Debuting Monday night on WKNO-TV Channel 10, "A Community Called Orange Mound" is an overdue documentary celebration of Memphis' proud, historic African-American neighborhood.
Once renowned as perhaps the most significant concentration of black talent and economic independence in America outside of Harlem, Orange Mound now is stereotyped by some as a place that has succumbed to urban decay. The documentary suggests the neighborhood's revitalization is ongoing and real.
"One of our intents was to shed light on a community that gets a lot of bad publicity," said director Jay Killingsworth of East Memphis, who co-wrote and co-produced the 58-minute documentary with his wife, Amy Killingsworth.
"We discovered a lot of crime attributed to Orange Mound on the news doesn't even happen there," he said. "If it's within 5 miles of the boundaries, they'll call it 'Orange Mound.'"
Killingsworth said the continuity of "community pride" among Orange Mound residents helps ensure the Southeast Memphis neighborhood's vitality, despite daunting challenges of the type associated with many inner-city areas.
"There are people who can trace their roots for generations in Orange Mound, often in the same house," he said. "It's been a source of pride to live in Orange Mound."
"A Community Called Orange Mound" is a sort of unofficial follow-up to the documentary "The Memphis and Charleston Railroad: A Marriage of the Waters," the Killingsworths' first local history film, which originally aired on WKNO-TV in 2010.
Jay Killingsworth is owner of Jay Killingsworth Productions, a company that creates corporate documentaries, training videos and other commercial films (including a series of how-to auto-repair videos sold through AutoZone). Amy Killingsworth, a lifelong Memphian, is a history teacher at Ridgeway High School; perhaps it was inevitable that Jay and Amy would unite their talents and interests in their films.
Featuring interviews with historians, politicians and such Orange Mound residents as Rev. Anthony Henderson, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church, and diner owner Tyler Glover, the so-called "Mayor of Orange Mound," the upbeat "A Community Called Orange Mound" is part history lesson and part contemporary portrait.
The film begins at a Melrose High School football game, described by narrator Wendell Payton — Melrose Class of 1966 — as being "as much a family reunion as it is a school event." A different Melrose sport is referenced near the end of the film, via a quote from the late Memphis basketball legend, Larry Finch: "This is my heart, right here, Orange Mound, Tennessee."
Chapters in the film are devoted to "Shopkeepers," "Entertainers," "Keeping the Faith," "Teaching the Children" and so on. Most of the new neighborhood footage and interviews were shot by Bill Yerian, the film's associate producer.
Aside from Finch, other significant figures with Orange Mound connections include Dr, Alvin Crawford, a 1957 Melrose graduate who was the first African-American to earn a medical degree from the University of Tennessee; Olympic gold medalists Sheila Echols and Rochelle Stevens; award-winning saxophonist and music educator Kirk Whalum; and Mississippi native B.B. King, who stayed at the Orange Mound home of his cousin, bluesman Bukka White, and performed in the neighborhood's W.C. Handy Theater before becoming the international "King of the Blues."
For many viewers, however, the most revealing sections of the film may be those that deal with the origins of Orange Mound. More inevitably than ironically, given the economic realities of the South, this large and pioneering African-American neighborhood traces its roots to a slave owner's plantation.
In the 1820s, landowner John Deaderick — encouraged by the likes of Memphis founders Andrew Jackson and John Overton, who were promoting the area for development — acquired some 5,000 acres in West Tennessee. The Deaderick estate became known as Orange Mound, in reference to the brainlike Osage oranges dropped on the property by its large number of hedge trees.
In 1871, Deaderick's sons began developing Melrose Station, a 150-acre residential tract for white residents. The yellow fever epidemics of the decade decimated the population, however, so that when developer E.E. Meacham acquired some Deaderick land and founded the adjacent Orange Mound subdivision in 1890, his relatively narrow, uniform plots — made to order for shotgun-style houses — were marketed to black residents, who had outlasted the fever and remained in Memphis in greater numbers than their white counterparts, and made up 55 percent of Shelby County.
Even as Jim Crow laws kept African-Americans out of many businesses and neighborhoods. Meacham sold lots priced at $40 to $150 to "Negro" customers.
Annexed into Memphis in 1919, Orange Mound became the key neighborhood for African-American homeowners, and perhaps the first place in the city where black residents occupied new homes rather than moving into areas abandoned by white residents. Churches, stores, theaters, schools (the first 11-room version of Melrose opened in 1918) and other attractions followed.
"You would have a laborer living next door to a doctor," Killingsworth said. "It was a self-sufficient community."
Incorporating Melrose Station and other subdivisions, the area generally known as Orange Mound is more or less bounded by Southern Avenue on the north, a slanting Lamar on the south, Semmes on the east and Airways to the west. It's home to close to 14,000 residents, Killingsworth said. Times are tough for many: As of 2009, median household income for the neighborhood was just under $19,000, far less than Memphis' already anemic $34,203, according to City-Data.com; and some 40 percent of residents have less than a high-school education, according to the website.
Can these trends be reversed? The Orange Mound Community Development Corp., a public-private partnership, is working to uplift Orange Mound, as are the neighborhood's many churches, clubs and so on. Melrose alumni chapters do their part: Chapters remain active in Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.
According to Rev. Anderson, Orange Mound was and is a place where people can feel connected and even loved. Growing up, "We felt that love," he said. "We felt supported in that community."
"A Community Called Orange Mound
9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4, WKNO-TV Channel 10
12 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4, WKNO
4 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5, WKNO
9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5, WKNO2
3 a.m. Friday, Feb. 8, WKNO