Rural communities are formed for many reasons, but most are located in an area where the inhabitants can carve out a living. As the original home of the Mississippi Lunatic Asylum, the area now known as Fondren was situated at the fork in the road where the city’s northernmost boundaries reached Canton Road. The asylum was a rich source of jobs, although most were menial. Following the Civil War, when the plantations had been destroyed and property divided, a large parcel of land at the fork was bought by Isham Cade, a black man. Cade subdivided the land into parcels and had the area surveyed. It was known for years as ‘Sylum Heights, although the original plat shows it as the Isham Cade Survey (subdivision).
Most of the land north of Jackson had been farmed. Some five thousand acres of it had belonged to the Garland family, whose holdings were destroyed during the War. The Cade Property came from these holdings. The first Fondren bought nearly 500 acres of property in Jackson in 1845, six miles north of where present day State and Capitol Streets meet. But it was 1893 when David Fondren purchased some of Cade’s land and built a wood frame general store there. The location, at the fork between Canton Road and Tougaloo Road, was well situated to cater to the small, but established community, the hospital, and the north-south traveler.
The land fronted an Illinois Central rail spur which served the insane asylum property. It also allowed the Fondrens easy access to arriving supplies and departing timber. The growing community was in need of a post office, and in 1894, one was established in the Fondren Grocery. Some residents felt ‘Sylum Heights was not a desirable name for a community, and they petitioned the U.S. Postal Service to establish the station as Fondren. A Fondren post office still exists today, less than a block away from the original location.
In 1935, a new state mental hospital was constructed fifteen miles to the south of Jackson at Whitfield. Most of the old asylum structures were demolished in short order by a crew of state prisoners. The Fondren community, now well established and racially diverse, was able to continue without the original organizing focus of the hospital.
The community continued to grow, adding other businesses as well as dwellings. The Fondren family built several homes on Tougaloo Road (renamed State Street Extension). Churches became an important part of the community. Eventually drug stores, restaurants, filling stations, a neighborhood theater and other amenities joined the community. Most were in individual buildings, but sometimes they were joined together, as a commercial area began to evolve. Some businesses adapted existing dwellings, later to be replaced with permanent stores. In 1925, development pressures in Jackson pushed housing to the south edge of the old hospital grounds, and the City of Jackson annexed Fondren, immediately north of it. It was the first inclusion of a developed community within the Jackson city limits. Shortly thereafter, an area just northeast of the former asylum grounds became an exclusive neighborhood of fine homes.
Duling School was built in “downtown Fondren” in 1928, and following World War II, the first suburban shopping center in Mississippi, Morgan Center, (now Woodland Hills Plaza) was built on the original Cade’s Alley. Jackson’s first “high-rise” suburban office building, the Dale building, (now Fondren Corner) was built in Fondren in 1956. It was only five stories tall, but nothing around it exceeded two. The post-war building boom added significantly to the housing stock. The neighborhood continued to be racially diverse until the 1950’s, when rising property values forced the last black resident to move from Cade’s Alley.
By the 1980’s, the neighborhood was being abandoned to the new “estate lots” of adjacent bedroom communities. The flight resulted in a reduction of owner-occupied housing in west Fondren. The concerns on the part of long term Fondren residents led to the organization of a very effective neighborhood organization now known as Fondren Renaissance Foundation. The boundaries included a socially, economically and racially diverse area of about 2,500 residents and 200 shops. A private, voluntary tax base was created and neighborhood security was organized. Thirty rental houses were bought, rehabilitated and resold to new owners the first year, and the state’s first urban main street program was instituted.
With information from Robert Parker Adams and Dale McKibben