Roughly 50 more Memphians followed last night at Bruce Elementary School, in the first public meeting of Memphians for Removal of Confederate Monuments, speaking in favor of removing Memphis monuments to former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. They spoke beneath a pre-existing, hand-colored banner proclaiming “We Are Conquerors,” an apparently unconnected piece of school paraphernalia. Perhaps it will prove prophetic.
On Sunday afternoon, in a field between the Wolf River and a miniature golf course, several hundred people met under a tent. From a stage brimming with Memphis interfaith leaders, musicians and high school students organized by the Lynching Sites Project, words affirming the purpose for gathering were spoken: Prayer, repentance and healing from the events that happened 100 years ago on the same land.
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.