Two Landmarks endorsements put stamps of approval on the first steps toward honoring and restoring local African American histories
For last Thursday’s Memphis Landmarks Commission hearing, the agenda was short but significant as the commissioners approved by (pre-hearing) consent two nominations for additions to the National Register of Historic Places: the site of the 1917 lynching of Ell Persons and the building at 492 Vance Avenue, historically significant as the location of the Black-owned Grigg’s Business and Practical Arts College from 1949 to 1971.
The National Register of Historic Places is the “official list of our country’s historic buildings, districts, sites, structures, and objects worthy of preservation. It was established as part of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and is overseen by the National Park Service.” As of 2020, the register had more than 96,000 properties listed and 1.8 million contributing resources, which includes buildings, sites, districts, structures, and objects. Being added to the National Register is also the first step in gaining eligibility for National Park Service-administered federal preservation tax credits for financial assistance in restoring historic properties.
In order to qualify for a National Register listing, applications must show that a property meets at least one of four historical criteria. To paraphrase, a property must: (A) be associated with significant historical events; (B) associated with significant persons; (C) embody a distinctive type, period or method of construction or represents the work of a master architect or builder; or (D) yield information important to history or prehistory.
The approved applications Thursday by the Memphis Landmarks Commission do not make the historic listings final; they serve as official local recommendations, stamps of endorsements necessary to allow them to move on to a January hearing in Nashville for their final approvals by the Tennessee Historical Commission’s State Review Board.
The Ell Persons Lynching Site
The National Register application for the site states that “The Ell Persons Lynching Site is the historical location of a racial terror lynching of a local Black man by a white mob on May 22, 1917, on the outskirts of Memphis. The site is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A at the National level of significance in the areas of Ethnic Heritage: Black and Social History: Civil Rights for association with a national pattern of racial terror events that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The period of significance is 1917, corresponding to the lynching event, which falls within the peak of racial terror lynchings from 1880 to 1940.”
The site is located just off the Wolf River at Summer Avenue, on the north side of the west end of the no-longer extant Macon Road bridge, less than a few hundred yards north-east of the Malco Summer Drive-In. The National Register application states that “later bridge substructures mark the bridge’s location, and the path of the roadbed is marked by powerlines that run along its course . . . (and) the site maintains its rural character and isolation, leaving it much today as it was in 1917.”
The Ell Persons Lynching Site nomination will also mark the first of its kind. Kelsey Lamkin, representing its nomination and member of The Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, stated that “I know this is an unusual nomination to come before you (the Landmarks commission), it being for a lynching site… but the Lynching Sites Project has been for the last three years working on documenting the site and illustrating its national significance. Because of the unusual level of documentation of the lynching and because the site maintains a great deal of its integrity, relatively unchanged from 1917, and the far-reaching outrage expressed all across the country, we really feel that this is an extremely significant event not just in Memphis, but in the United States.” She went on to say that “As far as I know, this is the first (national) site listed specifically for its significance as a lynching.”
Commenting on the significance of the event and her past work helping clean up the site, Landmarks Commission Chairperson Cyndy Tucker said, “… we went out there in that area – and it’s pretty touching to read about it, that’s shocking enough – but when we went out there it was so emotional … to me it’s got a little place in my heart too… It’s just such a shocking thing to have happened here.”
“We’re hoping that soon it’ll be more accessible.” replied Ms. Lamkin. “Our goal is to have more people back there, learn more about it and see the space.”
492 Vance Avenue: The Grigg’s Business and Practical Arts College
For those who have wandered past the two-story white building on Vance Avenue just east of Danny Thomas Blvd wondering “What is that?,” your answer is here (and more, below). Off the National Register of Historic Places since 1987 – it was once included on the short-lived Vance-Pontotoc Historic District (1980 to 1987) – and vacant for over 30 years, 492 Vance Avenue made its first step toward being re-listed with Thursday’s endorsement by the Memphis Landmark Commission.
The National Register application for the building states that “The Griggs Business and Practical Arts College is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A for its significance in African American history and education. Located in a historically Black neighborhood, the Griggs Business and Practical Arts College offered Black Memphians an opportunity to gain practical training for working- and middle-class jobs at a time when Black neighborhoods like Vance-Pontotoc were being decimated by Urban Renewal programs.”
“The nominated property was constructed in 1858 and initially served as the private residence for John Gregory and Elizabeth Stovall. In 1949, the nominated property was purchased by Reverend S.A. Owen and C.J. Gaston to serve as the campus for Griggs Business and Practical Arts College. The College itself was founded at a different location in 1944 by Emma Griggs, a civil rights activist, educator, and entrepreneur before its move to 492 Vance Avenue. Emma operated several earlier iterations of the College in Houston, Texas, Nashville, and Memphis. The College lost its accreditation in 1971, and was sold to the Bluff City Lodge #96 Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World on April 5, 1974. The Period of Significance (1949-1974) reflects the year that the property was acquired by the College, and the year that it was sold to the Bluff City Lodge.”
The team behind the nomination and the efforts to restore and activate 492 Vance have dubbed the effort The Grigg’s Legacy Project (a project that StoryBoard Memphis has been following and documenting since the team’s first walk-thru in the summer of 2020).
The project is being led by building owner and project manager Stephanie Wade. Speaking to the commission last Thursday, Stephanie said “We think it’s a significant story to Memphis’s rich history, of which we hope to reinvigorate and reignite.”
After cleanup and restoration efforts, preliminary plans by the team so far are to see the building activated for mixed-use, a combination of housing and community space.
The current National Register nomination will be the building’s second to the historic listing. As the application states, “The property at 492 Vance Avenue was listed as a contributing property in the Vance-Pontotoc Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places on February 1, 1980, in Shelby County, TN. The historic district was located along Vance and Pontotoc Avenues between Danny Thomas Boulevard and the Frisco railroad tracks west of Walnut Street. The district was decertified in 1987 due its loss of integrity in design, materials, setting, feeling, association, and workmanship. The area was no longer a geographically definable area of significant resources within the City of Memphis. Many of the buildings were destroyed by fire between 1979 and 1982, urban renewal programs, and federal housing construction. Roughly twelve of the sixty listed buildings remain. 492 Vance is one of the few remaining.”
The final reviews for additions to the National Register of Historic Places for both the Ell Persons Lynching Site and 492 Vance will take place at a Tennessee State Review Board hearing in Nashville in January.