On this dayMay 22, 1917
Thousands Lynch Ell Persons in Memphis, Tennessee
On May 22, 1917, a white mob numbering in the thousands brutally lynched a Black man named Ell Persons in Memphis, Tennessee.
Authorities in Memphis had arrested Mr. Persons after a killing that had taken place earlier in the month. During this era, the deep racial hostility that permeated Southern society burdened Black people with a presumption of guilt that often served to focus suspicion on Black communities after a crime was discovered. A later investigation concluded that no evidence tied Mr. Persons to the killing.
The local sheriff and his men tortured Mr. Persons while he was in their custody. The authorities beat, whipped, and threatened Mr. Persons until he was said to have confessed. Black people accused of crimes in the South during this era were regularly subjected to physical and psychological violence during police interrogations. Local newspapers eagerly reported these confessions as truthful justifications for the brutal lynchings that followed, but without fair investigation, the confession of a lynching victim was always more reliable evidence of fear than guilt.
Before Mr. Persons could receive a trial, a white mob seized him from the authorities, who did little to stop them. Local newspapers advertised the planned time and location of the lynching in advance, and on May 22, thousands of people congregated at the site of the lynching near the Wolf River. One newspaper later reported that nearly 10,000 people were present. Newspapers described the day as having a “holiday” atmosphere and a “spirit of carnival.” Vendors sold food and drink to members of the mob. Many local parents sent notes to schools to excuse their children’s absences so they could attend the lynching.
When the crowd was assembled, the leaders of the mob dragged Mr. Persons to a clearing, tied him to a log, covered him with gasoline, and burned him alive.
After Mr. Persons was lynched, members of the mob fought each other for pieces of his body and clothes to take home as souvenirs. They then drove through town displaying Mr. Persons’ remains to terrorize the rest of the Black residents of Memphis.
Though the mob lynched Mr. Persons in broad daylight and the mob members did not attempt to hide their identities, no one was ever held accountable for lynching Mr. Persons.
Ell Persons was one of at least 236 documented Black victims of racial terror lynching killed in Tennessee between 1877 and 1950 and one of 20 victims killed in modern-day Shelby County. To learn more, read EJI’s report, Lynching in America.