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Civil Wrongs, Episode 2: The Ties That Bind

Michele Whitney, front, listens during the 2017 ceremony in Memphis commemorating 100 years since her great-uncle was lynched as thousands of people watched. No one was ever arrested for his death. (Courtesy Michele Whitney)
Michele Whitney, front, listens during the 2017 ceremony in Memphis commemorating 100 years since her great-uncle was lynched as thousands of people watched. No one was ever arrested for his death. (Courtesy Michele Whitney)

Civil Wrongs is produced in collaboration with the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

Out on Summer avenue, near Sycamore View Road, two historic markers tell the story of public lynching.

The markers note the details of two crimes: One, the murder of a 15-year old white girl, Antoinette Rappel. The other, the lynching of the suspect, Ell Persons, on May 22, 1917, watched by more than 5,000 people.

Alex Williams was in the crowd.

"They asked this girl's mother how she wanted him punished and someone said she told him to make him suffer as much as he made her daughter suffer," Williams recalled 50 years later. "So, they carried him over to that log and tied him to that log and started piling. There was wet logs and things on him, they couldn't start a fire and then went out up on the highway got this oil truck and brought it down there and emptied the oil all over the wood and set it on fire."

Steve Haley, a retired Southwest Tennessee Community College history professor, cried when he first recorded these words as part of a family oral history project in 1970.

They were coming from his grandfather.

Steve Haley listens to a recording of his grandfather recounting a memory of watching the lynching of Ell Persons.
Houston Cofield
Steve Haley listens to a recording of his grandfather recounting a memory of watching the lynching of Ell Persons.

"Afterwards he he told me that he was not the least bit — I think he never used the term 'racist,' Haley said. "But he would have laughed and said, 'oh I was never a racist.'

It’s a contradiction that Haley and others often face when examining their ancestors’ attitudes about racial violence. He says his grandfather was considered fairly liberal for his time. Yet he stood by while a Black man was burned alive.

"My impression was that 95% of the people out there were cheering it out," Haley says. "You know, even though they may not be vocally cheering it on. They were all for it."

Haley would like to think his grandfather was among the few white people whose perspective of Black people at the time was what he calls “neutral.”

But he and other historians, like Dr. Darius Young of Florida A&M University, say the truth is more complex..

"It's economics. It’s politics. It’s religion and the role that that plays..." he says. "And all these things that make us uncomfortable are being discussed in the details of this lynching."

He says the brutality was meant as a warning to the Black community. After cutting off Persons’ fingers and toes as souvenirs, the mob then took his head and tossed it into the economic heart of Black Memphis.

"It's not a mistake," Young says. "It's not something that just happened. it was they very much intended. To send that message not just to the black community, but also to the black entrepreneurs and political leaders."

When Michele Whitney’s mother died in 2016, she felt that she had lost her last connection to her family history.

So she turned to ancestry.com. From there, she was contacted by a researcher for the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis. The group was looking for descendants of Ell Persons in preparation for the lynching’s 100th anniversary in 2017.

Persons was Whitney's great uncle. She had never heard this part of her family’s story.

Michele Whitney at the centennial commemoration of the Ell Persons' lynching.
Michele Whitney at the centennial commemoration of the Ell Persons' lynching.

"You know it was... It was shocking," Whitney says. "I kept saying to myself we're not that far removed from a hundred years. Like there are people that are 100 years old, right?" 

For many Black families, trauma of this magnitude is left in silence – sometimes because of the misplaced shame, and sometimes because it’s just too painful to speak aloud. But Whitney said the knowledge was worth the hurt.

"You don't have to get stuck in, you know, anger or whatever about what may have happened 100 years ago, but it's important to stay connected with it so that you can see things through that lens as you move forward as a person in the future," she says. "So, I think it's just a matter of connectedness." 

Those connections kept growing.

Laura Miller, born Laura Wilfong, is a relative of Antoinette Rappel, the 15-year-old girl whose murder led to Ell Persons' lynching.

Her great-grandfather found his niece’s beheaded body.

Growing up, Miller even saw the crime scene evidence kept by her grandmother.

She would show me her books, her bicycle basket, her gloves that were with her the day they found her," Miller says. "And then some of the story about what happened with Ell." 

She, too, was contacted by the Lynching Sites Project. As a fuller picture of the murder and lynching became clear, she also had to take new stock of the past.

"I had to undo a good amount of some pre-programming, you know, from the way I was raised or things I had heard or preconceived notions, whatever," Miller says. "I mean, I had to really take some time and just become very different about the way I viewed things. And have a lot of conversations with my daughter about that too." 

Laura Miller with her daughter at the grave of her relative Antoinette Rappel
Houston Cofield
Laura Miller with her daughter at the grave of her relative Antoinette Rappel

In May of 2017, about 100 people gathered under a tent on Summer Avenue. The unveiling of a new historic marker included speeches and prayers. Michele Whitney performed "Life Every Voice and Sing" on her flute.

Laura Miller says it felt less like closure and more the beginning of a new conversation.

"I remember sitting at dinner that night and having this overwhelming need to apologize," she says. "And I don't know that I ever did because I felt awkward, but... that was what I was feeling at that time. You know it was a lot of, just, emotions and unsure." 

Michele Whitney says she’s only become more inquisitive in the five years since the marker went up.

"There were consequences — long-term consequences — that occurred as a result of the treatment of Black people in America," Whitney says. "And it's just, you know, you won't understand it unless you understand the root of it and deal with it." 

That same root that brought Ell Persons to his death still runs through America’s criminal justice system. Dealing with it, however, is easier said than done.

NEXT: In Part three of our Civil Wrongs series, journalist Laura Faith Kebede explores how police interrogations and false confessions — a major question in the Ell Persons lynching — are still common in modern criminal investigations.