MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) - Exactly one century ago, Michelle Lisa Whitney's great uncle - Ell Persons - died a brutal death, as a large crowd gathered to watch a white mob burn the woodcutter alive, decapitate, and dismember him near the Wolf River in what today is northeast Memphis.
"The thing that really gets to me is the suffering," Michelle said.
On the surface, there appeared to be little common ground and little to celebrate.
A 16-year-old white girl, murdered while bicycling across a bridge on her way to school, and a black woodcutter who lived nearby burned alive for the crime. Two tragedies, no legal resolution to either.
And yet, not one but two gatherings Sunday afternoon found joy in loss, hope in injustice.
The interfaith prayer ceremony Sunday, May 21, marking the centennial of the lynching of Ell Persons included several mentions of the removal of Confederate monuments in the last month in New Orleans.
But during the two-hour ceremony in a field off Summer Avenue near the lynching site 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.”
Descendants of both victims — the black man who was lynched and the white girl he was falsely accused of murdering — plan to be here for Sunday's prayer service.
The two women, one from Chicago, the other from Memphis, plan to go down to the river, rain or shine, to stand and pray with hundreds of others near the site of both brutal murders.
"We have to acknowledge and address the pain before we can begin to heal," said Laura Wilfong Miller. Her great-grandmother and Antonetty Rappel's mother were sisters.
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.
When a pair of new historical markers on Summer Avenue are unveiled later this month, it will be the latest milestone in current discussions about what happened long ago in Memphis.
The markers will be unveiled at and near the site where Ell Persons was burned by a lynch mob 100 years ago this month.
The May 21 ceremony marks 100 years to the day that a group of men took Persons from a train bringing him back to the city to stand trial for the rape, murder and decapitation of 16-year-old Antoinette Rappel.
Many thanks to Martha Parks and the Memphis Flyer for this wonderful article about the involvement of high school students in the Ell Persons story:
This time last year, the 100th anniversary of Ell Persons' lynching seemed far on the horizon. A lot has happened over the course of the year, as Memphians have rallied around the work of the Lynching Sites Project.
Some Memphians are trying to make sure a dark chapter of our history is not forgotten.
There are about 200 historical markers in Memphis, but only one of them commemorates a lynching: the People's Grocery marker at Walker Avenue and Mississippi Boulevard.
Activists are trying to change that.
Lynching Sites Project said each of the more than 30 recorded lynchings that happened in Shelby County since the Civil War should be recognized and remembered.
So, it appears, do Memphians Howard and Beverly Robertson of Trust Marketing, who this week, at the National Civil Rights Museum, were to unveil a campaign on behalf of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, described in their press release as "a nonprofit Tennessee organization formed to locate and mark known lynching sites."
Oliver Clasper, a friend of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, has had his photographs incorporated into an article "Focusing on the Hidden Horror of American Lynchings,” published in The Atlantic’s web magazine City Lab.
Ollie gives credit to the Equal Justice Initiative, NAACP, and the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, with particular note to Clarence Christian.
An empty trestle bridge spans a grey river. White-washed doors lean on the side of a barn. Telephone poles and a tin shed frame a half-mowed ravine.
by Carla Peacher-Ryan
On Thursday, April 6, at the Cannon Center, Hattiloo Theatre, in partnership with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, presented an original performance - "The Strange Fruit". Conceived by Ekundayo Bandele, executive director of Hattiloo, the show is a compilation of work by the two presenting partners, as well as Collage Dance Collective, Le Chorale a cappella choir, with narratives from Rychetta Watkins and Phil Darius Wallace. It is a work that deals with lynching and was sparked by the work of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis.
Matteo and I have been collaborating on this amazing story for almost a year. With the help of historians, archivists, and the energy and expertise of the people working with The Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, we have very nearly completed research on historical background of this tragedy. We have scouted and filmed almost all the major locations associated with this lynching, and have identified and located descendants of the families and individuals involved in the lynching and are now in the process of interviewing those willing to talk.
Two markers will memorialize the tragic and shameful events that occurred here in the spring of 1917.
Both markers, approved Thursday by the Shelby County Historical Commission, will mention the two victims of those events.
Antoinette Rappel, a 15-year-old white girl who was brutally assaulted and murdered on her way to school April 30, 1917.
Ell Persons, a 50-something black woodcutter accused of the crime who was brutally assaulted and murdered by a lynch mob May 22 that year.
Historically, the Peoples Grocery Lynching is one of the most important lynchings in American history for at least two reasons. First, it caused a large proportion of the African-American community to flee Memphis. Second, it convinced Ida B. Wells to conduct a census of lynchings which systemically researched, catalogued, categorized, and analyzed lynchings in America.