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Behind the Mound

Documentary highlights the history of Orange Mound.

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When local filmmaker Emmanuel Amido set out to make a documentary on Orange Mound, he was sure he’d uncover stories of life in a crime-filled community. But what he found was much more uplifting.

“When I started off, it was going to be a film about crime, violence, and drugs, but that completely changed,” Amido said. “The more research I did, the more interested I became in the community. I was expecting the negatives, but the old [newspaper] articles talked about all these African-American pioneers and the great things that they’ve done. [These things] never get talked about.”

And so Amido’s plans changed. His new documentary, Orange Mound, Tennessee: America’s Community, looks past the negative stereotypes that come with the area’s high crime, teen pregnancy, and youth violence rates. His film highlights the unique culture and traditions of Orange Mound along with the community’s contributions to the city.

A private viewing for the documentary was held June 25th at the Orange Mound Community Service Center. A group of about 30 people, many of them lifelong residents of Orange Mound, were in attendance.

The documentary featured past and current residents of Orange Mound, such as Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum, National Civil Rights Museum president Beverly Robertson, both Mary Mitchell and Rev. Floyd Brown of the Orange Mound Community Service Center, and resident Lucille Cox-Hill. The documentary begins with an a cappella performance of “My Soul’s Been Anchored” by the Melrose High School choir.

Orange Mound was originally a plantation owned by John Deaderick in the 1820s. In the mid-1890s, real estate developer Elzey Eugene Meacham purchased the land and divided it into small, narrow lots and marketed them exclusively to African Americans. Shotgun-style houses, which wound up housing generations of families, were constructed on the lots.

“[It was] a place where poor African Americans in Memphis could own property,” said Charles Williams, a University of Memphis professor featured in the documentary. “They could have a sense of community. They could build their churches. They could build their schools and raise their children.”

Orange Mound evolved into a thriving community with homegrown businesses, grocery stores, a doctor’s office, and other establishments. It was the country’s first community to be built by and for African Americans.

“I was honored and pleased that [Amido] wanted to make a film about a place that I hold so dear in my heart,” said Mitchell, a lifelong resident of Orange Mound. “It is so uniquely special that a combination of all the words in all the dictionaries couldn’t adequately describe it. But from my heart, [Orange Mound] was and still is a tremendous place.”

But while Orange Mound, Tennessee: America’s Community is largely positive, the film doesn’t ignore the negatives. After desegregation occurred in the 1960s, many people began to move out of Orange Mound. This was followed by an influx of crime, violence, and drugs.

“With the documentary, I want people to get, not just in Orange Mound but in African-American inner-city communities across the country, that there’s still hope for them,” Amido said. “It’s different to come [to Orange Mound], sit in shotgun homes, and talk to people. It completely changes your perspective. I had to face my bias toward inner-city communities through this film.”

Amido is scheduling a public viewing of the documentary at the Orpheum this fall.

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