Opinion » Viewpoint

Hard History: The Lynching Sites Project


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.

Students at Overton High School raised the $2,500 required to fund a historic marker that will be placed on the Summer Avenue bridge spanning the Wolf River. Members of the Central High School Key Club went to the site to clear brush and make a path. Students from several schools were present at LSP's event commemorating the People's Grocery lynching.

Earlier this spring, more than 1,500 Central High School students and teachers gathered at an assembly to hear the story of Ell Persons' lynching; Hattiloo Theatre presented The Strange Fruit, a reflection on the legacy of lynching, in partnership with Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Collage Dance Collective; and Facing History and Ourselves students led a community teach-in about lynching history in the South.

I met with Overton High School seniors Khari Bowman, Taylor Williams, Alexis Sledge, and Kam Johnson, and Central High School students Myles Franklin, Amal Altareb, Talia Glenn, Ethan Haley, and Nina Howard to ask them about engaging with this history. Students at both schools expressed a frustration with the way history has been taught in the classroom:

"We learn about Martin Luther King all the time, but we didn't learn this history," Alexis said.

"Memphis history is not all Elvis and Beale Street. It's a combination of the good and the bad," Kam said.

"If you can talk about individual battles in a war, you can talk about a lynching," Ethan said.

For these students, learning about Ell Persons inspired a renewed enthusiasm for history: "There are these lynchings that are literally down the street in our city that we don't know about. It's not even curriculum. To find out something new, it made me want to learn more," Talia said.

Kam wondered, "What other history has been forgotten in Memphis?"

"We didn't know about Ell Persons. ... Imagine what else happened that we don't know about yet," Alexis said.

Nina said, "This marker is really important, because now people will pass [the site] and realize they're passing history." Of course, since this time last year, our country also elected a new president, Donald Trump, one who is so markedly different from former President Obama that it's hard to begin to quantify. This election has caused many of us to reorient and wonder what happened to the country we thought we were working toward. I asked students what this work means in light of Trump's election.

"[Trump] is the epitome of why we should know our history," Alexis said.

While Obama addressed the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the criminalization of black and brown lives, the new administration cashes in on white fears and nostalgia. Our current president neglected to mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and his press secretary claimed Hitler did not use chemical weapons on his own people. As our country's leader, this president will not model or encourage a complex understanding of our history. We have to do that work ourselves.

"Our ancestors went through too much for us to give up. We have to be what they fought for," Taylor said.

All the students I spoke with said learning about this history inspired conversations with family members. For Central High School junior Ethan Haley, Persons' lynching quickly became personal. "My great-grandfather had actually gone to this lynching," he said. "I didn't know that. Now, it's more of a personal thing. I represent a change in my family."

At the Sunday, May 21st memorial service, Overton High School students will dedicate the historic marker that is the culmination of over a year of research, writing, and fundraising. The descendants of Antoinette Rappel, whose murder led to Persons' lynching, will be present. LSP members are working to reach out to Persons' descendants, too.

The May 21st event will mark not the end of the Lynching Sites Project's work, but the beginning. There were over 30 documented lynchings in Shelby County, more than any other county in Tennessee. Four of the locations have been identified so far, and LSP hopes to place a historical marker at each site.

At the Facing History and Ourselves Teach-In, Ethan closed his presentation by reminding participants that an estimated 5,000 people were present at Persons' lynching. What if 5,000 were present at the memorial?

Originally from Memphis, Martha Park is the Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University's Stadler Center for Poetry.

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