HYPERLOCAL NEWS HUB BY THE UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS DEPARTMENT OF JOURNALISM
Cooper-Young Resident Recalls Four Decades of Living in Cooper-Young
By Hannah C. Owenga
When Robert H. Johnson Sr. moved to the Cooper-Young area, he wasn’t the most popular resident, but he’s still living in the same house 40 years later.
Johnson, 82 years old, moved to Memphis with his wife in 1948, and in 1972, he moved to Cooper-Young.
Decades later, he tells his version of the Cooper-Young yesteryears with cloudy eyes, a warm smile and rugged hands pointing at the worn photos on the wall.
“I was the first black on this block,” he said. “It was one black family all the way into the end before Young led into McLean. There was a black family all the way there to the end.”
Johnson said they weren’t too welcome either, but he survived by trying to make friends.
“I’ve always been outgoing. (Neighbors) didn’t do nothing, but they didn’t speak either,” he said. “They wanted to know, how did I get this property? Well, I got this property through a white girl that worked with me.”
Johnson said the woman helped him get the house.
“I don’t know where that girl is now, but I would like to know. This property, it was cheap. That s the reason the house is falling down now,” he said. “My lot is 100 feet deep and 50 feet wide. It was $18,000 dollars.”
Now, the home is pinned together with old branches and gathered plywood managing to stand in its bright coat of paint.
After Johnson moved into Cooper-Young he said other black residents slowly started, “easing in.”
Before moving to Cooper-Young, Johnson and his wife lived with his wife’s uncle and what is now known as Foote Homes.
Johnson is the last survivor of 14 children and had three children—two sons and one daughter—of his own.
“My momma was a Parson. That was her maiden name. Her father was a minister,” he said. “My wife, her father was a Baptist minister. My dad was a deacon.”
Johnson said he’s watched the Cooper-Young neighborhood change over past four decades.
“By me having a stroke two years ago, some of my memory is gone,” he said. “And it hadn’t come back to me yet. I can get around. I drive, I can do anything but they watch me. Everybody watch me.”
He said there used to be trolleys up down and the streets and that Memphis city limit was near Poplar by the Benjamin L. Hooks library and Central High School.
Cooper, he said, was a “little old street like this.”
“And if you dig down in the streets now, sometimes they finds rail down there, the trolley line,” he said.
Johnson never rode the trolley.
“Tell you the truth, when I first moved to Memphis, they had electric trolley lines then. That thing run all the time. They had two rails and sometimes when a car would turn the corner, the car would jump the rail and the driver would have to jump out and put it back on the rail,” he said. “It was a mess. You wouldn’t believe it.”
One of the most significant changes Johnson said was the waning number of older people in the neighborhood.
“Cooper-Young neighborhood is mostly young people now,” he said. “The older people are dead. I hate to say it. It don’t sound good, but it’s true.”
Cooper-Young has been recently coined one of the best neighborhoods in the United States according to the American Planning Association.
The neighborhood is filled with artists and musicians with a niche restaurants, boutiques and galleries.
Rita Middleton moved to Cooper-Young four months ago.
"Cooper-Young is like the hiding spot and gem of Memphis, " said Middleton. "It is definitely hot, happening, young and plain fun."
Despite the area’s new neighbors and recent acclaim, Johnson said he has old roots here and he is proud to call Cooper-Young home even if he were the only one left.