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Witnessing Community Resilience – South Memphis Remembers the People’s Grocery

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a remembrance service marking the 125th anniversary of one of the most tragic and horrific events in Memphis history: the lynching of three African-American operators of The People’s Grocery.

In 1892, three men – Calvin McDowell, Will Stewart, and Thomas Moss – were arrested for defending themselves during a raid on their store, then, several days later, seized from jail by a lynch mob and executed.

Both today and at the time, the lynching was viewed as a violent assault on the South Memphis community. It wasn’t just about the death of three men. It was an attack on a community that had spent decades developing its own schools, churches, and businesses in spite of (and in response to) discrimination and inequality. The People’s Grocery had been one of the most successful businesses in the area – a cooperative venture co-owned by dozens of black families from throughout South Memphis. Killing the operators of the People’s Grocery wasn’t about bringing “justice” to three men – it was an attack on the South Memphis community itself.

How did that community respond? At the time, the lynching famously caused Thomas Moss’s close friend and fellow South Memphian, Ida B. Wells, to condemn the practice of lynching for what it really was. Through her writing and speaking, Wells gave us the words to name the injustices around us, and helped set into motion a series of events that would form the foundation of the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. (A movement which, many times, found South Memphis and South Memphians at its center).

Last week, I witnessed the South Memphis community continuing to follow in Wells’ footsteps. Though the remembrance service drew people from throughout the city, South Memphians were (once again) at the center. Members of local churches, students and faculty from LeMoyne-Owen College, and leaders from local community development organizations and neighborhood associations spoke during the service at Second Congregational Church and led a silent march to the site of the People’s Grocery. Through speeches, poetry, art, and music, they remembered the events of 1892, naming the injustices that led to the lynching of McDowell, Stewart, and Moss, and recognizing the ways those same injustices persist in our society today, 125 years later.

I attended the service for several reasons. In the years that I have worked alongside the South Memphis Shalom Zone, I’ve developed a deep respect and admiration for South Memphis and South Memphians. So, naturally, I wanted to be there as they remembered such a significant event in the life of their community.

I was also there to support my friends who were involved in organizing the service, in particular SMSZ leader Steve Young and his son, Stevion. Stevion was a 3-time participant in our Neighborhood History Project – a summer internship program that engaged youth from the Shalom Zones in researching the history of their neighborhoods and collecting oral history interviews from their elders. One year Stevion focused on the People’s Grocery as his summer research project, and his presentation during the 2015 South Memphis History Celebration received a standing ovation. Now in 9th grade, Stevion was asked to speak again as part of the 125th anniversary remembrance service, and I wanted to be there to show my support.

Stevion chose to speak about how knowing the story of the People’s Grocery had completely changed how he viewed his community. (He joked that the realization that these events happened in his neighborhood hit him “like a football to the face.”) He shared that learning about this history made him proud to be from South Memphis, and made him want to work to make the community stronger.

His remarks underscored the importance of storytelling and narrative in community building work. Stories can be a unifying force and a motivating force. Through a shared story we develop shared identity and form “community.” At the same time, inspired by the past, we are moved to build a better future. In that sense, stories like the People’s Grocery and moments of remembrance like the service last week are at the heart of building and celebrating strong, resilient communities. Through CTC, I am honored to be a witness to it.

To read more about the remembrance service marking the 125th anniversary of the People’s Grocery Lynching, read this article from The Commercial Appeal.

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