Lynching of Ell Persons
Ell Persons was an African American man who was lynched on 22 May 1917, after he was accused of having raped and murdered a 16-year-old white girl, Antoinette Rappel, in Memphis, Tennessee, United States. He was arrested and was awaiting trial when he was captured by a lynch party, who burned him alive and scattered his remains around town, throwing his head at a group of African Americans. A large crowd attended his lynching, which had the atmosphere of a carnival. No one was charged as a result of the lynching, which was described as one of the most vicious in American history, but it did play a part in the foundation of the Memphis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Death of Rappel and arrest of Persons
Described as "[i]nnocent, pure, pretty, by turns playful and pensive" and as someone who "must have reminded many readers of their own daughters, nieces, or cousins", Rappel was a student at Treadwell School in Memphis. On the morning of 30 April 1917, she left for school and did not return; on 2 May 1917 a newspaper published a story which said she left to join the war, a story her mother, Mrs Wood, reportedly believed. Later, Rappel was found dead, with evidence she had been raped, in woods near Macon Road and half a mile from the home of Persons,[n 1] a nearly fifty-year-old woodcutter. She had been decapitated with an axe. At the scene, they found a white coat, a white handkerchief, and axe dents in the ground. After the arrests of several black men, the police brought in Persons, and subjected him to brutal treatment for 24 hours, after which the police said he confessed to the murder. Eager to prove Persons' guilt, Mike Tate, Shelby County sheriff, ordered that Rappel's body be exhumed so that they could look at her pupils, because the authorities thought that a photograph of the pupils could be used to show the last image seen by a person who had died, a theory developed by Alphonse Bertillon, a French biometrics researcher of that time. Despite being told by eye specialists that it would be impossible, the authorities said they saw Persons in Rappel's pupils—which showed a "frozen expression of horror"—and he was taken to Tennessee State Prison in Nashville to await arraignment and trial.
A few weeks later, on 19 May, Tate ordered that Persons be returned to stand trial on 25 May, and on 21 May Persons was on a train to Memphis when he was captured by a lynch party, an event which was planned and which was reportedly anticipated by the authorities. The group had earlier stormed the Memphis police headquarters and did not find him there; knowing he had to return, they started searching trains bound for Memphis. The press reported that the mob was organised—one newspaper reporting "That the mob ... is determined to lynch the Negro is evident"—and may even have raised funds for those spying on Persons at Nashville. David J. Mays, who later became an attorney and Pulitzer Prize winner, was one of those involved in the planning; he "howled with excitement" when he heard the news of the capture, news that quickly spread to nearby towns. On 17 May judges from the county criminal court had tried but failed to persuade the state governor, Thomas Clarke Rye, to send men to protect Persons. Even before the capture, the press had been predicting that unofficial action would be taken against him. There is no evidence, according to Margaret Vandiver and Michel Coconis, that the authorities tried to regain Persons or to prevent the lynching.
The Commercial Appeal's headline on the day of the lynching, 22 May, read:
Mob captures slayer of the Rappel girl: Ell Persons to be lynched near scene of murder; May resort to burning.
It reported that the lynching was going to take place between 9.00 and 9.30 a.m. near the bridge at Wolf River. The paper's second item was their daily cartoon, "Hambone's Meditations", of an African American who possessed the stereotypical attributes of illteracy and submissiveness to whites—the behaviour expected of African Americans from white Memphians, according to Kenneth K. Goings and Gerald L. Smith; they write that the announcement of the lynching "indicated the consequences facing those who chose to behave otherwise". One newspaper reported that it was the first time a lynch party had operated in broad daylight and without masks.
The scene at Macon Road near the bridge on the day of the lynching was like a "holiday" according to one newspaper, many people having stayed overnight. In the morning hundreds of men, women, and children gathered, and by 9.00 a.m. the road was packed with automobiles. A total of about 5,000 people attended the event, which had a carnival-like atmosphere according to Goings and Smith. Spectators bought soft drinks, sandwiches, and chewing gum, women wore their best clothes, and parents excused their children from school. One teacher at a school had 50 boys absent. Because of examinations, some county schools closed early, allowing the children to attend. Two trucks of drinks sold out swiftly, and sales of sandwiches and chewing gum were high.
Having arrived separately to Persons at about 9.00 am, Rappel's mother gave a speech: "I want to thank all my friends who have worked so hard on my behalf ... Let the Negro suffer as my little girl suffered, only 10 times worse"—sentiments which were echoed by the crowd. Persons was chained down, had a large quantity of gasoline poured over him, and set alight. The leader of the group had asked Rappel's mother if she wanted to light it; she declined, but said she "wished Persons to suffer the tortures he dealt to his victim". Persons was reportedly calm and casual, and made no sound except for a "faint pig squeal" when set alight. Mays said he stood close to his head "in spite of the African odor" and watched the whole performance. Members of the mob tried to help women who could not see get a better view, but they failed because of the sheer numbers. While Persons was burning, spectators snatched pieces of his clothes and the rope used to bind him. A newspaper described the moment of the lighting: "A crowd of some 5,000 men, women and children cheered gloatingly as the match was applied and a moment later the flames and smoke rose high in the air and snuffed out the life of the black fiend."
Persons' body was decapitated and dismembered, and his remains were scattered and displayed across Beale Street—the centre of the African American community in Memphis—where his head was thrown from a car at a group of African Americans. According to Charles W. Cansler, a spokesman for the local black community, his head was thrown into a room which contained black doctors. His remains were taken as souvenirs, and photographs of his head were sold on postcards for months after the event. The Commercial Appeal's headline the day after the lynching read: "Thousands cheered when negro burned: Ell Persons pays death penalty for killing girl", and their editorial on 25 May described the lynching as "orderly. There was no drunkenness, no shooting and no yelling."
William Fineshriber, rabbi of the nearby Temple Israel, took action in response to the lynching: he called a congregational meeting to protest, convinced the membership to endorse a public condemnation, and acted as secretary to a group of clergymen who issued a statement, copies of which appeared in local newspapers on 25 May. Cansler wrote a letter in February 1918 to Rye in which he condemned the lynching, in addition to others, writing that white females were eager to attend the lynching—"much after the manner of the ultra fashionable ladies of the early 18th century who crowded the places of execution to see the many poor wretches hanged"—and that "Tennessee got credit (?) for putting this Negro out of the way in up-to-date fashion".
The investigating jury was created to "act fearlessly, fairly, and impartially", but no one was charged for the crime. James Weldon Johnson, field secretary of the NAACP, investigated the case shortly after the lynching, and said there was no evidence Persons was guilty. Standing on the spot where Persons died, he reflected:
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.
Cansler also said an independent investigation suggested the same result. Benjamin Brawley wrote in A Social History of the American Negro (1921) that "the whole matter of the fixing of the blame for the crime and the fact that the man was denied a legal trial left grave doubt as to the extent of his crime".
The lynching played a part in the founding of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, one of the first in the South, by Robert R. Church, Jr, Bert M. Roddy, and other black businessmen. At a meeting on 11 June 1917, there were 53 members, most of whom were businessmen and professionals; over the next few months, membership grew into the hundreds. Roddy was elected the president of the branch, and Church was elected to the national board of directors. By 1919 the branch was the largest in the South. Darius Young writes that the lynching and the establishment of the chapter led to significant changes to the political and social structure in the South. The lynching also led to increased involvement by African Americans in the Lincoln League, a black political organisation founded by Church in 1916, which was influential in Republican politics in Memphis in the late 1910s and 1920s. The Chicago Defender once alleged that the taunting of a black person about the lynching led to the East St. Louis Riot of May–July 1917.
At the time, racially motivated violence against African Americans in Memphis was common, but lynchings were not. The lynching was the last of a series of "publicly sponsored violence" against African Americans in Memphis that began with the 1866 Memphis riots, according to Beverly G. Bond and Janann Sherman, and lynchings in Memphis ceased after this. According to Kenneth K. Goings and Gerald L. Smith, the case shared similarities with other lynchings in the area against African Americans around that time: it was an open attempt to keep the African American community in its place, the authorities were involved in acting against American Americans, and the case was unsuccessful in subduing the African American community. Kenneth T. Jackson, professor of history at Columbia University, called the lynching—the largest in Shelby county history in terms of number of people involved—one of the most vicious in American history. About 50 years after the event, Mays reflected, "Certainly we have come a long way since that time."
- Spelled "Person" by a few sources; see Vandiver and Coconis, p. 897. Some accounts give his middle name as "T."; see, for example, The Crisis, August 1917; Benjamin.
- Goings and Smith.
- For the description of Rappel, see Tennessee Historical Quarterly.
- For leaving school, the newspaper story of Rappel, half a mile, and Persons' age, see The Crisis, August 1917. However, one source refers to Persons as "young"; see Honey, Michael Keith (2002). Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle, University of California Press, p. 37. ISBN 0-520-23205-4.
- For Macon Road and that Rappel's mother was called Mrs Wood, see The Crisis Supplement, July 1917.
- For the eye specialists, see Vandiver and Coconis, p. 897.
- For the prison, see Mays.
- For Tate's order, see Miller, William D. (1957). Memphis During the Progressive Era, 1900–1917, Memphis State University Press, p. 192. ISBN 0-87057-043-9.
- For the date of the trial, see The Crisis Supplement, July 1917.
- For the capture and about Mays, see Mays.
- For authorities anticipating, see Goings and Smith.
- For the mob's storming and searching, see Vandiver and Coconis, p. 897.
- For the press reporting and news spreading, see The Crisis Supplement, July 1917, which cites The Commercial Appeal, 22 May 1917.
- For the judges persuading, and the press predicting, see Lamon 1972.
- For no evidence, see Vandiver and Coconis, p. 898.
- Goings and Smith. See The Commercial Appeal, 22 May 1917. For the newspaper reporting, see The Crisis Supplement, July 1917.
- Goings and Smith.
- For that Macon Road is near Wolf River, see The Crisis, August 1917.
- For the scene, the gathering, parents excusing, the teacher, the schools closing, and the sales of sandwiches and chewing gum, see The Crisis Supplement, July 1917.
- For the trucks, see Kalin.
- For the arrival and the statement by Rappel's mother, see The Crisis Supplement, July 1917.
- For the second quote from Rappel's mother, see Feimster, Crystal Nicole (2009). Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, Harvard University Press, p. 159. ISBN 978-0-674-03562-1.
- For helping the women, see Kalin.
- For the newspaper description, see Bond and Sherman.
- For his scattered remains across Beale, see McKee and Chisenhall.
- For his head, see Goings and Smith.
- For Cansler's account, see Lamon 1972.
- For the souvenirs and postcards, see Ellis, Mark (2001). Race, War, and Surveillance: African Americans and the United States Government Euring World War I, Indiana University Press, p. 60. ISBN 0-253-33923-5; Ginzburg, Ralph (1962). 100 years of lynchings, Black Classic Press, pp. 112–113. ISBN 0-933121-18-0 – which includes a Chicago Defender article dated 8 September 1917. The same story is available here, archived by 7 November 2010.
- For The Commercial Appeals headlines, see Vandiver and Coconis, p. 898; The Commercial Appeal, 23 May 1917, 25 May 1917.
- For Fineshriber's activities, see Kalin. Also see "History of Temple Israel", Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, Goldring / Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, (2006) [copyright date]. Retrieved 3 November 2010. Archived by WebCite on 3 November 2010.
- For Cansler's letter, see Lamon 1972.
- For Johnson's investigation, see Goings and Smith.
- For a summary of Johnson's account, see The Crisis, August 1917.
- For the Johnson quote, see Carby, Hazel V. (2000). Race Men, Harvard University Press, p. 46. ISBN 0-674-00404-3. The chapter is also available here, archived on 7 November 2010.
- For Cansler, see Lamon 1972.
- For the jury and that no one was charged, see Vandiver and Coconis, p. 898.
- For the Benjamin quote, see Benjamin.
- McKee and Chisenhall.
- One source says it was the first in the South; see Lovelle Jenkins, Earnestine (2009). African Americans in Memphis, Arcadia Publishing, p. 32. ISBN 978-0-7385-6750-1. However, according to Young and the branch themselves, it was the fourth; see History of the NAACP – Memphis Branch History, Memphis Branch NAACP, accessed 8 November 2010. Archived by WebCite on 7 November 2010.
- For Roddy's involvement, see DeCosta-Willis, p. 270.
- For the 11 June meeting, see Lamon 1977, p. 265; DeCosta-Willis, p. 270.
- For Roddy's and Church's positions, see DeCosta-Willis, p. 13.
- For more about the membership, see Lamon 1977, p. 265.
- For largest in the South, and significant changes, see Young.
- For the lynching playing in part in the Lincoln League, see Bond and Sherman.
- For information about the League, see Lamon, Lester C. (1981). Blacks in Tennessee, 1791–1970, University of Tennessee Press, p. 80. ISBN 0-87049-324-8; DeCosta-Willis, Miriam, p. 81.
- For the Chicago Defender allegation, see Jordan, William G. (2001). Black Newspapers & America's War for Democracy, 1914–1920, University of North Carolina Press, p. 89. ISBN 0-8078-4936-7.
- For racially motivated violence, see Honey.
- For last of a series, see Bond and Sherman.
- For lynchings ceasing, see Honey; Green, Laurie Boush (2007). Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle, University of North Carolina Press, p. 316. ISBN 978-0-8078-5802-8.
- For the analysis by Goings and Smith, see Goings and Smith.
- For the Jackson quote, see Kalin.
- For the largest, see Vandiver and Coconis, p. 898.
- For the Mays quote, see Mays.
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- Kalin, Berkley. "A Plea for Tolerance: Fineshriber in Memphis" in Bauman, Mark K.; Kalin, Berkley. (eds.) (1997). The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s, University of Alabama Press, pp. 56–58. ISBN 978-0-8173-0892-6.
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