by McKinley Doty
When I think about growing up in Arlington, I think about the football games, the teachers I loved and learned from, alternating meals between Mezcal and Lenny’s, my high school graduation. My feelings about Arlington are synonymous with the appreciation I have for the friends and family who inspired me and have shaped how I see the world.
But for every happy memory I have, I can also recall a negative one. Like all the times I cried when I was called "fat" in middle school. That time when a group of students followed my friend home and threw rocks at him for being gay. Or all the times I heard young white men shout the n-word in a rap song-- enthusiastically justifying that it was "just a word"-- yet choosing to use that same slur as our class watched President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration.
Growing up in Arlington forced me to confront the complex motivations of humanity and, in doing so, I was awakened to the complexities of my own. No matter how tempting it is to leave the uglier memories in the past, I know that those memories afforded me the opportunity to learn and decide what kind of person I wanted to be.
Time may make it easier, but burying the bad memories doesn’t make the good any better, just as confronting the painful memories doesn’t diminish my ability to find joy in the good.
I used to avoid criticizing my hometown because I thought being critical meant rejecting a community I love and admire. But being critical is an act of love, born of the belief that we can do better. Sometimes, loving your hometown means you must confront a piece of its history that has gone unacknowledged for the past 78 years.
A BRUTAL DEATH
Two years ago, I began that journey when I learned about the story of Jesse Lee Bond. On April 28, 1939, 20-year-old Bond was brutally murdered in broad daylight in front of the S.Y. Wilson store after asking for a receipt for his purchase. As a black sharecropper in the Jim Crow South, Bond's seemingly harmless request was considered an egregious challenge to the authority and socially constructed superiority of the white store owners who were known for keeping their ledgers private.
According to the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, Bond's surviving family members and one living witness say that he was called back to the store, where he was shot and castrated, his body then dragged behind a truck and staked in the Loosahatchie River. Authorities found his body several days later.
On Bond's death certificate, the coroner said the victim "fell into the Hatch River and was accidentally [sic] drowned." Bond's funeral and burial at Grays Creek Church attracted a large crowd, many from neighboring counties who were there to protest the actions of the white authorities. No stone was placed on the grave. It remains unmarked today.
Legal records from the Shelby County archive show that Charles R. Wilson and William Johnson were charged with first-degree murder and tried before a jury. According to a brief article Jan. 23, 1940 in The Commercial Appeal, the two men were quickly acquitted.
HONORING THE TRUTH
Those familiar with the area know that Arlington history, in many ways, is defined by the imagery of our historic Depot Square and the façade of the Wilson store that remains. Meanwhile, neither our local landmarks nor our students’ textbooks make mention of Jesse Lee Bond. And that’s a problem. As a community, we cannot heal until we honor the truth.
Honoring this truth in Arlington is not about dissecting which parts of the story we want to accept as fact and identifying who we can hold accountable, especially given that the murderers are deceased. It’s about coming together as a community to grapple with what happened in 1939 and what that means for us in 2018.
Omitting Jesse Lee Bond’s story from Arlington’s history sends a clear message: some lives matter, some lives don’t. And while honoring Bond's life won’t change Arlington’s past, it can and will determine our future.
Right now in Arlington, we have a chance to defy the headlines and stereotypes that work to divide us by coming together to reclaim our future. There is a seat for everyone at the table, and we can pay tribute to Bond by listening to one another and collaborating on solutions to make Arlington a better town for us all.
Starting the conversation will be uncomfortable, but it will be worth it. Through dialogue and action, we can use this tragedy as a lesson to prevent this kind of injustice from happening in our backyard ever again. With open hearts and minds, we can be a model for the nation of the good that comes when we are willing to have difficult conversations.
McKinley Doty is a graduate of Arlington High School and American University.
Arlington High School alumni and members of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis will conduct a candlelight vigil to observe the 79th anniversary of Bond’s death. The vigil begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Depot Square in Arlington.