Emily Koelsch

Emily Koelsch is a native Memphian and a freelance writer and blogger. A graduate of Rhodes College and the University of Colorado School of Law, she lives in the East Buntyn neighborhood with her husband and two children.

Memphis Lives: Jimmye Pidgeon

By Updated: January 26, 2019 4:00 AM CT | Published: January 26, 2019 1:08 AM CT

The history of a city is not told through data, statistics or records, but through the stories its citizens share and pass on. There is no better way to understand where a place has been and where it is going than to listen to the experiences and wisdom of those that have been a part of shaping it and seeing it shaped.

This is especially true in a city like Memphis, where our past is complicated and well-blemished and our statistics often don’t tell the true story of our home. We are a town that, despite challenges – or maybe due to them – is defined by a unique perseverance, spirit and grit. This Memphis spirit is hard to capture and define, but it is clearly seen through our common struggles, stories and triumphs.

Today, we capture some of our local history and spirit through the story of Jimmye Pidgeon.

Memphis Lives

If you have a story to share with Memphis Lives or know someone who might, email Emily Koelsch.

Jimmye was born in Memphis in 1942 in the care of the infamous Georgia Tann. From the 1920s to 1950, Tann was a child trafficker who used a litany of illegal and jaw-dropping tactics – from coercion to kidnapping – to obtain children, often from poor, single mothers. She would then sell these children to wealthy clients. It is estimated that she sold 5,000 babies before her agency was shut down in 1950.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Jimmye learned the story of her biological parents and the events that led to her to Georgia Tann’s Home. Her biological mother was a sharecropper around Dyersburg; her father was the son of the landowner. To avoid inevitable scandal, her birth mother’s family sought Georgia Tann upon learning of their daughter’s pregnancy. Some of Tann’s people came to pick the young woman up, and she lived with them until she gave birth.

Jimmye matter-of-factly relates this story from her tastefully decorated East Memphis apartment, where the walls are covered with beautiful art, including a full wall of photographs and documents that tell the story of her father’s Pidgeon-Thomas Iron Co.

At three weeks old, Jimmye was adopted by James and Evelyn Pidgeon, members of a prominent Memphis family. In a forward she wrote for the book "Pidgeon-Thomas Iron Company: A Corporate History," Jimmye gratefully acknowledges this piece of her story: “(My) adoption was a blessing to me because the Pidgeons were a family of high standards, honesty, compassion, selflessness, diligence, and fervent followers of The Golden Rule.”

The Pidgeon family owned the Pidgeon-Thomas Iron Co., a steel fabrication and mill supply. The company, started in 1872, flourished as a steel boom swept across the country. In Memphis, it was responsible for much of the infrastructure that defines the city today: the Orpheum, the Mid-South Coliseum, and both the “old” and “new” bridges across the river. [1]

During World War II, Pidgeon-Thomas became one of only eight producers nationwide of federal government Landing Craft Tanks. Despite more than a century of success, however, Pidgeon-Thomas was not immune to changes in the industry or to the recession of the 1980s. The company closed its doors in 1987, after 115 years of business.

Jimmye proudly tells stories of the company’s success, recounting how much she enjoyed working there for 17 years. She vividly remembers visiting the warehouse as a little girl, where she'd get to see her father and meet his employees. She fondly recalls her Saturday trips there, when she and her mother would pick up her father at the end of the work week to picnic at Riverside Park.

While it may no longer be in operation, Pidgeon-Thomas has left indelible marks on Jimmye. It has left its mark across Memphis as well, both in the infrastructure it produced and in the spirit for which it was known – a culture of entrepreneurship and a grit that enabled it to flourish within a changing industry and world.

“(My) adoption was a blessing to me because the Pidgeons were a family of high standards, honesty, compassion, selflessness, diligence, and fervent followers of The Golden Rule.”

Jimmye Pidgeon

Jimmye is proud to be a part of that storied history and considers it a large part of her identity. Her experience in the Georgia Tann orphanage is one she dismisses as “ancient history.” In the 1980s, she located her biological mother, but she wanted nothing more than a quick explanation of where she had come from and the journey that led her to Memphis and her family. A phone call or two was enough to get the story, and she had no desire to meet her biological relatives. Her story is, and has always been, here.

Jimmye’s life has not been without hardship – among a myriad of challenges, she was widowed at 21; she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002; and in 2010, she was the victim of a violent burglary. She was seemingly targeted due to her narcotic prescription for her symptoms of MS.

Yet, as she graciously tells her story, it is one focused on her unbelievable fortune. She is a person filled with gratitude. Even gratitude for the end of her tenure at Pidgeon-Thomas – while she loved the company and loved working there, she can’t find the words to express the profound impact that her next job, as a legal secretary for the well-known attorney, public servant and political leader Lewis Donelson had on her life. She shared no complaints about her MS diagnosis, but rather proudly told the story of how she pieced together her symptoms and went to her doctor begging for an MRI. Her advocacy led to her own diagnosis and an arduous journey toward managing symptoms.

At 76, Jimmye is full of life and humor and embodies the spirit that has defined the Pidgeon family for over a century. If you get a chance, read her book "Pidgeon Droppings," read her contributions to "Pidgeon-Thomas Iron Company: A Corporate History," or have a look at the paintings that she has started to produce in recent years.

She is a story of resilience, hope, perseverance and optimism. And if you’re looking for Memphis history, she has some tales to tell.

[1] Id. at 85.


Jimmye Pidgeon Georgia Tann Memphis history

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