(Nov. 13, 2020) When the Lynching Sites Project took shape in 2015, its future wasn’t clear. An all-volunteer effort then, the organization was a response to a challenge to Memphians by activist Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative to acknowledge, research and memorialize the more than 30 racial terror lynchings known to have taken place in Shelby County.
That the organization thrives today as one of our most active funds is thanks to the people who came together to have courageous and difficult conversations, said Carla Peacher-Ryan, who was there at the beginning and still serves as Treasurer.
“When this started, we didn’t know if it would turn into anything,” she said. “But the Community Foundation support lends a certain air of legitimacy … it has worked out well for both of us.”
Founded with a focus on humility by the Rev. Randall Mullins and Sharon Pavelda (who have since moved out of town), the group “gathered fascinating people,” said Peacher-Ryan, “and continues to do so.” The organization’s first paid Executive Director, John Ashworth, moved on earlier this year, and the new leader, Dr. K. Andre Brooks, started October 1.
The group, which welcomes all to its now-monthly zoom meetings (details at lynchingsitesmem.org or on Facebook), has continued to focus on meaningful conversation, research, and physical memorials of lynchings in Shelby County. The first marker was unveiled at an interfaith prayer service attended by hundreds in May 2017, and tells the shocking story of the lynching of Ell Persons near the Wolf River off Summer Avenue. There is a total of four markers now, with a fifth planned for 2021.
“Bryan Stevenson says truth and reconciliation are sequential; we can’t truly be reconciled with our Black brothers and sisters without acknowledging the centuries of pain and brutality they’ve endured in this country,” said Katie Raines, Community Foundation fund holder and donor to the nonprofit. “The Lynching Sites Project provides an opportunity for us to do this locally in a profoundly meaningful way.”
The Lynching Sites Project continues to grow and change, and has grappled with its role in the larger national conversation about racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May.
An initiative that continues to be a clear focus, though, is the organization’s effort to bring a memorial column, which lists all who were lynched in Shelby County, home from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL. Each county where lynchings took place is memorialized with a column in Montgomery, and to facilitate conversation and healing, duplicates of each memorial column are available for counties to relocate. “Our application (to bring the Shelby County duplicate column home) was the first submitted from here,” said Peacher-Ryan. “But as far as we know, no duplicate markers have been released.”
“Our list of lynchings is longer than EJI’s list now,” said Peacher-Ryan. “We’ve heard them refer to us, saying ‘Memphis has figured this out,’ that we’re a good resource. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.”
Click here to support the group's efforts to find and memorialize the lynching sites in Shelby County and the surrounding area.