In May 1917, the body of a 16-year-old white girl by the name of Antoinette Rappel was found under a bridge in Memphis, Tennessee, along the Wolf River, a 100-mile stream that runs from Memphis to northern Mississippi. Rappel had been raped and murdered. She was decapitated.
A Black woodchopper in his 50s named Ell Persons lived near the bridge where Rappel’s body was found. Despite no evidence pointing to his involvement, Persons was arrested and released twice during the investigation of Rappel’s murder. After a third arrest, Persons was coerced into a confession by the police and was taken to Nashville, Tennessee, for his personal safety as he awaited arraignment. As Persons and the officers were headed back to Memphis, Persons was apprehended by a white mob seeking justice for Rappel.
On May 22, 1917, Persons was dragged to a spot near the place where Rappel’s body was discovered. Local reports say some people slept overnight by the river to witness the lynching; many students from the local high school skipped classes to be in attendance. Historians estimate between 3,000 and 5,000 were in attendance that day.
Early that morning, Persons, bound to a log by rope and chains, was doused in gasoline and set afire. As his body burned, his ears were amputated. When the corpse charred, members of the audience began dismembering Persons. His decapitated head was paraded around Beale Street in downtown Memphis. It is considered one of the first lynchings to be conducted in the middle of the day, rather than in the shadows of the night.
The lynching of Persons came to the mind of University of Kentucky African American history professor Gerald L. Smith when discussing the recent discovery of a garage pull fashioned into a noose in the garage of Bubba Wallace, the sole Black driver in NASCAR’s Cup Series.
While the noose later turned out to not be directed at Wallace, the mere presence of a hangman’s knot brought back the painful history of Black Americans being tortured, murdered and humiliated through public lynchings, much like Persons more than 100 years ago.
“A hangman’s noose could be used, obviously they took a person to death, but could also be used to just allow a person to hang and to die slowly in a spectacle fashion, which would produce a very slow and agonizing death. … Ell Persons was hung over a pit of fire and allowed to roast, but they put too much gasoline oil … on him and his body [and] he burned up real quick,” said Smith, the co-author of “Unhidden” Transcripts: Memphis and African American Agency, 1862-1920, a 1995 research paper on the racial violence in Memphis.
“The mob was upset because they burned him too fast; in other words, he died a quick death.”
Smith spoke with The Undefeated about the history of nooses and lynchings in America, the effect those racist tools of death had on African Americans and what it meant for a noose to be found in Wallace’s garage.
Before the hangman’s knot became a symbol of lynching and hatred, what was the use of it?
Obviously it’s connected with animal husbandry in terms of guiding and containing animals. African Americans were considered to be biologically and culturally inferior and animalistic, and so it’s easy to trace in terms of its importance on the farm. But it’s also used as a tool of execution, and for many years, even before it was used in an agricultural environment, as a tool of execution and punishment.
But clearly, as it relates to African Americans, one of harassment and intimidation, designed to unfurl this fear, particularly in African American men, that dates not only after the Civil War, but of course there were a number of slaves that were hung during the antebellum period as well. So for two reasons: one, obviously for agricultural reasons, but, two, as a tool of punishment and execution.
At what point did it change from punishment and agricultural purposes to a tool of white supremacists?
That I don’t know. I think we have to be mindful of where most of the lynchings took place: just in the South. And of course, the South had an agricultural-based economy. … But it was also very clear in terms of what was available, what tool of punishment was available that could be slow and agonizing, and at the same time that could be displayed without necessarily being used to remind African Americans to remain in their place, whether or not it was as a slave, as a warning not to instigate some sort of slave uprising after the Civil War, as a warning in terms of not to challenge whites politically or economically, and definitely as a means of controlling African American men, to assure them that this is what will happen to you if you date or try to marry a white woman.
Can you describe the difference between a hanging and a lynching?
When you think about a lynching, one, it’s a form of vigilante justice, but, two, it’s an execution that is conducted without a fair trial. So, let’s say a person’s arrested and then housed in jail and then a mob, a vicious mob, basically storms the jail, and it’s the Black person, secures them, and just in the middle of the night, or sometimes in broad daylight, strings them up without any sort of protection from the law, and designate a public display. So, lynchings can be done spontaneously, lynchings can be planned, or even announced.
… But even with the lynching and with the hangman’s noose, it was not only the act itself, but it was even just as equally important as to what took place after the lynching. And that’s where you get into cutting off body parts, selling those body parts, or photographs of the actual African American being dangled from a tree. Sometimes the lynchings took place in the middle of the courthouse square. I’ve got a photograph that I’ve found of a lynching that took place in Paris, Kentucky. The man was hanging right there in the courthouse square. So it was a very bold and violent form of intimidation. People did it without any fear or concern that they would be brought to justice.
It was a way of protecting Southern heritage, white supremacy and all of that during that time. And the more people that saw it — that was the other thing, too — we know with a hangman’s noose, the person would hang there for several hours as this public display, particularly for African Americans to see and to be reminded, again, of what can happen to you if you pursue white women, or if you are thinking about running for political office, or if you’re thinking about anything that challenges white supremacy, here are the consequences for you on public display.
The last reported lynching was about 40 years ago. Is there a practical purpose for a hangman’s knot in 2020?
No. One of the things I thought about when I read that article — that of course, the FBI completed its investigation and so forth — what concerned me most of all was that even though the noose had been there since October, what is concerning is that it was allowed to remain there since October, which tells us something about the level of race consciousness. And it seems as though to me that someone would have seen that noose and say, ‘Oh, we can’t,’ — regardless if there was an African American there or not — ‘we don’t need that on public display.’
That’s far different from a garage pulldown. And we know that, particularly in the South, you know that. There’s certain things that nobody has to explain to you what that is. And the mere fact that it was allowed to remain so many months, what does that say?
When you first saw the photo of the noose in Wallace’s garage, what were your thoughts?
Just the noose itself is a narrative, it’s a tragic historic narrative in our nation’s history, that continues to exist and to be manifested in various different ways. Whether it’s on college campuses or in job sites or outside the home of someone hanging on a tree, it speaks volumes with just the noose itself, and it tells you how far we have come, but how far we got to go. But more than anything, it’s a constant reminder of our sick and violent past, especially as it relates to African Americans.
With this happening in Talladega, Alabama, does it add any more historical weight?
Oh, yeah. When you look at the history of lynchings, for example, there were three states where you had the majority of your lynchings throughout the country, and they included Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. Those were the three states that had the greatest number of lynchings in the South. And that’s just based on the number of lynchings that were recorded. That does not include the number of lynchings that went unrecorded. The Tuskegee Institute, which is in Alabama, which is a historically Black college, began keeping records of the lynchings that were taking place in the South. So when you think about Talladega, Alabama, they’re right in the heart of everything that’s going on.
You just brought up the Tuskegee Institute. I was just reading The Washington Post, and the Equal Justice Initiative said that they found 2,000 more instances of lynchings that had gone unrecorded. What do you make of there being about 6,500 lynchings between slavery and the civil rights movement?
Two things: one, there were a number of lynchings that took place that were never reported in the newspaper, and the challenge has been … because wasn’t any problem whatsoever, or reluctance, to report a lynching, because those who were involved, they knew that they would not be, you know, prosecuted. And so in order to really get down to get to the number of lynchings, one, you have to be mindful of the fact that you’ve got to pretty much read every newspaper that was published in the South. And some of them no longer exist.
There has been a book that was published on lynchings in Kentucky. The book listed over 300 lynchings, but just in my own research, I’ve come across other lynchings that were not even recorded in the books. So from a research standpoint, it’s going to be difficult to document the actual number of lynchings that occurred.
And the other thing, because much of this was happening in a rural environment, often involving sharecroppers and tenant farmers, these acts of violence were taking place, lives were lost because Black people’s lives were considered to be cheap and disposable. You can go hang somebody, cut the rope down and throw them in the river and that’s it. And no questions asked. So I wouldn’t be surprised, as more research is being conducted, particularly throughout the South and the nation, too, for that matter, then we’ll gradually see an increase in the number of Blacks that were lynched.
Congress, for the last century or so, has struggled to make lynching a federal hate crime, most recently a bill stalled by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Why have anti-lynching bills taken so long to be signed into federal law?
One, you would think that it would be a no-brainer, because for moral reasons. But, two, it not only charges, but convicts America in terms of its violent history and how we as a nation have ignored and refused to accept this piece of our history. In other words, it’s a reflection of our denial. Even though we know that it has existed, but it’s not only denial of the past, but it’s an attempt to move on past it without actually reconciling with that past as well as with the present, as evidenced by the nooses.
About 15 years ago, I think that there were few states that sought to criminalize nooses. … And, quite frankly, I would not be surprised if we continue to see more of that, just because the noose and the flag are not only the symbols that I’ve mentioned, but they’re also symbols of rebellion. So we, as a nation, are still in rebellion in terms of wanting to accept our racist past, especially when it comes to violence.