Reflections on Black History Month in Memphis

By Dr. Neal Palmer

I have been thinking a lot lately about Black History. In my World History Since 1500 course we recently covered the Atlantic Slave Trade. Last week I attended Dr. Peniel E. Joseph’s inspiring talk about Stokely Carmichael at the University of Memphis, and a few weeks ago I read Martha Parks’ excellent article in the Memphis Flyer on the Ell Persons lynching. Such concentrated attention on Black History is fitting, especially during Black History Month . We all need to be more aware of this history, and there is more that can be done to make this happen.

Just knowing that it happened gave me a new perspective on my home town.

Parks’ article made me recall the first time that I encountered the story of the 1917 Ell Persons lynching. I was in graduate school at the University of Memphis in 1995 and Professor Kenneth Goings asked me to collect information on the event for research he was doing. Reading the enthusiastic coverage of the gruesome event in the 1917 Commercial Appeal was a truly shocking experience. I remember being surprised at the time that I had never heard of the lynching throughout my time as a student in the Memphis City Schools, or as a history major at Vanderbilt. It dramatically exposed the violent nature of the racism that forms part of Memphis history. It also helped me to understand the anger, disillusionment, and fear that is the legacy of that experience.

Knowing this bit of the awful truth was empowering. I felt compelled to spread the knowledge, so I asked Cathy, my girlfriend at the time and now wife, also a native Memphian, to come look at the microfilm of the story, and she was similarly surprised, horrified, and moved. Our experience is similar to the one that Martha Parks’ relates of her own initial encounter with this powerful story. Like her, I fully support the efforts the Equal Justice Initiative , Randall Mullins, and Steve Masler are making to erect an historical marker at the location of this as well as the other twenty lynching sites in Shelby County and the thousands of others across the south.

The absence of these markers is one example of a larger tendency to neglect the black part of Memphis’ history. This neglect often takes ordinary, seemingly innocuous forms. For example, the daily segment “ This Day in Memphis History,” which is part of WKNO’s morning and evening programming, has made no effort to tell stories involving black Memphians during Black History Month. I don’t think any of the people involved in creating or airing this program are racist, but it is disappointing that a history segment, which could serve as an opportunity to highlight this aspect of our city’s history, does not do so. This oversight, I think, has deep and significant roots. The presentation of the stories in the program makes it clear that the stories are drawn mainly from the archives of the main local newspapers, and news about black Memphians was almost completely excluded from these papers until the 1970s. Thus, “This Day in Memphis History,” as experienced by radio listeners, is perpetuating an erasure of black Memphians from the story of Memphis. The producer of the show should have made a purposeful effort to move beyond the limitations of these racist newspaper sources and focus on black history during Black History Month.

These two observations, one sensational and one mundane, are related. I think it is very important for Memphians to remember all aspects of our history, the positive and painful experiences of citizens of all skin colors and ethnicities. One of my favorite things about Memphis is its diversity. The city was built by the labor and talents of citizens from many different religious and ethnic backgrounds. The city’s fame rests mainly on the cultural products of the interactions that have occurred here. We need to do a better job of remembering the complete history of our community. Remembering is essential for understanding, healing, and of moving forward together.

Dr. Neal Palmer is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Political Science. He is the author of To The Dark Cells: Prisoner Resistance and Protest in Nineteenth-Century Britain.

Posted by Josh Colfer at 11:06 AM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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