Markers and Monuments: A New Look at the Past

May 24, 2017

Relatives of Antoinette Rappel and Ell Persons attended Sunday's interfaith prayer ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of Ell Persons’ death; Laura Willfong Miller (l) and Michele Lisa Whitney (r).
Credit Jessica Orians

One new marker commemorates a 100-year-old lynching. Meanwhile, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland addresses the future of Confederate Monuments.



In May of 1917, an African-American woodcutter, Ell Persons, was accused of raping and murdering a 16-year-old white girl, Antoinette Rappel.


Persons would never stand trial. A lynching party abducted him, burned him alive and displayed his decapitated head on Beale Street as a threat to other African-Americans.


This week marks the 100th Anniversary of the last recorded public lynching in Memphis history. A new historic marker commemorates that atrocity.


Sharon Pevelda, organizer of the Lynching Sites Project, says that placing historical markers on lynching sites can help communities move forward and make peace with past racial terrorism.


“I think we’ve gotten a glimpse already in doing this work in the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the spectacle lynching of Mr. Ell Persons.”


The next project will be a gravestone for a lynching victim murdered in Arlington, TN. Pevelda says that jars of soil from each site will be collected and displayed in the future Equal Justice Initiative Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.


Following Sunday's unveiling of the marker, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland took to Facebook to explain why more hasn't been done to remove local monuments to the Confederacy, a question that re-arises after New Orleans' recent removal of several monuments.


While Strickland supports the removal of monuments -- such as the statue and grave of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Health Sciences Park -- the city is prohibited to do so by a 2016 state law called the Tennessee Heritage Preservation Act, which prevents cities from taking down war memorials. Strickland says he will request a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission to remove or relocate the statue.