Last winter, with a scrawled list of the streets and landmarks mentioned in 100-year-old newspaper articles, I drove east through Memphis, past Shelby Farms, to what I believed might have been the place where a black woodchopper named Ell Persons was burned alive before thousands of spectators. I walked along the edge of the Wolf River, unsure whether this was the place. The river was narrower than I expected, and the bridge was newer than I thought it should have been. There were no markers, no wooden crosses or makeshift memorials like I see so often marking the site of a murder or a deadly car crash. There was nothing but the wind and the winter sun warming the cool air.
The lynching of Persons is a story no one told me about my home. I never heard Persons' name in a history class or read about the lynching in a textbook. I first encountered Persons' story in my own reading, years after I finished high school in Memphis and moved away for college. When I went looking for the site where Persons was lynched, there was nothing to suggest whether I was in the right place.
A group of local Memphians is looking to change that. In the year since I first went looking for the site of Persons' lynching, an as-of-yet unnamed group of ministers, professors, scholars, and churchgoers, inspired by Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson's speech at the Facing History and Ourselves annual fund-raising dinner, found their mission: to identify and place historical markers at all lynching sites in Shelby County.
Though Persons was not the only victim of lynching in Shelby County, his murder is unique for its surviving details — the case was breathlessly reported in local news leading up to the lynching — and for its spectacle. Thousands of people attended Persons' lynching, which was, according to some newspaper accounts, the first to be carried out in broad daylight...
Martha Park, Memphis Flyer, 2/4/16
Feb 4 2016 (all day)