South City

The lynching of Ell Persons finds a lasting imprint on the Memphis NAACP chapter

One hundred years later, Memphians gathered by the Wolf River out Summer Avenue to commemorate historical markers in memory of the lynching of Ell Persons, a dark moment in Memphis history that ended up having a significant impact on the Bluff City in the founding of the Memphis NAACP.

This was a different gathering with a different intention.

A quick glance around the standing-room-only tent confirmed this. Unlike that horrific day, May 22, 1917, this would be a day for reconciliation and a recompense for the horrific sequence of events that resulted in two deaths.

His name was Ell Persons. He was a 50-something wood cutter.

Although his lynching made national headlines, it was quickly forgotten. The barbaric event is rarely mentioned in Memphis history. Persons was burned alive in front of roughly 5,000 spectators.

Persons was accused of the rape and murder of the 15-year old white girl. Her name was Antoinette Rappel.

A century later, Memphians of all race, gender, age and religion gathered at a site by the Wolf River.  Heading east down Summer Avenue, a pair of markers have been erected to commemorate one of the darkest moments in Memphis’ history thanks to Students Uniting Memphis, Shelby County Historical Commission, Memphis NAACP and the National Park Service.

Michele Lisa Whitney, whose great uncle was Ell Persons, helps unveil the historical marker near the site of his lynching.

In the spring of 1917, Rappel was found decapitated. The teen was left under a bridge along the Wolf River. Suspicion fell on Persons. He was arrested, interrogated and released twice. When we was interrogated the third time, he was reportedly beaten into a confession.

The suspect was relocated to a Nashville jail. As trial neared, an organized mob called The Avengers intercepted Persons’ train in route to Memphis.

The newspapers of the day did little to calm anger. Upon capture, local publications filled their pages with headlines and stories. The speculation was he would be burned the next day.

By 9 a.m. on that day in 1917, a crowd of 3,000 or so had gathered. Traffic on the road leading to the bridge went on for a mile and a half. Vendors set up stands where sandwiches and snacks were sold.

The Persons lynching and the establishment of the Memphis NAACP changed the political and social landscape of the South.

Persons was hauled to a cleared space and doused with gasoline. A match was lit. Once his charred corpse had cooled, he was dismembered. Members of the crowd took Persons' head and drove to Beale Street downtown. It was thrown at black pedestrians.

Although Persons was not the only victim of lynching in Shelby County, his murder was unique in its surviving details. His story still resonates.

On Sunday, May 21, 2017, Students Uniting Memphis, a nonprofit formed by an Overton High School history class, dedicated the first of two historical markers to the lynching. It was the culmination of a research assignment for Facing History and Ourselves class that blossomed into a community effort.

Khari Bowman, class salutatorian, said the project gave her a knowledge and insight that will influence her for the rest of her life.

The Central High School concert singers perform at the commemoration ceremony. In 1917, many students from Central High School missed school to attend the lynching of Ell Persons, adding to the festival-like atmosphere of the horrific event. Students from the school wanted to be present at this year's event to help carry the spirit of reconciliation.

"For me, it's like a symbol of hope for our future generations because, I don't know, we took something that was not known and we made it known," she said.

For the students, learning about Ell Persons inspired a renewed enthusiasm for history.

"They found out this happened and said, 'Oh my God, this happened right here in our community and we never knew about it," said Marilyn Taylor, Overton High teacher of Facing History and Ourselves.

Students at the school raised $2,500 to fund the historical marker. Members of the Central High School Key Club also helped by clearing brush for a path to the site.

The students found support from The Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, which is a local interfaith group of ministers, historians, and activists. The group was formed to place a spotlight on the history of Memphis so crimes like the Persons lynching, for instance, won’t be forgotten.

Working with the Memphis NAACP, they co-hosted an “Interfaith Prayer Ceremony Commemorating the Centennial of the Lynching of Ell Persons,” held immediately after the first marker’s reveal.

Laura Wilfong Miller and Michele Lisa Whitney both wipe away tears while at the commemoration ceremony.

“We took it to heart. On the 100th year (of Ell Persons’ lynching), we could do something major and involve the whole community in another way…so we started working,” said Pan Awsumb, volunteer with the Lynching Sites Project.

The service brought out officials like Congressman Steve Cohen and Mayors Jim Strickland and Mark Luttrell.

“This is a special day in Memphis when people of goodwill have come together to reflect on an incident 100 years ago when people of ill will took the law into their own hands,” Cohen said during the prayer service.

"We can't right the wrong of 100 years ago," Strickland said. "But we acknowledge the wrong so that all our community is aware and all of our community remembers. Today, we gather as a community to remember and to celebrate ... to encourage healing."

Faith leaders across Memphis led the crowd in prayer and hymns.

Direct descendants were located for the ceremony. In attendance were Michele Whitney of Chicago, a great grand-niece of Persons, and Laura Miller of Memphis, whose great-grandmother was Rappel’s aunt.

Miller knew about the family history since she was a child.

"It was so unbelievable I couldn't wrap my mind around it. I can't imagine what her mother must have gone through," said Miller. "We have to acknowledge and address the pain before we can begin to heal."

Kids lean on a tent pole while listening to the ceremony.

Whitney knew her grandmother had moved from the South when her father was young. She didn't know her grandmother's uncle had been lynched until a few weeks ago. When John Ashworth of the Lynching Sites Project, called to invite her to the prayer service, she accepted – wanting to know more.

"As an African-American, I know about the legacy of lynchings," said Whitney, "but when I read the full story of what happened to my great-uncle, the horror of it, how he must have suffered, I went through all the stages of grief.”

There were also musical selections by the Memphis Symphony Quartet and the Central High School Concert Singers. The marker was unveiled by Deidre Malone, president of the Memphis NAACP, and Timothy Good of the National Park Service.

“This is exactly the history people love to run away from. There’s no way you can understand today without understanding an event such as this,” added Good.

For such a tragic event, the centennial mood was celebratory although echoes of the past are reflected in today’s headlines.

“This is exactly the history people love to run away from. There’s no way you can understand today without understanding an event such as this."

In 2015 alone, police officers in the U.S. killed 1,138 people. A disproportionately high number of them were black. The NAACP says African Americans represent nearly 1 million of a total 2.3 million people incarcerated.

While markers dedicated to victims are a fair reminder of some of the past atrocities African Americans have endured, there are relics to a racist past that have endured as well.

Rev. Roslyn Nichols reflected on the Confederate monuments still standing in many cities.

“Removing them does not change history,” said Nichols. “But it acknowledges our choice in how we recognize our history. So, as we work to take down monuments of pain and suffering, we erect those that help us to honor all and acknowledge the fullness of our history.”

Participants placed collected samples of soil from the Persons’ site. They are to be placed in glass jars identified with the name of the lynching in the new “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum,” opening in Montgomery, Ala. in April 2018, to honor victims of lynching by the Equal Justice Initiative. Persons’ was one of twenty-one lynchings in Shelby County. Only three of the local sites have been identified so far.

Only one other — the 1892 lynching of People's Grocery co-owners Thomas Moss, Will Stewart, and Calvin McDowell — has been recognized with a historical marker.

The Persons marker currently stands in a temporary home right now. It’s perched atop a cleared hill that sits above the spot of the lynching down by the river.

Folks attending the ceremony made their way on a quarter-mile hike through the woods to the spot near the old Wolf River Bridge.

“A temporary site will be had for the second marker until the permanent site can be finished in a couple of years with the full opening of the trail going from Shelby Farms Park all the way down to the Mississippi River,” said Jimmy Ogle, Shelby County historian, speaking of the Greenline pedestrian trail. 

The ceremony ended with a pilgrimage to the Wolf River site, which included inspirational words from Persons’ descendent.

"I can only speak of my own experience with grief that the only way out is through. The emotions of fear, anger and sadness…there is no way around them no matter how uncomfortable these feelings may be," said Whitney.

“The discovery of the connection with my great-uncle Ell Persons gives me the awareness that there is work for me to do to manifest peace. It is a testament to his memory and those who have gone before me to live the best life I can,” she added.

The fact that Persons' name is known at all is in large part due to James Weldon Johnson, according to Martha Park in her article "Memphis Burning".  The writer, educator, lawyer, and civil rights activist was sent to Memphis by the NAACP as a field secretary to investigate Persons' death.

During his stay, Johnson met with longtime friend Robert Church, Jr. The pair developed a Memphis charter for the NAACP, marking only the fourth branch in the South at that time.

Michele Lisa Whitney takes a moment of reflection at the foot of one of the abutments for the bridge where her great uncle Ell Persons was lynched.

After his visit to Memphis, Johnson wrote:

"I tried to balance the sufferings of the miserable victim against the moral degradation of Memphis, and the truth flashed over me that in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America's body and white America's soul."

By 1919, the Memphis NAACP branch was the South’s largest. Robert Church, Jr., the first member elected to the NAACP’s national board of directors from the South, helped establish 68 branches in 14 states. Over 9,000 members were represented in the South.

The Persons lynching and the establishment of the Memphis NAACP changed the political and social landscape of the South.

Visitors laid flowers and flower petals on the shore of the Wolf River near the lynching site of Ell Persons.“NAACP field secretary James Weldon Johnson came to Memphis to investigate the lynching of Mr. Ell Persons. Upon his arrival, he met with his friend Robert Church Jr. A charter for the NAACP was developed for Memphis. On June 22, we will celebrate our 100 years,” added Malone.

The Memphis chapter of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization helped define the city’s black political establishment. In the coming decades, it grew into the modern civil rights movement.

For instance, during the tenure of Benjamin J. Hooks, from 1977 to 1993, the Legal Defense Fund invoked the provisions of the Voting Right Act. The remaining barriers to African American political participation were dismantled. An increase in the number of Black American elected officials from 1,200 to 7,000 followed.

The Memphis NAACP branch, located at 588 Vance Ave., derives strength from meeting the needs of the communities it serves. 

The branch is in the middle of the poorest zip code in Memphis, ZIP 38126, on the southeast edge of Downtown. The area struggles with a poverty rate of around 60 percent and all the issues that go with it.

Benefit programs like the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center and Karat Place have made an impact in the lives of the Vance neighborhood. And the Memphis NAACP strives to do the same.

In March, out of a partnership between the local NAACP and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Just Energy Memphis program announced a new initiative - MLGW and TVA have allocated $1 million on energy efficiency and weatherization for low-income communities.

 “This investment in Memphis is long overdue,” said Angela Garrone, energy research attorney with the SACE.

“There is still so much work to do on so many fronts including education, prison reform, healthcare, and of course civil and human rights. More than anything, we need everyone who cares about these issues to join us under the NAACP banner to fight in the upcoming days ahead for these causes."

“We need our energy providers, like TVA, to help lift these energy burdens in Memphis, which are some of the highest in the country,” added Malone.

The Memphis organization also sponsors ACT-SO (Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological, Scientific Olympics) Awards, a local and national competition for high school students. It was organized to encourage African American’s to aspire for excellence in 26 non-athletic areas of competition. First place winners compete nationally. The Memphis Branch covers expenses for local competitors and chaperones.

Recently, the NAACP Memphis Branch strongly opposed school vouchers for Shelby County, one of the largest urban school districts in the state.

“The students, parents and community of Memphis and Shelby County deserve the best possible opportunities for their education and the best possible options for their futures without being victimized and disenfranchised via zoning conditions,” said Malone.

State Senator Brian Kelsey’s failed bill would have diverted an estimated $18 million from public schools. It was focused on districts with at least 30 schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide in academic performance.

A man walks through the woods after visiting the lynching site of Ell Persons.
Shelby County was the only district that fit the criteria. This gave the bill the “appearance” of targeting a specific demographic – leading the Memphis NAACP to determine the bill was not only “possibly unconstitutional, but unfair.”

As new executive director Malone took the helm in 2017, she planned to seize upon past successes of the last century, while looking to the future.

“There is still so much work to do on so many fronts including education, prison reform, healthcare, and of course civil and human rights. More than anything, we need everyone who cares about these issues to join us under the NAACP banner to fight in the upcoming days ahead for these causes,” said Malone.

The Memphis NAACP, too, was a sponsor of the Persons markers, citing its specific importance to the organization.

In his research, Ashworth of the Lynching Sites Project found a statement from Memphis religious leaders published in “The Crisis,” the official magazine of the NAACP, dated two days after the lynching in 1917. It decried the “mob violence” and their own “dereliction of duty” for failing to intervene.

Each marker now stands in perpetuity to immortalize the story of Ell Persons, what his death meant to the city and bring a dark moment of Memphis history into the light.  

 “Why do we remember these things?” asked Nabil Bayakly, co-founder and chairman of Muslims in Memphis. “Because we have to learn from the past.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.