A Tale of Two Orange Mounds

Note: I have had this one floating around for a bit. I have hesitated to share because  neither of the men discussed are ones to seek attention. Nevertheless, I feel the story is one worth sharing, if only to highlight our similarities.

Orange mound is a neighborhood in Memphis, TN that has the distinction of being the first community in America built for, and by African-Americans. It was started in 1890 on the grounds of the former Deadrick Plantation. There is an excellent documentary entitled "A Community Called Orange Mound" produced by Memphis' PBS station WKNO that explores this cultural phenomenon, and I highly recommend you check it out. Although I currently live less than a mile out of what would be considered Orange Mound proper, my real connection to the neighborhood comes through two men; my Father, and my good friend and coworker Eddie Hill. The differences, and similarities of their experiences in the same place and time have been a lesson for me in the common threads that bind us all together. 


Eddie Hill is my friend. He is an easy smiling, gentle giant. Over six and a half feet tall with a shiny bald head. It’s not hard to see the young man that was part of the 1970 undefeated Melrose High school state championship basketball team. He's had the nickname Fuzz since he was a baby not, as I once assumed, from the impressive afro he sported in his Melrose days. He grew up in a shotgun on Spotswood, in the heart of Orange Mound, and not a mile from where my Pop grew up on Newell. One day at work he was talking about growing up there, and I mentioned that my father grew up in the neighborhood. I ignorantly wondered aloud if they had gone to school together. I got a compassionate, but sideways glance from my friend and I realized my mistake. This was the 60's, my father is white and Eddie is black. Ironically Messick, the high school both my parents went to, was on the street Eddie grew up on. Melrose, off Park, was within walking distance of to the house on Newell where my Pop grew up, but those were the days of supposed "separate but equal" if not in law, then in practice.  


I grew up hearing tales of Mom and Pop's adventures at Messick, and tales of growing up in the neighborhood (My Mom came from the Bronx and moved to Memphis, but they lived in the then new Parkway Village area). It was drag racing down Park avenue, taking MeeMaw to work at Loeb's laundry or Tops BBQ and general teenage boy mayhem. It never seemed odd to me that he grew up on the edge of one of America's most famous black neighborhoods. It was just part of who he is. Anybody that was alive in Memphis April, 4 1968 can tell you where they were, and what happened in the days following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. Tanks rolled down the streets of Memphis, and a strict curfew was in effect. My father dove his Mother and a black lady she worked with home from Loeb's laundry with a shotgun on the front seat. Someone threw a brick thrpugj the back window of his prized ’57 Chevy sedan. These stories are a part of everybody who's family has roots here's folklore. I don't guess he gave any more thought to him going to an all white school than, I did to going to an almost exclusively black elementary school until long after the fact. It was our reality and it seemed normal.  


Eddie's desk is right next to mine. Over the years we have bonded over a love of music, and "big boned catfish" among other things. Its the kind of close you get to people you work with in a business that involves a lot of "hurry up and wait". The places, and some of the events in his stories are familiar enough, but the perspective is a little different. Where my Pop and his brothers would have thought nothing about getting into a physical altercation with someone who gave them offense, it was a little different for Eddie. Chief among my own sins is a quickness to anger. On more than one occasion, I have felt Eddie's hand on my shoulder and a grave plea to turn down the intensity. This perspective comes form someone who grew up in a time a black man could easily lose his life to such a display of aggression (though sometimes I fear we are still there).  


One day not so long ago I managed to get them together. We (the guys I work with) were having lunch at our favorite Mexican joint (the sadly deceased Chivas Mexican Deli) and my folks were coming through from their place in Mississippi. I had mentioned to Eddie about my Pop growing up on the outskirts of the mound. Neither of them have ever met a stranger, and the conversation lasted for hours. The years fell away as they talked through the old haunts. They visited the grocery, and the parks, and the drainage ditch that isn't there anymore. I came to the table with assumptions about their differences, but the real story was the similarities. My grandfather was a heavy equipment operator for the city. Eddie's father was a pipe fitter for the city owned utility. Both their fathers fought in the 2nd world war and had a taste for whiskey. Both men went to neighborhood schools with neighborhood pride. They determined that Eddie likely delivered cases of Nehi soda to the house on Newell, riding a 3 wheeled bicycle. When it was time to go they shook hands and parted like the oldest of friends, just two fellas from the old neighborhood.  


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