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VOL. 132 | NO. 87 | Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Groups Prepare for Persons’ Lynching Centennial

By Bill Dries

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When a pair of new historical markers on Summer Avenue are unveiled later this month, it will be the latest milestone in current discussions about what happened long ago in Memphis.

A coalition of groups including the Lynching Sites Project are urging a large turnout for this month’s centennial of the 1917 lynching of Ell Persons at the site of the murder. Persons was burned alive with a crowd estimated at 5,000 people watching.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The markers will be unveiled at and near the site where Ell Persons was burned by a lynch mob 100 years ago this month.

The May 21 ceremony marks 100 years to the day that a group of men took Persons from a train bringing him back to the city to stand trial for the rape, murder and decapitation of 16-year-old Antoinette Rappel.

The local Lynching Sites Project gathered near the site a year ago to announce their intent.

In addition to the markers, the group hopes to draw a larger crowd than the 5,000 people who gathered by the Wolf River a century ago to watch Persons die.

“I think it’s important to show 100 years later we are going to get a very good turnout again, but their passions will be different,” said John Ashworth, project manager for the Lynching Sites Project.

Sharon Pavelda of the LSP said the group was formed to spotlight harsh chapters of Memphis history that may be hidden but are not forgotten, and to make the city “a safe place to speak and hear the truth.”

Ashworth has been researching Persons’ life and death and coordinating the event, which involves a number of organizations and groups including those involved in last year’s dedication of a historical marker in South Main on the 150th anniversary of the Memphis Massacre – three days of violence in which white mobs including the Memphis Police Department killed 46 African-American citizens and burned every black church and school in the city to the ground.

The Memphis Branch NAACP was a sponsor of the massacre marker and a Persons markers.

Memphis NAACP president Deidre Malone said the Persons marker and site is of specific importance to the organization because his death prompted the formation of the Memphis chapter.

James Weldon Johnson, with the national NAACP, came to Memphis to investigate the incident.

“This event helps us crystallize us being 100 years old,” Malone said, noting that the Memphis branch is planning a centennial observance in June. “If it hadn’t been for Rev. Johnson coming down at the request of Robert Church and determining that Mr. Persons probably didn’t commit the murder or the rape, then our branch probably would not have started 100 years ago.”

In his research, Ashworth found a statement from a group of Memphis religious leaders published in “The Crisis,” the official magazine of the NAACP, that was dated two days after the lynching.

The leaders decried the “mob violence” and their own “dereliction of duty” for failing to intervene in something that was being planned publicly for days before Persons was killed. Local newspapers reported preparations for the lynching in advance.

One of the leaders of that group of religious leaders was the rabbi of Temple Israel.

Current Temple Israel Rabbi Micah Greenstein is urging his congregation and the city to mark the event 100 years later.

“The minister of that day who organized the clergy of Memphis was my predecessor at Temple Israel … not only against lynching but against the Klan,” Greenstein said. “The greatest sin, and this is the reason why we all must be there … no matter what our path to God, the greatest sin of all is the sin of indifference.”

Ashworth led a group of 100 religious leaders to the site where Persons died last week. All that remains is a bridge abutment that is across an oxbow lake surrounded by thick bushes, shrubs and kudzu. Ashworth pointed to the abutment, saying that was the site of the lynching. He said the ministers pressed on through the overgrown area to get to the actual site.

The groups involved in the observance this month have permission from some land owners along Summer Avenue for access to the site and are organizing shuttle buses into the site.

Ashworth said the centennial of Persons’ violent and macabre death is a chance to “showcase the values that even the ministers of that day understood.”

“We have to be very, very careful to not let mob mentality take over when we know in our hearts, what the right thing is to do,” he said. “It’s important not to go along to get along. That may not sound right in this instance, but that’s essentially what it comes down to.”

Malone says there is a relevance to an event that is uncommon today but was all too common in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“I remind people that even though we have advanced in some ways, you can always go back. It may not be the same type lynching,” she said. “It may be a lynching through policy. If we’re not vigilant and watching what we do and advocating for those things we know are important, you can still go back.”

Iris Love Scott of the LSP cited the ongoing push for criminal justice system reform as part of an “undercurrent” politically connected to lynchings like that of Persons.

“People are afraid again,” she said.

Ashworth also said it is important to recognize that the people in the crowd weren’t all active first-hand participants in killing Persons.

“I’m sure in that crowd of 5,000 people there were people in that crowd who simply went along because something was happening,” he said. “They simply followed the crowd. I do not necessarily think that every heart there was there with the intent, ‘I am going to sit here and watch this spectacle.’ I think they were caught up in the moment.”

An interfaith prayer service will be held at 3 p.m. on May 21 at 5404 Summer Ave. The two markers will be dedicated at noon and 2 p.m. that same day.

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