My Street: The home where I grew up is now somewhere under Memphis State

By Robert A. Lanier

The street in Memphis where I did most of my growing up in the 1940s, from age 5 to 21 or so, was named Norriswood. It ran parallel to and south of Central Avenue, from Patterson to Normal Street (now Zach Curlin Drive), where the Municipal Waterworks (i.e. Sheehan Pumping Station) begins. My street has now disappeared into the University of Memphis campus, and our house was approximately where the Ned McWherter Library now sits.

I suppose that there was nothing objectively special about this suburban, residential street, other than the fact that our back yards bordered the campus of the then Memphis State College (after 1957 renamed “University” and now the University of Memphis). Our house was two houses from the eastern end of the street and, for a long time, the campus behind our house was undeveloped. My earliest memory of it was as only a field with an empty barn on it. Apparently the college had sometime previously made some agricultural or teaching use for it. For several years before we moved in, a sort of jungle had grown up, where we played as kids. In addition, a small pine forest had been planted for some reason.

THEN and NOW: West Tennessee State Normal School neighborhood, 1938 (left), and the University of Memphis campus and University District area, today (right)

Shortly after the end of World War II, barracks-like houses on stilts were built to create a “vet village” for married ex-military men attending the college, presumably on the “GI Bill.” The latter was a government program which guaranteed all the war veterans government money to attend a college of their choice. I suppose that today it would be called “socialism” by some. Later, the poor slugs on the football team were made to practice on the field in all kinds of weather. We street residents could hear their bodies thudding into each other.

A ditch ran through the back yards of all the houses on our south side of Norriswood, some of them being covered over due to their proximity to the house. In summer, the Health Department sent trucks and workers to spray the ditches with DDT or something for mosquitoes, which might carry disease such as Yellow Fever, I suppose. We felt reassured that the City had our welfare at heart, and did not complain about the temporary fog.

Life on the street was unexciting and typical of white, middle class suburbia of the period, I suppose. There was little auto traffic, so kids would often play in the street. One of our favorite games was cork ball, which involved a bottle cork, taped up with white surgical tape for some reason. The object was to hit the cork with a stick. I forget any other rules. Little girls either skated on roller skates or played hopscotch, drawing a diagram on the sidewalk and tossing a small piece of asbestos shingle over their shoulders, or something like that. I have never understood the game. On warm summer nights, a game of “Kick the Can” was played. As I recall it, a “tin” can was placed in the street and all but one of the kids would hide. That one was chosen as “it,” and had to touch or “tag” the hidden person before he could get to the can and kick it.

The only regular traffic on the street which I can remember, other than fathers returning home from work, was the periodic arrival of the “music teacher,” as we called her, who attempted to teach piano to small kids whose parents had delusions of their talent, and panel trucks delivering laundry. In warm weather very young black boys would push insulated carts full of popsicles and ice cream cups, cooled by dry ice, and call out “popsicle man!” The street kids always enjoyed talking with these kids who were about our age, and paying a nickel or dime for what we bought. We loved playing with the dry ice. Every summer for a long time, a Black man driving a mule-drawn cart full of vegetables would roll slowly down the street. Either he or a woman accompanying him would call out, “market man!” Housewives, who would probably have had their front doors open to catch the breeze, would hear and buy something, such as a watermelon. In warmer weather, younger kids would sometimes hopefully set up stands to sell Koolade or surplus comic books. Usually only the mailman would partake.

Perhaps unusually for our street, there was a space equivalent to a house lot which belonged to the Memphis Light Gas & Water utility, which kept it mowed. At the back corner of this lot was a large metal tank, elevated above the ground (see above). I suppose that it was used to aerate the water or something. Fortunately for us it did not take up much space or interfere with our use of the lot to play football or baseball. (The outfield was not too deep, you understand). As I have indicated, the eastern end of our street terminated at the small gravel-topped Normal Street (today’s Zach Curlin Drive) and the Municipal Waterworks. The latter were then entirely unfenced and maintained like a golf course.

Those grounds provided an excellent playground in both summer and winter. The huge pump house still stands on a steep hill at the back of the grounds, and the pump machinery still seems to run 24 hours a day. Remarkably, anyone who could tolerate the loud hum of the machinery could simply enter the building and look around. I don’t recall ever seeing an attendant. The hill upon which it stood provided a wonderful playground for kids. In the winter, when it usually snowed the first week or so of January, sleds (both “Flexible Flyers” and homemade) appeared and the hill was busy. Even in summer the steepness of the hill provided a place for “sledding” down in cardboard boxes. I say “in” because the boxes were often big enough to get inside. Of course, one could simply slide on top of them. The drainage ditch which I have said ran through the back yards of our street continued into the landscaped grounds of the water works. My best friend’s father, a transplanted country boy, for a long time kept a pack of hound dogs and let them happily run at the water works. To my surprise they would always return to him when he whistled or called to them.

At the very eastern end of our street lived a family which was not typical of the rest of residents. Their house was rather large. Most of ours were one-story, two bedroom types, built shortly before World War II. Their house had two stories and attempted a neo-classical Old South look. The legend was that the father had built it himself. In any case, a large house was needed for this family, as they had about four kids. The kids pretty much kept to themselves and were looked upon as rather odd, especially as they ran around stark naked in warm weather. More intriguing to the rest of the street, however, was the menagerie of goats, chickens and other livestock they kept in their fairly large fenced back yard. Presumably there was a city ordinance forbidding this, but I never heard of it being enforced on them.

My acquaintance with other families only extended about half way up the street. I suppose this was typical. In retrospect, we had a fairly interesting mix of residents, especially the family mentioned above. One family had two daughters, one of whom was deaf and unable to speak clearly. I don’t know where she attended school. One neighbor was the son of Mayor Frank Tobey. Much of my childhood was spent during and immediately after World War II, and yet no one seemed to be conscious of several neighbor families with very German names. I certainly recall no adverse comments about them or any animosity.

As there were a number of children around my age, there were inevitably birthday parties. The only clear memory I have of any of them however, is one when I was about five, during the war. The door prize was one piece of Fleer’s Double Bubble gum! This item was highly prized by kids because it was so scarce. The explanation for that was that the gum contained rubber, a scarce commodity during the war. I was devastated when I did not win the gum.

The street which I knew when growing up began to gradually change and disappear as we grew and the college expanded. Some of the homes, when acquired by the college, became rental property and residences for the faculty. As the old families found new homes, the college began tearing down the houses and replacing them with university buildings. My home is now somewhere under the Ned McWherter Library.

Robert A. Lanier was born in Memphis in 1938, and has spent most of his life in the city as an attorney, with stints serving as a Circuit Court judge from 1982 until his retirement in 2004. Lanier also served as an Adjunct Professor at the Memphis State University School of Law (U of M) in 1981. He was a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission from 1977 to 1982, and was a founder of Memphis Heritage Inc., the historical preservation group still active today. He is the author of several books about Memphis history, including In the Courts (1969), Memphis in the Twenties (1979), and The History of the Memphis & Shelby County Bar (1981), and his most recent, Memphis in the Jazz Age (2021). Lanier also donated hundreds of his personal historic Memphis photographs to the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library – part of Lanier’s personal interest with Memphis history and historic preservation – and they can be viewed on the library’s digital archive and collection (DIG Memphis) under the Robert Lanier Collection

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2 Replies to “My Street: The home where I grew up is now somewhere under Memphis State”

  1. Mr. Lanier’s recollections of Memphis history are always a joy to read. Thank you for printing them!

  2. Judge Lanier’s writing is always a pleasure to read. His inclusion of the small details of life makes these stories important historical documents.

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