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VOL. 132 | NO. 102 | Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Past, Present Converge at Lynching Centennial

By Bill Dries

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The only thing that runs through the area where the Macon Road bridge stood 100 years ago are power lines on wooden poles that take them over the oxbow lake, thick kudzu and two bridge supports almost overtaken by undergrowth on the edge of a thickly-wooded area.

Hundreds gathered Sunday, May 21, to remember Ell Persons at the site of his lynching 100 years ago near the Wolf River. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Those marking a century Sunday, May 21, since a mob murdered Ell Persons at the bridge took the narrow trail through the woods off Summer Avenue to reach the area, with a warning about snakes from organizers of the event.

They left rose petals along the trail and in the algae-filled murky water that is a contrast to the decisively muddy water of the nearby Wolf River.

Closer to the modern roar of weekend traffic on 21st century Summer Avenue, there were a pair of new historical markers.

Each recounts not only Persons’ death by fire, but the murder of Antoinette Rappel that Persons was charged with.

The marker by the Memphis Branch NAACP, National Park Service and Lynching Sites Project of Memphis includes details about the investigation that settled on Persons as the suspect.

“The local press reported that authorities had used physical and psychological force to obtain a confession from Persons,” the marker reads. “The press also reported that law enforcement disagreed about the identity of the culprit. The city police reportedly believed the true culprit was white, which the county sheriff directed the investigation toward African-American woodcutters.”

The second plaque by Facing History and Ourselves, Students United Memphis of Overton High School and the Shelby County Historical Commission has different wording.

“In building a case against Persons, authorities relied primarily on a coerced confession made ‘after a long siege of beating’ and ‘third-degree tactics’ from law officers, as the Memphis press reported,” that plaque reads.

The second plaque is along Summer Avenue in front of a business – the site of the lynching was and further back from there.

The first marker doesn’t have a permanent site yet. It will be placed at the lynching site once the Wolf River Conservancy builds out its plan for bicycle and pedestrian access to the Wolf River in the area as part of the larger Wolf River Greenway.

The interfaith prayer ceremony Sunday included several mentions of the removal of Confederate monuments in the last month in New Orleans.

But during the two-hour ceremony there were no overt calls for the city of Memphis to take the same approach of removing such monuments without advance notice.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis called the actions in New Orleans “commendable.”

“Monuments and memorials to people of that time are monuments to people who were treasonous and supporters of slavery,” Cohen said to applause from a group of 500-600 people who filled and stood outside a large tent.

Rev. Roslyn Nichols also talked about the Confederate monuments.

“Removing them does not change history,” she said. “But it acknowledges our choice in how we recognize our history. So as we work to take down monuments of pain and suffering, we erect those that help us to honor all and acknowledge the fullness of our history.”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland did not comment on the issue of Confederate monuments here or in New Orleans, although in recent weeks some activists have pushed via social media for the city to act. The city is involved in an ongoing lawsuit over plans during the administration of Mayor A C Wharton to remove Confederate monuments in three city parks that have since been renamed.

As a city council member, Strickland was a part of the unanimous council vote for the removal of the monuments.

“We’re obviously not here to right a wrong because we simply cannot. But to me we’re here to make sure that we acknowledge the wrong,” Strickland said of the lynching centennial. “So that all of our community is aware and all of our community remembers. One hundred years ago, part of the Memphis community gathered here to kill someone, celebrate evil, to further racism and encourage hate. Today we gather as a community to remember but celebrate our current community with further dialogue and to encourage healing.”

Confederate monuments weren’t the only present-day issue that surfaced in the Persons anniversary.

“The criminal justice system is still messed up today,” said Rev. Andre Johnson.

Among those throwing rose petals along the wooded trail and in the waters after the service were Michele Lisa Whitney, a descendant of Persons, and Laura Wilfong Miller, a descendant of Rappel.

The service was organized by the Lynching Site Project, whose goal is to mark all of the sites of lynchings in Shelby County. The group and its partners gathered at the same site a year ago to begin the effort toward Sunday’s observance.

Timothy Good, superintendent of the National Park Service, called the lynching “tough history.”

“This is exactly the history people love to run away from,” he said. “There’s no way you can understand today without understanding an event such as this.”

Good was in Memphis last year for the unveiling of a historical marker on the 1866 Memphis Massacre when white mobs, led by the Memphis Police Department, killed 46 black citizens over a three-day period in which they also burned every black school and church in the city.

That marker was undertaken by the Memphis Branch NAACP, the National Park Service and the city of Memphis after NAACP leaders objected to changes in its wording for the plaque by the Tennessee Historical Commission that used the term “riot” as well as “massacre” to refer to the violence.

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