by Jared Boyd
Four names is how close Jennifer Bennie, a researcher for the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, has been able to get in her search to identify an unidentified black man who was lynched in Downtown Memphis in 1851.
Still, LSP Memphis, with the support of the Shelby County Historical Commission and National Parks Service, memorialized the unknown man, along with Wash Henley, who was lynched in 1869, in a marker unveiling and remembrance ceremony on Saturday at Collins CME Church.
It is the organization’s third lynching marker dedication of 36 total known victims to such violence in Shelby County’s history.
The unnamed man, believed to have docked in Memphis earlier in the day before he was killed, was accused by the city’s registrar, John Chester, to have forged freedom papers. When Chester ordered his arrest, the man reportedly pulled out a pistol and shot the registrar in the back of the head, killing him instantly. He was then apprehended and jailed and eventually released to a mob to be hanged, burned and shot.
Bennie tearfully read an account of the violent day in Memphis history, as written in an editorial published by the New Orleans Weekly Delta on Jan. 13, 1851.
“Between January and March of 1851, 50 articles were printed in American papers, from Oregon to New York, from Ohio to L.A., and all of them excluded the man’s name,” Bennie said.
“Keeping his name out of the newspaper and trying to erase it from history is consistent with treating the enslaved as property and free African Americans as less than whites in the pre-Civil War 1850s.”
In order to memorialize the man’s name as best she could, she recited the four names that appeared in her research of family and municipal archives from towns supposedly connected to the unnamed man, prompting the crowd to repeat them after her: John, George, Samuel, Henry.
Henley, who was lynched 18 years later, was a blacksmith who ran away with his employer’s teenage daughter. Henley, although married, was allegedly intending to elope with the young girl.
Once captured in Germantown, a convoy intending to turn Henley over to authorities was intercepted by 25 masked horsemen and he was lynched.
His body was found in Fletcher’s Creek. There was no investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death, and no one was held accountable.
“When I think about Wash Henley, I think about the words the Reverend Jesse Jackson said: ‘I am somebody,’” said LSP Memphis co-founder Randy Gamble.
“We remember somebody who ‘was somebody,’ even though there was a lot of negativity surrounding what happened. That doesn’t change the humanity of what God has created. So, we need to remember the humanity. Everybody, from womb to tomb, was somebody – regardless of how they lived or died.”
At the onset of the ceremony, LSP Memphis board member John Ashworth advised the audience that the memorial would be interactive. “Why are we here?” he posed to the crowd, asking them to speak out.
“I am here because I want to be an anti-racist today,” one man shouted.
“I am here because I want my voice to be a part of change,” one woman said.
“I am here seeking knowledge,” said another man.
“I am here to tell Wash Henley and the unknown man that we remember them today,” said another woman.
Tim Good, a representative with the National Parks Service, which donated to the effort to erect both markers, said that of the nation’s 419 park sites, too few of “them represent the diverse history of our country.”
“I always take great hope when I’m here at these events that they will inspire other people through the country to embrace this history that a lot of people simply do not want to talk about,” Good said.
Good, who began a post as superintendent of Lincoln Home National Historic Site at the beginning of October, said he’s found that many people shudder at the thought that he’s been in support of lynching memorials throughout the country.
“They do not want to hear it. And sometimes I have to physically pull them back and say, ‘You have to listen to this. You have to know what’s going on Memphis. It should inspire you to do the same in your communities,’” he said.
“What shocks people the most when I tell them this, is when I tell them (people in Memphis) have kept going. ‘They didn’t stop with one. They didn’t stop with two, and they are continuing.’ And that shocks them most of all. As if you would simply put up one marker, walk away, and never go back. You’ve continued.”
“We are all not guilty, but we are all responsible,” said Shelby County Historian Jim Rout III.
“The past is our future. History is complex. It is the record of facts, both good and not-so-good. We study it to better ourselves and to hopefully shape a better future by embracing the good and learning from the not-so-good,” Rout said.
“By acknowledging history, we are not sanitizing it, but rather embracing it to promote discussion that will lead to that better future. That being said, embracing all history can be hard,” he said.
“But we have to remember that honesty and truthfulness in history, without compassion, is cruelty. I’ll go further and say, honesty and truthfulness in history, without forgiveness, is anger.
“And this is no place for anger, when we’re striving for a world of harmony.”