In the 1970s, local preservationists and authors Peggy Jemison and Virginia Dunaway embarked on a project for the Metropolitan Interfaith Association (MIFA) to document the histories of eight historic Memphis neighborhoods, including Coo- per-Young. Pub- lished in 1980, their work was the first real history of the area, which at the time was in a state of decay.
Thirty years later, with the neighborhood having undergone a dramatic transformation, writers Lisa Lumb and Jim Kovarik updated the earlier work for the book Cooper-Young: A Community at Works: A History, published by the Cooper-Young Community Association.
In the latest in a series of excerpts from the book, this month we look at the impact of World War II on Cooper-Young.
Heading into the 1940s, life in Cooper-Young continued its small-town feel and charm. In 1941, savvy businessman Kemmons Wilson, later to become the founder of Holiday Inn, married a CY gal, Dorothy Elizabeth Lee, at her church, Galloway United Methodist. But after surviving the Depression and historic floods, Memphis would soon face its biggest crisis.
Many residents fought for their country in World War II, including Sam Kernell, who had never been on a train in his life until he was sent off to flying school in 1942. The neighborhood was overrun by soldiers at one point. In the fall of 1940, beofre the war’s start, a Memphis unit of the Tennessee National Guard camped out at the Fairgrounds before departing for Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Women did their share as well. Resident Netti Lee Anglin Moore was a Rosie the Riveter, working at the Fisher Aircraft plant. Edna Gabriel also did her part for the war on a munitions assembly line at the Firestone plant.
War shortages hurt the neighborhood, but residents responded by reverting to old ways. Some raised chickens and goats in their backyards for meat, milk, and eggs. One resident who lived here in the 40s remembered a thriving farmer’s market in the neighborhood where fresh vegetables and livestock were sold. The war actually helped Memphis by expanding industry and employing thousands. Local factories like Firestone Rubber, Ford Motor Company, Fisher Aircraft Division, and Continental Can Company produced munitions and machinery for the war effort.
Despite this flurry of wartime activity, some signs did hint at the exodus to come. An acute housing shortage accompanied the influx of workers, and the crunch was felt in CY as wartime widows rented rooms to make ends meet. Others started rooming houses, a trend that would continue in the coming decades.
Post-war prosperity blossomed into the baby boom generation. Returning veterans settled in CY and started new families. The community was especially attractive to those who grew up here and still had family in the area. Newcomers looking for a stable community with good houses and nearby commerce found their place in post-war CY.
But trends in housing signaled a different fate for the area. The post-war housing crunch hastened the construction of new, low-cost, single family housing in outlying areas. These new, cheaper houses and the promise of suburban bliss tempted many families to leave the old neighborhood.
It also hastened the decline of local business. In 1949, Russell Doss, owner of Doss Hardware on Young, tried to persuade a bank to locate a branch in the neighborhood. He was told point blank that CY was an area in decline. He moved his store to a more auto-friendly strip mall at Airways and Lamar, an early sign of the commercial decline of the area.