Students Memorialize a Past Tragedy to Create a More Hopeful Future | Facing History & Ourselves
 Ell Persons Memorial: Memphis, 2017

Students Memorialize a Past Tragedy to Create a More Hopeful Future

Upstanding students at Overton High School create a memorial marker for Ell Persons to bring awareness to the history of racial violence in Memphis, Tennessee.

How is a little known lynching case from 1917 relevant today?

For students at Overton High School in Memphis, Tennessee, discovering the case of Ell Persons became a call to action. Angered by the brutality of his murder and the high number of lynchings that took place in their own backyard, they decided to channel their energy into something positive. They have been hard at work to create a memorial for Persons and to bring light to an often forgotten part of U.S. history so that others, too, will learn from the past.

They first learned about him when Zoey Parker, a junior, discovered his case while doing a research assignment for Dr. Marilyn Taylor’s yearlong Facing History elective course. Persons was an African American woodcutter who was burned alive after being accused of murder. An estimated 5,000 people from the community came to watch. When Dr. Taylor informed her students the lynching occurred near the present day drive-in movie theater that was close by, “They were stunned,” she said.

“They have all been to this drive-in. They had a multitude of questions the following day so we put our scheduled lesson aside and they began their investigation.”

The students felt the need to do more so Dr. Taylor asked them, “What are we going to do about it?”

What they did was rally together, turning research into action, and formed the nonprofit, Students Uniting Memphis. Their goal is to create a memorial garden at the site of Ell Persons' lynching, which is now an abandoned bridge abutment surrounded by river overflow and dense foliage.

Young people today have to take action in order for history not to repeat itself.
— Zoey Parker

A simple research assignment has blossomed into a full-fledged community effort to reconcile with Memphis’ past. Overton students will meet with their peers at Central High School for the first time next week at the Facing History office to discuss how they might work together to make the memorial garden a reality. And it’s showing students the importance of being an upstander.

"Young people today have to take action in order for history not to repeat itself,” said Zoey Parker, the student who first researched Persons' case for Dr. Taylor's class. “We have to be mindful enough to understand we cannot continue to make the same mistakes as those before us.” 

For Central High School teachers like Mary McInstosh, it’s a way to help her students confront the past and find meaningful ways to engage in dialogue about difficult topics like race. She was shocked to learn that Central High School students were let out of school early to attend the lynching 99 years ago.

"To find something real that's happening in the moment, and to be able to take leadership in organizing within the school and connecting with other students and community members will be very powerful,” she said.

Overton’s students also garnered support from The Lynching Sites Project of Memphis. Spearheaded by a local interfaith group of ministers, historians, and activists, the project formed after two of its members, Sharon Pavelda and Tom Carlson, heard Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative speak at a Facing History benefit in November 2015. As a defense attorney fighting for fairer sentencing and justice for the wrongly incarcerated, Stevenson makes the link between our history, including the narrative of African Americans as racially inferior, and the inequities we still struggle with today. He champions the idea that we can find a path toward healing and reconciliation once we face our past. The Lynching Sites Project aims to do just this and is committed to helping empower Students Uniting Memphis.

Tragedy Into Hope: Students Rally to Create a Memorial for Ell Persons

Good morning, and welcome to Overton. My name is Zoey Parker.

And my name is Khari Bowman.

And we're here to present to you our presentation on the lynching of Ell Persons.

This project came about from a research project based off of the color line, which is when Caucasians and African Americans in the 1900s were separated by an invisible line that they called the color line, which was, if crossed, repercussions can happen for African Americans, with one of them being lynching.

So basically, lynching is the unlawful practice of killing, hanging, burning a group of people or person. And it's usually done by a mob. And the founder of this word was Charles Lynch, and his family also founded Lynchburg, Virginia. And Charles Lynch was a judge in the 1700s.

So, with our presentation on Ell Persons's lynching, a little background on him is that he was an African American man who was a woodchopper. And he lived on Macon Road, which is a street that's now Summer in Memphis, and it's about three, maybe four, miles from Overton High School.

He allegedly raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl by the name of Antoinette Rappel.

So now we're going to try something. I want everyone to close their eyes now, and imagine my friend, Alex Smith. Can you describe my friend Alex Smith?


Now, everyone open their eyes. If you are able to describe or even see a person named Alex Smith, then you've understood my point. The point of the exercise was to show how unlikely it was for someone to know so much about Ell Persons and his life, but never met him or spoke to him, or even seen him.

But unfortunately, this happened to Ell Persons. A man by the name of Mr. Hansen went to the sheriff and described Ell Persons and his wife, even though he claimed she was in the house that he described to him as well. But he said that he's never met them or seen them before.

So they arrested Ell Persons for a total of three times. The first time the police arrested him, they let him go. The second time they arrested him, they let him go again. And the third time they arrested him, they beat him. And the police pointed out that he had blood on his shoes, and they tried to use that as evidence against him pointing to the rape of Antoinette Rappel.

So before his trial began, he was moved to Nashville for his safety, and police travelled with Persons to try to protect him. And the Shelby Avengers were a mob, and they followed the trains that he was transported on, and they hopped on looking for him.

The Shelby Avengers were not your average mob. They were extremely organized, and would terrorize anyone that they considered to cross the color line. And, like Khari said, they hopped from train to train looking for him. They called everyone that they knew, asking them if they've seen this train, if they've seen this person. And they just wanted to find him so they could terrorize him.

Finally, after searching numerous trains, they finally found the right one. And it was found in Holly Springs, Mississippi, which is about 45 minutes from here.

So the Shelby Avengers took Ell Persons to the site of his murder, which is the west end of the Macon Bridge. And people begin gathering at midnight. Newspapers published the event, informing people of where it would be.

Now we're going try another exercise. I want everyone to close their eyes again and imagine you're at a carnival.

Imagine being surrounded by 5,000 white people-- men, women, children in their best-dressed outfits. The scent of peanuts and popcorn fills the air.

"Step right up and get your candy and popcorn. Only a quarter apiece. Step right up. Hot and fresh."

Now imagine the main act of this carnival is an African American man getting lynched. Now open your eyes. Do you still feel the warm atmosphere that you once felt before?

Children were excused from school. Parents sent notes requesting that their children be checked out of school. And initially, children weren't allowed to be dismissed. But since so many people wanted to go, schools ended up just letting a lot of students get checked out.

Ell Persons was finally brought to the scene, and people screamed for vengeance. Women, who are known to be the nurturing and caring souls of the world, were the main ones that were screaming at the top of their lungs, "Burn him, and burn him slow."

And they did. They chained him to a log, poured gasoline all over his body, and burned him alive.

After being tormented to death, Ell Persons's body was cut up and spread across Memphis. They even threw the head of Persons at a group of doctors, African American doctors at that, in downtown Memphis.

The only, supposedly, evidence against Persons was that someone claimed that they could see his face in the pupils of Rappel's eyes.


Lynching was very common in the South. Tennessee was number six in the nation for lynchings. Shelby County was number one in the state. And the Ell Persons lynching was the largest-ever lynching in the state of Tennessee.

So the outcomes from this is that the lynching of Ell Persons did help to establish the Memphis chapter of the NAACP. However, the event goes unnoticed, and we want to bring more attention to not only this lynching event, but others as well.

Our goal is to raise money to build a memorial for Ell Persons, and to create a space where people can come to reflect on the lynching, as well as reflect on how they can make our city better. Not just our city, but our world.

So our first step will be to create a plaque in the honor of Ell Persons to show the story of what happened to him. Not only to people that come that live in Memphis, but people that may visit from different areas and regions of the world.

And our second step would be to create a meditation garden, similar to this one, in honor of Ell Persons.

And our last step would be to build a bridge that runs parallel to the remaining Wolf River abutments. And this is a picture of one of the abutments that we saw down there. And this will add to the meditative atmosphere of the location and provide more access for it.

And as we worked more and more on this project, we realized we wanted to work more on other projects that connected students to issues in their society. And as a result, we created our nonprofit organization called SUM, which stands for Students Uniting Memphis.

So next year will be the 100th-year anniversary of the Ell Persons lynching. And we are really aiming for our meditation garden and our plaque to be up by then, because we want people to know about this by this time next year.


Tragedy Into Hope: Students Rally to Create a Memorial for Ell Persons

Watch students Zoey Parker and Khari Bowman present about Ell Persons to their class. 

Facing History & Ourselves

On Sunday, the 99th anniversary of Persons' death, nearly 100 people gathered at the site of Ell Person's lynching for an interfaith prayer service. Students Uniting Memphis hopes to draw 5,000 people to next year's memorial service to mark the 100th anniversary.

Although Ell Persons’ murder represents a divisive and violent part of U.S. history, the students at Overton High School have given it a more hopeful and inspiring legacy. They are personifying what it means to face history so they can build a better future.

Want resources that can help you facilitate productive and meaningful conversations about race, membership, and difficult moments in U.S. history? Check out some of these recommendations:

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