstery. We had a shoe shine guy. Mr. Whitney at Kerr and Mississippi. We had Long’s Hardware. We had Uncle Sam’s BBQ at Lauderdale and Essence.”
Those places are without a trace, hidden under the blight and barren lots; hidden, perhaps for good, the night of April 4, 1968 when King died, Fleming offers.
His establishment at 841 Bullington Ave. has received several offers by white-owned companies to sell, but he has refused. Instead, Fleming has worked with his siblings to purchase property as well to work toward a vision to improve South Memphis from his memory of what it used to be.
“I’m torn between two,” Fleming said. “I like the idea of what can possibly happen and what can take place here.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.