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Civil Wrongs, Episode 1: A Lynching in Memphis

This report is a collaboration between WKNO and the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

105 years ago, on a Tuesday morning, thousands of people headed to the outskirts of Memphis to watch a man be burned alive. It was just one of many brutal lynchings of the era, but also one covered in great detail by the media.

The story — one of racial profiling, false confessions and mob violence — is as much present as it is past. The road to civil rights is paved with civil wrongs.

Margaret Vandiver knows it well. We meet her near a used car lot on Summer Avenue, a little ways past the old drive-in movie theater.

"This is the part I was hoping would be mowed, but as  you can see, anything but," says the retired University of Memphis professor, leading the way into this wooded area.

A quarter mile into thick brush, we are on the banks of a pond, the former footprint of the Wolf River. Vandiver points to power lines and a concrete structure on the other side, which once marked the course of the old Macon Road.

Laura Faith Kebede interviews Margaret Vandiver at the site of the Ell Persons lynching.
Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM
Laura Faith Kebede interviews Margaret Vandiver at the site of the Ell Persons lynching.

On a spring morning, 15-year-old Antoinette Rappel got on her bike and headed to school. A search party found that bike two days later, a few hundred feet off the road. The girl’s belongings were still in the front basket. Her body was nearby.

As the newspapers of May 3, 1917 reported, it was no doubt murder. Her head had been cut off, apparently with an ax.

Three weeks later, in this same spot, a mob of thousands publicly executed the prime suspect. For Antoinette Rappel, this would not be justice served.

"Most of the evidence against him was preposterous," Vandiver says. "There is no reason to suspect him more than any one of the other men who were in this area at that time."

So why him? Let’s peel back the layers.

During the time of the First World War, Black woodcutters lived in the area near the Wolf River Bottoms, working largely for white landowners.

Ell Persons was one of them. So little is known about his life that reports differ on his age, ranging from 38 to 50.

At first, even police considered him an unlikely suspect. Crime scene evidence included a white coat and a white handkerchief, neither of which were commonly worn by Black laborers.

But the public was of a different mind. The papers reported that one local woodcutter hadn’t come to work the day of Antoinette’s disappearance. Persons, it was said, could not locate his ax.

Dr. Darius Young, a history professor at Florida A&M University, says the case against Persons was baseless, but it wasn’t unexpected.

"As I'm going back through the documents and looking at the previous months, I'm seeing all of this talk about Black folks voting in Memphis, which is something that's very unique when we talk about the South in 1916," Young says.

A prominent Black citizen named Robert Church Jr. — one of the country’s first Black millionaires — had recently organized and funded one of the largest Black voter registration drives in the country.

"In learning his story and him organizing over 10,000 Black men to vote the previous year that I started to understand the root of the racial tension in the city," Young says.  

The city’s Black voting bloc — an estimated third of the electorate — could throw its weight behind whichever political party did more for the Black community.

"Locally, [the idea was] let me try to negotiate things where we can get some concessions," Young says. "Can we get a school? Can we get sidewalks? Can we get a park?"

White political panic had already prompted a crackdown on Beale Street’s Black-owned businesses.

It’s why racist dogwhistles, like “brute,” appear early on in newspaper articles about the Rappel killing. And how the slimmest circumstantial evidence put Ell Persons in the crosshairs.

For example, Persons’ white boss had fired him a few months earlier for allegedly frightening his boss’s wife.

Vandiver says the only so-called forensic evidence was the outlandish belief that human eyes imprinted the last image seen before death.

"They actually took this seriously enough to exhume the body of Antoinette Rappel," Vandiver says. "One of her eyes had decomposed; they examined the other one. The Commercial Appeal said that in her eye there was an image of a large- featured man. The News Scimitar said that in her eye there was an image of Ell Persons." 

After questioning Persons twice and finding no evidence he was involved, Sheriff deputies conducted a brutal interrogation. Two detectives, “coaxed, cajoled, beat, whipped, [and] threatened” him. They ultimately claimed they found human blood on Persons’ shoes, an assertion later determined false by an NAACP investigation. A local paper, the Memphis Press, reported that Persons then confessed to the crime and was immediately whisked to a jail in Nashville to avoid a lynching.

Sheriff Mike Tate tried to conceal Persons’ return to Memphis for trial. But mob leaders abducted him from the train in Potts Camp, Miss., just south of Holly Springs.

On the morning of May 22, they brought him to the site of Antoinette Rappel’s murder. An estimated five to fifteen thousand people came to watch the spectacle.

Food vendors sold drinks and sandwiches.

What happened next was so widely reported, that the famed writer James Weldon Johnson, author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” made his own journey to Memphis to record its aftermath for the newly organized NAACP.

Here is what Johnson wrote of the incident:

On the day I arrived in Memphis, Robert R. Church drove me out to the place where the burning had taken place. A pile of ashes and pieces of charred wood still marked the spot. While the ashes were yet hot, the bones had been scrambled for as souvenirs by the mobs. I reassembled the picture in my mind: a lone Negro in the hands of his accusers, who for the time are no longer human; he is chained to a stake, wood is piled under and around him, and five thousand men and women, women with babies in their arms and women with babies in their wombs, look on with pitiless anticipation, with sadistic satisfaction while he is baptized with gasoline and set afire. The mob disperses, many of them complaining, “They burned him too fast.” I tried to balance the sufferings of the miserable victim against the moral degradation of Memphis, and the truth flashed over me that in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.

The sheer brutality of Ell Persons’ lynching wasn’t just a miscarriage of justice. It was an intentional warning to Memphis’ newly empowered Black community. Over a century later, the incident is still coming into focus as Memphis — and America — confront its dark history.

NEXT: Part Two of Civil Wrongs examines how this event is still affecting lives today, including distant relatives of people involved.