He was burned alive while at least 5,000 spectators stood by watching near the Wolf River.
On the day of his death, The Commercial Appeal published a headline alerting the public of the intended lynching. After being burned to death, parts of his charred, dismembered body were taken to Beale Street and thrown at black pedestrians.
His name was Ell Persons; and though his murder made national headlines on May 22, 1917, it was quickly forgotten and rarely mentioned.
Now 100 years later, a group of Memphians is ensuring that residents know Person’s name and the events surrounding his brutal death.
“We are holding the event to commemorate his passing because it is the 100th anniversary of this tragic and horrid event of mob vengeance,” Sharon Pavelda said.
She is a part of the Lynching Sites Project (LSP), the group of citizens who have made it their mission to shed light on Shelby County’s history of racial violence; but group members said it’s not about chastising the city. Instead they want to educate other citizens in hopes of healing and growing.
“I am a native Memphian and I was 67 before I heard about this. It’s obvious that the history has been buried,” LSP President, the Rev. Randy Mullins said. “Facing this history, as horrible as it is, has led me to experience levels of healing in myself that I did not know were possible.”
Right now members of the LSP want residents to face the brutal lynching of Persons. Though he was accused of raping and murdering a fifteen-year-old white girl, Antoinette Rappel, he was never tried before a jury or convicted in a court of law. Instead, participants in a lynch mob took matters into their hands, illegally removing Persons from custody before attacking him.
“Everybody is entitled to due process and he was not allowed this,” John Ashworth, who is the project manager for the 100th anniversary ceremony, said. “If this fairness is denied to some it will fail for all.”
LSP members said they believe Persons was targeted because he was black.
“The evidence at the site pointed to police believing that a white person had committed the crime. But for whatever reason the sheriff at that time said someone in the African-American community had done it and focused his efforts there,” Pavelda explained.
According to reports, investigators claimed that they had examined the eyes of Rappel after her death and saw a reflection of Person’s forehead. They interrogated him and claimed that he confessed to the murder; but LSP members said the confession only came after brutal intimidation and coercion.
“The most shocking thing about this whole thing is the inhumanity of man,” Iris Scott, another LSP member, said. “They put his dismembered body parts in a car and drove them from Macon Road to Beale Street to throw at people. It’s amazing to me.”
Persons’ remains were denied burial and no one was ever prosecuted for the murder.
“If there were 5,000 people watching that day, their descendants are still here,” Pavelda said. “Many of them don’t even know that this happened or that their ancestors could have done this.”
Amongst the group of onlookers were middle and high school students, who had been excused from class to witness the mob violence.
“The cruelty of having small children and students there…think about what that did to them,” Scott said. “And what did that teach them that may have been carried on through generations?”
Photos of Persons’ severed head also made the front page of newspapers the day after the lynching. The images were later used to create souvenirs and postcards.
Despite the unsettling details surrounding his death, LSP members said people should know the truth. The ceremony is a step in the direction of awareness. Last year they held a similar prayer service near the site of the attack. More than 100 people attended. This year, they’re hoping to draw an even larger crowd.
Before the service, a group of local high school students will lay a historical marker at the site near the Wolf River. These students include those from Overton and Central high schools who spearheaded a memorial project after learning of Person’s death in 2016.
“We want people to know that we’re all in this together,” Pavelda said. “We are a group of white folks and African Americans who came together with trust. The resurrection of this horrible event has surprisingly brought about hope.”
(The ceremony will be held at 3 p.m. on May 21 at the field behind 5404 Summer Ave. just east of the Wolf River. Parking and shuttles will be provided. A tent with seating will be available, in case of rain.)
Erica R. Williams, The New Tri-State Defender
May 18 2017 (all day)