Lynching site of Ell Persons may be added to National Register of Historic Places

Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 6:54 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As Black History Month comes to a close, Action News 5 looked back on one of the darkest events in Shelby County--the 1917 lynching of Ell Persons, a Black man murdered for a crime historians say he likely did not commit.

The very spot where Persons was killed could make history again, as the first lynching site in the country to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The brutal murder of 15-year-old Antoinette Rappell would have easily been considered the crime of the century at the time. The white teen was on her way to school when she was found decapitated in a wooded area near the Wolf River bridge.

A Black wood cutter who lived nearby became the prime suspect.

Persons’ lynching was advertised in the local paper, and thousands attending, including a man named Alex Williams, whose grandson recorded his story more than 40 years ago.

Back in 1970, Steve Haley recorded his family’s oral history. It was his grandfather’s story about a lynching on a river that grabbed his attention.

“Next thing you know they whispering on every corner they caught that ****** across the bridge and they’re going to burn him at the stake,” Alex Williams says in the recording.

“It’s pretty rough tape and he used language that was typical of his position as a southern white,” Haley said.

In May 1917, 29-year-old Alex Williams could have followed every disturbing detail of the events leading up to the lynching. The press followed it relentlessly, publishing photos of the murdered girl and the officers who charged Persons for a crime he repeatedly said he did not commit, before he was beaten into submission.

The angry mob wanted nothing to do with giving Ell Persons a fair trial.

The Lynching of Ell Persons
The Lynching of Ell Persons(Action News 5)

“They would have killed anybody that would have made an attempt to interfere,” Williams said.

Persons was beaten, doused with gasoline, hanged and set on fire. His body was then decapitated and thrown onto Beale Street.

“Well according to news reports of the time it was a carnival-like atmosphere,” Richard Watkins of the Lynching Sites Project said. “There were vendors, food vendors set up, food drink. Schools were let out. Children were allowed to bring notes stating they were going to the noon lynching.”

Richard Watkins and Kelsey Lamkin with the Memphis Lynching Sites Project have spent years researching the Persons’ lynching.

“This is really significant because it’s very rare to be able to pinpoint the exact location that a lynching took place and we can do that with the Ell Persons site,” Watkins said.

It was right off present day Summer Avenue. A putt-putt golf course now surrounds the old Macon Road, where street lights line the now-abandoned road.

Thanks to the extensive newspaper coverage across the country and eyewitnesses like Alex Williams, we know all of the dark details, like how Persons was taken to cleared space beside the abutment on the west side of the river, where the wet, soggy grass made burning Persons’ body after the lynching difficult.

Last month, the Tennessee Historical Commission Review Board unanimously approved a request to place the Ell Persons lynching site on the National Register of Historic Places.

“There’s a tendency to kind of brush these incidents off as just examples of bad behavior but it’s really a culture of white supremacy,” Lamkin said, “that is still happening today. So to understand that in its historic context is hugely important.”

Steve Haley is hopeful his grandfather’s testimony will help in their efforts--something you’d expect from a historian who knows history needs to be preserved in any way possible.

It’s unclear when the final vote will take place by the National Register of Historic Places, but if passed, there are hopes the lynching site will then be named as a National Park site.

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