President's Island is recognized as one of the fastest growing and successful industrial parks in the country.
But 150 years ago it was an isolated expanse where freed slaves established a colony known as "The President's Island Contraband Camp."
They were freed slaves who didn't want to wait to see if the post-Civil War government would ever reward them with a promised "40 acres and a mule" apiece.
Yet, as farmers they were willing to take their chances by choosing to establish their own agricultural colony in a place with no electricity, no roads, no running water. It was just an island outside Memphis with a regal name.
It sits slowly deteriorating in the shadow of a cell tower in Midtown. Eight windows, mostly boarded up, and a door leading inside to the last one-room schoolhouse that held classes in Shelby County. But it's the very existence of the former President's Island school that stands as a fading monument to a little-known chapter in Memphis African-American history - an era whose roots date back to even before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation when the federal government created the Freedmen's Bureau and established an island colony for freed slaves.
Originally, 1,500 African-Americans opted to inhabit the previously untamed 12-mile stretch of shifting sands, forests and pastures.
"Primarily an agricultural rural area. It was isolated. It was in the river," said East High teacher and historian Mark Scott. "Today it's a peninsula because we built a causeway over it. But, for most of the time it was truly an island. The only way to it was by boat. A community developed on the island. It was a mixed community. Some of the people were landowners and some of the people were actually sharecroppers."
Though the island stayed predominately black for decades, their labor was the "backbone" of success for white landowners such as Joe Sailors. At its height, Sailors' 970-acre plantation on the island was work and home to 31 black families.
For those who chose to go it alone as farmers, the lush atmosphere made it easy to thrive on corn, beans and cotton, while surrounded by animal life including wild horses. Socially, the New Hope Negro Baptist Church was the centerpiece for all the island's inhabitants. The church also temporarily served as the county school until it was all washed away in the 1937 flood.
"We have documented that there was a Shelby County School called President's Island One Room School, All the way back to 1921," Scot said. "It was destroyed in the Mississippi River flood of 1937 and then the school was done away with. But, it reopened again in the church that had been next to it and it was rebuilt in 1952, still as a one room segregated schoolhouse with no plumbing, no electricity."
Which brings us back to the schoolhouse that once sat on 12-foot stilts still embedded on the island. Though it housed eight grades and had an abbreviated school year lasting only from June until September, by 1964, only 11 students and one teacher, the late Elenora Devers, were there for its closing.
"It was a sharecroppers school, so they were all African American children," Scott said. "Most of them only had the hope of going to the eighth grade. So, they weren't necessarily the people who would be writing books or had the time to write books and save those memories of that place."
Memories of a one room schoolhouse and a way of life not even history can begin to put a price tag on.