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VOL. 131 | NO. 103 | Tuesday, May 24, 2016

1917 Lynching Recalled, Marker Planned at Site

By Bill Dries

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In a year, a group of religious leaders hopes to draw at least 5,000 Memphians to an area off Summer Avenue by the Wolf River where 3,000 gathered nearly a century ago as a man was burned alive.

More than 100 people gathered by a Wolf River oxbow Sunday, May 22, to mark 99 years since the lynching of Ell Persons near the site by a mob of 3,000. A group is making plans for a historical marker at that and 21 other lynching sites in the city.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The Lynching Sites Project of Memphis gathered Sunday, May 22, in a field by a Wolf River oxbow, 99 years to the day that Ell Persons was lynched at an event that was covered by local newspapers in advance.

Persons was accused of the murder, rape and decapitation of 16-year-old Antoinette Rappel in the same area. Persons was a woodcutter who lived in the area that today is west of where Summer Avenue turns into Bartlett Road.

He was captured by leaders of a mob that were stopping all trains into and out of the city. Persons was taken off a train where he was being guarded by local law enforcement officers returning him to the city for his trial on the charges.

Persons was charged because investigators claimed they had examined the eyes of Rappel after her death and said they saw a reflection of Persons’ forehead in her eyes, according to “Memphis In Black and White,” the 2003 book by historians Beverly G. Bond and Janann Sherman.

Photos of Persons’ severed and burned head made the front page of newspapers the day after the lynching, and the image was preserved on souvenir postcards as well.

“We are reclaiming life and reclaiming light,” Rev. Roslyn Nichols, pastor of Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church, said at the start of Sunday’s interfaith prayer service near the site of the lynching at the old Macon Road Bridge.

The site where the mob, including food and souvenir vendors, crowded in 1917 is overgrown with thick bushes, trees and vines today.

The group of more than 100 people gathered on the western side of where Summer Avenue becomes Bartlett Road. Some walked past a used car lot with three snarling pit bulls behind a chain-link fence, and behind a construction materials business that opened its gates to provide access to the area.

The lynching site and Sunday’s gathering spot are in an area being surveyed for inclusion in the Wolf River Greenway project.

Nichols said there have been discussions with the Wolf River Conservancy about a marker at the spot and that the National Park Service has indicated an interest in helping with the marker.

The park service was involved in the erection of a historical plaque in Army Park, at G.E. Patterson and Second Street, earlier this month marking the 1866 Memphis Massacre – three days of mob violence in the city led by the Memphis Police Department in which 46 African-Americans were killed and every black church and school in the city was burned to the ground.

The NAACP partnered with the park service and the city of Memphis after the Tennessee Historical Commission sought to change the wording of the plaque to a heading of “Memphis Race Riot.”

The NAACP declined to make the change.

“People pass up and down Summer every day and have no idea what happened,” Nichols said, likening Persons’ death to the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

“There is a darkness here,” said Rabbi Katie Bauman, associate Rabbi at Temple Israel, as she noted the sunny weather with a slight breeze.

“Why do we remember these things?” asked Nabil Bayakly, assistant Imam of Masjid AnNoor. “Because we have to learn from the past.”

The most enduring local reaction in 1917 to the lynching was the formation of the Memphis Branch NAACP the same year that the national organization was founded.

The Memphis chapter of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization defined the city’s black political establishment in the decades immediately after the lynching into the modern civil rights movement that emerged after the end of World War II and beyond.

Memphis Branch executive director Madeleine C. Taylor noted that there were 22 known sites of lynchings in Memphis from the 19th into the 20th century.

Taylor was among those who encountered red ants in getting to the prayer service.

She noted that even after his death, Persons’ remains were denied burial. No one was ever prosecuted for the mob violence, even though newspapers’ accounts noted that no one leading the mob wore masks and Persons was killed during daylight hours.

Taylor said the call to mark the sites of the lynchings is about “remembering, repenting and reconciling.”

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