As thousands of Memphians watched — men, women and children, even vendors selling sandwiches — Ell Persons was burned alive.
“That mob was so serious,’’ witness Alex Williams would recall years later of the May22, 1917, lynching of Persons, a Black laborer who was tortured into confessing to the rape and murder of a young white girl.
“They would have killed anybody that would have made an attempt to interfere,” Williams said.
Like most acts of racial terror of the time, Persons’ murder involved something much more complicated than retribution. Historians agree it was meant to send a message: Any political or economic gains by the Black community — any movement toward equality — would not be tolerated.
“It’s a warning,” said Darius Young, a history professor at Florida A&M University who studies politics and racial violence. “During that period, your wealth and your success is a violation of racial etiquette of the South. So, no matter how much you think you have, this too can happen to you.”
Persons’ death made headlines across the nation in 1917 and even spurred a 10,000-strong silent march in New York City. Yet, his story has rarely been told. Little is known about his life.
More than a century later, the legacy of Persons’ lynching is evident in the ongoing struggle for equity in criminal justice, in the fight to prevent false confessions and unjust punishment, and in the larger racial reckoning that gnaws at the soul of America.
“I had to reﬂect on how did I get here?’’ asks Michele Whitney, a descendant of one of Persons’ brothers. “How did I get here when 100 years ago, someone who is a part of me was murdered in such a way?”
To understand how the lynching drew such a crowd, historians point to the 1916 election a year earlier. More than 10,000 Black men had mobilized to vote — a rare sight in the Jim Crow South. At the helm was Robert Church Jr., one of a few Black millionaires in the nation.
It was Church’s wealth and property that afforded Black Memphians the freedom to gather and strategize without interference, Young said.
Michele Whitney, great grand-niece of Ell Persons
“It’s hard to do that in the South on that type of level because most Black people are still, by design, depending on whites for their everyday survival,” he said.
Young first came across Persons’ lynching when he was a doctoral student at the University of Memphis. As he pored over newspapers and other accounts, he said it became apparent the increasing power of the Black vote was the “root of the racial tension in the city.”
Even though the mobilization effort did not immediately win any elections, white politicians quickly began cracking down on businesses along Beale Street, the center of the city’s Black enterprise.
Across American history, many researchers have connected racial violence as a backlash against Black progress. Journalist Ida B. Wells, who got her start in Memphis, identified a pattern of lynchings following Black economic or political gains in the late 1800s.
Yet, newspapers and law enforcement at the time often focused on an individual case usually attributed to accusations of rape and murder or a violation of racist customs such as flirting with a white woman or not moving off the sidewalk when a white person passed by.
The incident that led to Persons’ lynching began on a quiet rural road within sight of the Wolf River near what is now Summer Avenue and Interstate 240. A 15-year-old white girl named Antoinette Rappel was riding her bicycle to catch the wagon that would take her to school on April 30, 1917.
She never made it to school. She was sexually assaulted and beheaded.
A search party led by her uncle found her body two days later. A police report called the murder “one of the most fiendish crimes that has startled the people of Shelby County in years.” Her death made front-page news the following day: “Little girl’s head severed from body: Brute who attacked girl hacked head from body with ax.”
The inclusion of the word “brute” is noteworthy to historians. It was a common racist caricature of Black men after emancipation. Popular media and literature opens in a new windowclaimed that the Black man’s freedom unleashed insatiable sexual desires for white women, which became the refrain that justified lynchings for decades. So, from the start, local newspapers introduced the idea that the murderer could be Black, and specifically, someone among the Black woodcutters who lived near the murder scene.
But city detectives initially thought the culprit was white, according to the same newspapers.
Rappel’s bicycle was found resting against a tree with her belongings undisturbed in the front basket — suggesting that she got off her bike willingly because she knew her attacker. Detectives also found a white handkerchief and a white coat. Those items typically were not associated with Black people because the vast majority were poor.
But county Sheriff Mike Tate disagreed and pursued questioning Black men in the area. His attention was soon drawn to Persons, one of the Black woodcutters who was missing an ax.
Three events sealed Persons’ fate.
First, his former boss, a white man, said that Persons scared the man’s wife a few months earlier. He claimed that Persons told her he had a dream about her. Police told The Commercial Appeal newspaper the boss’ accusation was enough for them to arrest Persons because it gave them “the first inkling of his brutish proclivities.”
He was eventually arrested two more times as detectives became more desperate to come up with enough evidence to convict Persons.
The second event was so unusual that local doctors issued a statement refuting the investigation, said Margaret Vandiver, a retired University of Memphis professor who has studied lynchings and their impact on the criminal justice system for decades.
“There was a bizarre idea at the time that the human eye was a camera. So that if someone was murdered, the retina would imprint an image of the murderer,” she said. “They actually took this seriously enough to exhume the body of Antoinette Rappel.”
The local newspapers reported investigators claimed they could see the image of Persons in her eye.
During Persons’ third and final arrest, Sheriff Tate and two detectives “coaxed, cajoled, beat, whipped, [and] threatened” him, according to the Memphis Press. After hours of this treatment, Persons reportedly confessed to the crime, sparking the formation of a mob that became so organized and powerful over the next two weeks that one newspaper described them as the “invisible government.”
Almost immediately after Persons’ confession, Sheriff Tate arranged to transport him to Nashville to prevent a lynching. But a group of about 150 men caught wind of the sheriff’s plans and intercepted him at a train station — the first indication that some officers were in on it. Somehow, the sheriff convinced the mob that he was transporting a different prisoner, and Persons made it to Nashville.
But the mob continued to look for Persons in Memphis, scouring local jails, setting up roadblocks and searching cars without interference from officers.
After a week of searching, the mob’s vengeance turned toward Sheriff Tate, and they chased him out of town for three days. One newspaper account showed that the sheriff went to great lengths to conceal his location, an indication that he feared for his life.
By the time the sheriff returned to Memphis, the winds had clearly shifted in favor of the mob. Several high-ranking officials pleaded with Tennessee Gov. Thomas C. Rye to send a militia to accompany Persons back to Memphis for his trial, but Rye never responded.
So, on May 21, 1917, just two deputies escorted Persons back.
The mob leaders quickly got word and ambushed the train in Potts Camp, Mississippi. The group captured Persons and sent word they would lynch him at the same spot where Rappel was murdered.
Early on the morning of May 22, Rappel’s mother came to the scene. Newspapers reported that she said she wanted Persons to die by burning and to suffer worse than her daughter did.
Vandiver said crowd estimates ranged from 5,000 to 15,000 people, including women, children, businessmen and farmers. Some people even sold sandwiches, chewing gum and bottled drinks to make money off the lynching.
More than 50 years later, Williams, a witness in the crowd, recounted that “word spread like wildfire” as thousands made their way to the remote location. Williams’ grandson, Steve Haley, recorded him sharing his memories for a family oral history project in 1970.
“So, they carried him over to that log and tied him to that log and started piling,” Williams said in the recording. “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. And I can smell that n—– flesh cooking right now sometimes.”
They certainly did not need to fear interference from law enforcement. As one reporter noted years later in his memoir, some of the mob leaders were members of law enforcement. In an opens in a new windowNAACP report about the lynching, James Weldon Johnson said the mob forced a 10-year-old Black boy to watch Persons burn.
As was common with lynchings of the era, after Persons died, witnesses, who included women and children, rushed to the body to cut off souvenirs.
Mob leaders then cut off Persons’ head and held it out a car window as they drove around Black neighborhoods in Memphis. They eventually threw his head on Beale Street.
Voting rights advocate Church’s office was located on the street. Rallies for Black economic and political equality regularly were held there, too, said Young, the history professor.
“I don’t think that’s a mistake,” he said.
The mob did that “not to just gloat, but to say to them this is what’s going to happen to you if you ever think about touching one of our women or violating any type of unwritten code of racial etiquette in the South during that period.”
The acts of intimidation only strengthened Church’s resolve.
Less than a month later, he and other Black leaders paid their dues to form a Memphis chapter of the NAACP, then only the fourth chapter in the South.
Young said most NAACP branches then were in Northern cities because of violence and intimidation in the South. But within two years, the Memphis NAACP chapter became the largest in the South and a headquarters in the region for organizing against racial violence and labor discrimination.
It was not only Black Memphians who organized in response to Persons’ lynching. A few months later in New York City, 10,000 people remembered Persons and other victims of racial violence in a silent march, one of America’s first mass demonstrations by Black people.
One hundred years later, in 2017, the local nonprofit opens in a new windowLynching Sites Project prepared for a centennial ceremony and identified two relatives: Michele Whitney, whose father was the grandson of one of Persons’ brothers, and Laura Wilfong Miller, whose great-grandparents were Rappel’s aunt and uncle.
For Whitney, it was the first time she had heard about Persons’ lynching.
She had been researching her family history to cope with the loss of her parents. Whitney’s father had moved to Chicago from Memphis with his mother in the 1940s at the height of the Great Migration. The death of her parents sparked a desire in her to know more about her ancestors.
“I’m out here by myself alone. I’m an adult orphan. What do I do now?” said Whitney, who lives in Chicago. “I just wanted to find some way to connect with my history.” A few months into her research, she got a message on Ancestry.com from Tom Carlson, then a University of Memphis professor and volunteer researcher with the Lynching Sites Project.
“I had to reflect on how did I get here? How did I get here when 100 years ago, someone who is a part of me was murdered in such a way?” she said.
For Miller, participating in the ceremony was the beginning of a transformation, even though she was familiar with Rappel’s story.
Miller’s great-grandfather had led the search party that eventually found his niece’s body in the woods. When Miller was a teenager, her grandmother had told her about Antoinette’s murder and even showed her Rappel’s bicycle basket, schoolbooks and gloves that were found at the murder scene.
“I remember her telling me things, and it was just very, from what I remember, very factual as far as her memory, and there wasn’t a lot of opinion sliced in there,” she said.
It wasn’t until the 2017 commemoration that she started to understand how Persons’ lynching fit within the broader context of American history.
“I had to undo a good amount of some pre-programming from the way I was raised, or things I had heard or preconceived notions,” she said. “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.”
At the opens in a new windowcommemoration, the nonprofit unveiled a historical marker along Summer Avenue with help from high school students in the Facing History and Ourselves program. The ceremony included speeches, an interfaith prayer service and musical performances. Whitney traveled to Memphis from Chicago, gave a speech and performed a song on her flute.
“It was a very reflective time for me because reading and understanding and learning more and more about the nature of the situation was very, very traumatic,” she said.
But the knowledge was worth the hurt, she said.
“You don’t have to get stuck in anger or whatever about what may have happened 100 years ago,” she said. “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.”
Miller said she appreciated that Rappel was not forgotten in the ceremony. She said the murdered teenager was also a victim of the rush to judgment against Persons.
“It’s clear now — and it should have been then — but it’s clear that he was not the one at all,” Miller said. “And so, ultimately, there’s not justice for her death.”
In addition to the unreliable evidence and rush to judgment throughout the investigation, Persons’ coerced confession played a significant role in his lynching.
But modern researchers have found that it’s not uncommon for people to confess to crimes they did not commit. According to the opens in a new windowNational Registry of Exonerations, one in every eight people cleared since 1989 had confessed to the crime. Experts say part of the reason that happens is because of how police conduct interrogations.
In 1917, when Persons was lynched, police torture during interrogations was so common, it had its own nickname: the third degree.
Nearly two decades later, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed that type of coercion unconstitutional. It not only violated people’s rights, it also didn’t accomplish what police said it would: help them get accurate information about the crime.
Hayley Cleary, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has studied how psychology plays out in police interrogations. She and others argue that the psychological interrogation tactics that replaced beatings can be just as harmful and still lead to inaccurate information — or worse — false confessions. Those tactics can include isolating a suspect for long periods of time without food or water in cold rooms or lying about evidence and about what would happen if they confessed.
“People don’t realize how powerful that situation is in the moment and how these manipulative tactics can change the suspect’s perception of the benefits of confessing and the costs of continued denial,” Cleary said.
“And in that moment, confession can actually seem like the best, most rational choice because it ends the stress,” she said.
Hayley Cleary, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University,
In recent years, reporters in Memphis have highlighted cases that raise serious concerns about how local police have interrogated suspects.
Take Terrell Johnson. In 2013, he was 17 years old and had been arrested because police suspected he was the getaway driver in a robbery and murder case. The real getaway driver was eventually identified, but not before the teenager buckled under the pressure, falsely confessed and spent two months in juvenile detention.
Initially, his mother, Hope Chambers, was there, but she opens in a new windowtold the Institute for Public Service Reporting in 2018 that police made her leave just before they pressured him to confess. He didn’t have a lawyer. Without a recording, the full details are unknown.
Audio and video recordings of interrogations have been identified as one solution to prevent false confessions. As of 2022, laws in 30 states require police to record interrogations of people suspected of serious crimes, opens in a new windowaccording to the Innocence Project.
Tennessee is not one of them.
In the past 20 years, state legislators have introduced three bills that would require recorded interrogations. But they failed each time as police and sheriff departments have argued that one glitch in a recording could mean a guilty person could go free. Supporters of the bill countered it would protect law enforcement from frivolous lawsuits.
Still, some police and sheriff departments in Tennessee voluntarily record interrogations because they see the benefit of transparency. The research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice has opens in a new windowsurveyed law enforcement agencies across the nation that record interrogations. Those agencies said that the recording policies provide better evidence for convictions.
Until very recently, the Memphis Police Department did not record interviews with suspects. But after an opens in a new windowinvestigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting, they crafted a policy that went into effect in 2019. Now every interrogation in the department’s homicide unit must be recorded from the time the interrogator enters the room with the suspect until the time they leave. The recordings are then treated as evidence.
On the federal level, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) co-sponsored a bill providing grants to help police and sheriff departments buy video equipment for recording interrogations, but the bill hasn’t progressed since then.
Unlike many lynching sites, the place where Persons was burned and Rappel was murdered is virtually untouched by development. The area is overgrown and barely accessible but still less than a mile from busy Summer Avenue.
In 2025, the Wolf River Conservancy plans to begin construction extending a community trail to the site so the public can access its history.
“It was left in a condition that is surprisingly similar to what it was 100 years ago,” said Vandiver, the lynching researcher. “That makes it all the more urgent that we preserve it as closely as we can to its current condition because there are not many sites like this.”
It’s a theme that runs through Persons’ story and the injustices that surround it: Much has changed, but much has stayed the same.
Editor’s note: Laura Faith Kebede is a former board member of the Lynching Sites Project.
Correction, Oct. 22, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the exoneration cases in the national database all involved DNA evidence. Some cases included other means of clearing people convicted of a crime.