These High School Kids Are Helping Memorialize a Forgotten Lynching

“No one feared punishment, and no one was ever arrested.”

A crowd gathers at the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, in 1916.Library of Congress

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


On a Sunday afternoon in May, more than 100 people gathered on a grassy knoll sandwiched between a swamp and a construction company lot on the eastern outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee. Two high school juniors, Khamilla Johnson and Khari Bowman, stood before them and described how, exactly 99 years ago, a crowd at least 50 times as large had come to this very spot to watch the lynching of a black man named Ell Persons.

Persons, the teens recounted, had been arrested for the rape and murder of a white girl based on pseudoscientific evidence, such as a claim that his image was imprinted on her eyes. Before he could be tried, a white mob abducted him and brazenly announced the place of his torture and death. They chained him to a log, doused him in gasoline, and set him alight.

Library of Congress

Afterward, spectators took pieces of his charred corpse as souvenirs. A photo of his decapitated head was printed on postcards. Accounts of the day described a carnival-like scene: Parents brought their children, vendors sold snacks, and cars lined up for more than a mile. “No one feared punishment, and no one was ever arrested for the crime,” Bowman said.

The memorial event was the launch of a campaign to stamp Persons’ name in Memphis’ civic memory. It was also part of a nascent movement to rediscover and memorialize lynching sites across the South. The effort is led by Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which has documented more than 4,000 lynchings of African Americans across 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. (The New Yorker profiled Stevenson in this week’s issue.) So far, the EJI has placed plaques at five sites. A plaque for Persons will be erected next spring. And in November 2017, EJI plans to open a museum and national lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

After Johnson and Bowman learned about Persons during a history class project, they and their classmates rallied around Stevenson’s call to unearth past racial violence and recognize its modern echoes. “History repeats itself,” said Justyce Knowles, a classmate of Johnson and Bowman. “We were all so upset about Sandra Bland, about Trayvon Martin, about Tamir Rice. I feel like, let’s keep it trending. Let’s make it a hot topic.”

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate