Lamar Terrace Archaelogical Project

Historical Context

The Lamar Terrace Site (40SY695) is located 2 mi. southeast of Beale Street, and thus, was on the far eastern periphery of Memphis’s antebellum activity. It lies within John Ramsey’s 5,000-a. tract that was surveyed in 1783, but none of this land could be legally sold until after the Chickasaw Treaty of 1818.

In the early 1820s, John Overton purchased land in the western part of the Ramsey tract, and persuaded General Winchester to purchase a 252 a. tract on the eastern edge of the Ramsey tract, which includes the study area. In February 1833, Winchester’s heir, Lucelius Winchester, and Will Cage sold 100 a. of the 252 a. tract, including the future Lamar Terrace area, to Nathaniel Ragland. During December 1848, Ragland had this property surveyed with the intent to divide it into smaller saleable lots. In November 1850, Ragland entered the survey plat into the county record. At this time, Ragland indicated that he had already bargained to sell nearly one quarter of his tract to Barnett Graham. Graham’s land included lots 22, 23, and 24 in the northeast quadrant of Ragland’s Subdivision, and it became one of the main pieces of land forming the future Lamar Terrace, as well as the future Veterans Administration Hospital.

The 1859 Barnet Graham Subdivsion map with the location of the excavation trenches overlain. Original plat is on file at the Shelby County Archives.

Because Graham’s tract occupied an area between two of the most significant land transportation routes into Memphis—the Memphis & Charleston Railroad to the south, and Pigeon Roost Road to the north—it was ripe for development just prior to the Civil War. Graham submitted his subdivision plat in April 1859, and the register’s office filed it in August 1860. Graham chose to name the street dividing his property after his one surviving daughter, Florence. Today this street is known as Camilla, and it forms the western boundary of the Lamar Terrace Site 40SY695. Graham established his “homestead” on the largest lot in his subdivision (lot 56), which lies across South Camilla to the west of our excavations.

A Civil War era map reveals no significant developments in the study area, other than the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and Pigeon Roost Road. By 1870, however, the area was settled, as the Bird’s Eye View of the City of Memphis reveals a few structures near the future Lamar Terrace site. Dr. R. C. Grundy is believed to have built a structure at 1039 Carr, just north of the excavation site.

A portion of the 1870 Bird’s Eye View of the City of Memphis with the future Lamar Terrace locality highlighted on the outskirts for the city

An original tax assessor’s plat book on file in the Shelby County Archives visually shows who had purchased the lots in the Lamar Terrace area ca. 1871, because the clerks penciled the names of the owners on the plat itself. This revealed that our excavations were located in lots 6 and 7 of Graham’s Subdivision. At this time W.F. Hardin owned lot 6, and Stephen Fransioli and J.H. Williamson jointly owned lot 7. Hardin also owned three adjoining lots (5, 35, and 36), and Fransioli/Williamson also owned two adjoining lots (8 and 33) in the same subdivision. Stephen Fransioli was described as a queensware merchant during the 1850s, and he apparently never lived on the property.

Deed searches failed to establish a complete chain of title for lots 6 and 7, and our researcher was “frustrated by dead-ends following the transactions towards the turn of the century.” MHA title researchers also reported similar frustrations. It was noted that after the Civil War, Fransioli disappears from the city directories, but so did others, such as the Graham family, who lived on Pigeon Roost Road, beyond the city limits. It was speculated that the owners of lots 6 and 7 either moved away or died during the yellow fever epidemics, leaving the property with unpaid taxes; thus, the answer to the mystery of the chain of title for lots 6 and 7 possibly lies in probate records. The difficulty in tracking ownership can be interpreted as evidence that there was little interest (or an oversight of) these lots, and this likely contributed to the initial use of them as a dump during the late-nineteenth century. Regardless, there is no archival evidence for a structure ever having been located here, and 1930s photos of the dig site reveal that it was an open area with frame residences nearby.

Despite the lots 6 and 7 difficulties, we were above to nail down the chain of title for the lots to the north of the excavations, where the Robert Lewis Jones built an elegant residence ca. 1904, as well as for the Graham property to the west. Mr. Jones lived at 1039 Carr, immediately to the north of the excavations, until his death in 1926, and his wife, Mamie, lived there until 1939. R.L. Jones made a fortune in real estate, and Mamie was socially active. As an avid gardener, she was heavily involved in the Memphis Garden Club and a ca. 1938 aerial view of the Jones estate reveals the fine geometric patterns of a formal garden to the east of her residence. To the east, William B. Mallory acquired the former Graham property in July 1889, and shortly thereafter built a red limestone mansion that stood until it was razed ca. 1920 to make way for the VA Hospital.

The deed search and archival records reveal that the Jones’ and Mallory’s were high-status, elite families in the upper stratum of the Memphis social order. However, as to the more numerous middle and/or lower class residents of the study area and “Roper’s Alley,” the county archival records are largely silent. A survey of the residents listed in the 1939 Memphis City Directory shows that an extremely low percentage of residents owned their homes; most were renting. In an effort to illuminate the overall character of the Lamar Terrace neighborhood through time, we relied heavily on sampling City Directory data.

Examination of Polk’s 1891 Memphis Directory reveals that there were 47 named individuals living in the study neighborhood, but the actual population was probably 2-4 times greater than this, as the named individuals are thought to represent only heads of households. The neighborhood’s racial composition was three-quarters African-American, and the remainder was Caucasian. The area was completely residential in 1891.

Some developments around the turn of the century that influenced the project area include the following. In 1899, Memphis annexed approximately 12 square miles, including the future Lamar Terrace area. In 1904, there was a total reform of the Memphis street numbering system, and some of the streets in the study area were renamed, such as Pigeon Roost Road, which was renamed Lamar Ave., and Florence Ave., which was renamed South Camilla. By 1906, an electric streetcar line was established on Lamar that extended from downtown to several blocks southeast of the study area. The streetcar route led to a corridor of development southeast of the study area along Lamar, where two of the earliest true planned subdivisions in Memphis—Annesdale Park and Annesdale Snowden—were built during 1906-1912. The only paved street in this area of Memphis during 1908 was Lamar, and it was gravel.

The character of the study neighborhood in 1907 was inferred from a review of Polk’s (1907) Memphis Directory, as well as the first detailed plan view of the structures present in the neighborhood: the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. In 1907 the population had increased 104 percent from 1891, and remained about three-quarters African-American. Because we have the Sanborn map for 1907 and later historic photos, it is known that the predominant structure type (i.e., the vernacular architecture) was the duplex style “shotgun” residence. Several businesses existed within the study neighborhood in 1907, and the largest were Central Lumber Co. and the Bluff City Lumber Co., both of which were located south of the data recovery excavations along the railroad line.

A ca. 1939 photo of the Ropers Alley neighborhood that was razed to make way for the Lamar Terrace Housing Project; view is east from the VA hospital nurse’s dorm. The red circle indicates the location of Panamerican’s excavations. This photo is on file at the Mississippi Valley Collection, Ned McWherter Library, University of Memphis.

Between 1907 and 1917, the neighborhood population increased 46 percent, but the racial demographics shifted from 77 percent African-American to 91 percent African-American. The development of “streetcar suburbs” in Midtown, just to the east of the study area, probably contributed in part to this early twentieth-century “white flight.” The small Caucasian population that remained in the study neighborhood occupied two highly restricted enclaves. By 1917, the lumberyards had closed, and the neighborhood was again largely residential with the only non-domestic facilities being a grocery store, the Mt. Nebo Church, and a fire station. Williams and Edney (2005) discuss in great detail the ethno-history of the Mt. Nebo Church, which is today located at 555 Vance Ave., in the Lamar Terrace archaeology monitoring report.

A decade later (1927), on the eve of the Great Depression, there were 183 named residents in the study neighborhood, representing an increase of ˜30 percent since 1917. Following a pattern documented since the 1890s, the neighborhood population is concentrated along Somerville and Woodward. The most significant increase is seen on Roper’s Alley, where the number of named residents essentially doubled during the decade from 1917 to 1927. Roper’s Alley is located between Somerville and Woodward, a block to the east of the data recovery excavations. The number of businesses and non-residential facilities located within the study neighborhood rose sharply during the period of 1917-1927, from three to 14. Most of the increase is due to the appearance of a new commercial strip on the south side of the Lamar. The stimulus for the development of the commercial strip along Lamar during that time was likely the ca. 1919-1921 construction of the Veterans Administration Hospital, as well as increased automobile and trolley traffic on Lamar Ave.

Between 1927-1937, the neighborhood population expanded another 12 percent, and remained concentrated along Somerville, Roper’s Alley, and Woodward, to the east of the excavation site. Apartments first appear in the neighborhood in the 1937, and they include the Tuskegee Apartments, a 20-unit complex, and the Grant Apartments, a 16-unit complex. Neighborhood racial statistics for 1937 were not prepared because the Memphis Directory (Polk 1937) does not provide race data, but the neighborhood remained a predominately African-American enclave, while the surrounding areas were occupied by Caucasians. The Memphis Housing Authority (1940) described the Ropers Alley neighborhood as notorious for having the “lowest sanitary rating … in town,” and for being a criminal haven.

1939 MHA annual report’s Classified Housing Map; areas in red were designated as slums.

Lamar Terrace was the third public housing project in Memphis, and it was the first built by the newly created Memphis Housing Authority. The site selected for Lamar Terrace was Roper’s Alley and its surrounding slum. Because of the crime and the extremely low “sanitary rating of the homes in this negro slum area,” MHA “decided to completely eradicate, Roper’s Alley and its surrounding slum, and to build in its place a white housing project, in keeping with the surrounding territory…” (Memphis Housing Authority 1940). During 1938-1939, no less than 200 families were relocated from the Ropers Alley neighborhood in preparation for the slum clearance for Lamar Terrace.

A ca. 1950 view of Lamar Terrace; view is east from the VA hospital nurse’s dorm (same as in other photo). The red circle indicates the location of Panamerican’s excavations. This photo is on file at the Mississippi Valley Collection, Ned McWherter Library, University of Memphis.

Lamar Terrace was a planned community that contained 478 apartments in 46 buildings. The first families moved into Lamar Terrace on May 1, 1940. After 62 years of service, Lamar Terrace was closed by MHA in 2002. The demolition of Lamar Terrace in 2005 is part of a capital improvement project funded in part by the HOPE VI grant that will result in a new mixed income, mixed-use development known as University Place.