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.
In May 1917, a 16-year-old white girl named Antoinette Rappel was found decapitated near this site, at the old Wolf River Bridge. Ell Persons, a black woodcutter who lived nearby, became the focus of an investigation and was interrogated twice, arrested twice and released both times. When he was arrested a third time, a confession came, only after facing violence during the questioning.
An angry white mob pulled Persons from a train that was transporting him for his trial. On May 22, 1917, they dragged him to the Wolf River Bridge where thousands were already gathered to watch an untried man meet his end by lynching. Historical reports describe the scene almost festival-like with vendors selling snacks and school children present.
The Lynching Sites Project (LSP) is a local group working with the national effort by Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative to memorialize known lynchings in the United States. Over the last year and a half, the LSP has worked to erect this memorial for Persons while also acknowledging the violent death of Rappel.
During the ceremony, some of the speakers touched on the complicated relationship between memory, history and Memphis’s race relations as it pertains to ongoing debates with the removal of the monuments to Confederate soldiers.“Removing them does not change history,” Rev. Dr. Roslyn Nichols said. “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.”
Also present at Sunday’s ceremony were Michele Lisa Whitney, a descendant of Persons and Laura Wilfong Miller, a descendant of Rappel.
“Many wonder what is the significance of drudging up this past?” Whitney said during her remarks at the end of the ceremony, honoring Memphis as her grandmother’s hometown, father’s birthplace and spiritual resting place of her great uncle.
“I can only speak from my own experience with grief that the only way out is through it. The emotional responses that happen as a result of grief must be faced. The emotions of fear, anger and just plain sadness. There is no way around them no matter how uncomfortable these feelings may be.”
After the ceremony, people filed from the tent to a trail that had been mowed clear by LSP volunteers. A short quarter-mile hike through the woods put people in between the two abutments of the old Wolf River Bridge, where the lynching took place.
Handfuls of flower petals were handed out to visitors to lay at the site. Whitney and Miller walked there together.
Support work like this with a tax-deductible donation to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong reporting project on economic justice. Donate here.