by Tim Gilmore, 5/20/2020
1. The Bullet
Shelton Chappell stared at the bullet that killed his mother.
All his adult life, he’d played a double role. He was the little brother, the youngest sibling of 10, the child who’d lost his mother, then his father, then his siblings. But he was also the investigator. He studied. He traveled. He visited libraries. He looked at microfilm.
“I could feel it in my bones. I could feel it in my soul, what each sibling told me. They each had their own version of the story. I’m a family member, but I also had to be an interviewer. And it was hard. In order to put it together, I had to keep it together.”
It was another variation on what W.E.B. DuBois called, in The Souls of Black Folk, “double consciousness,” in which a black American “ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
And here Shelton was at the courthouse. And there was the .22 caliber bullet fragment. In a plain white envelope.This was the bullet introduced into evidence during the trial, the bullet attorneys passed to each juror, no evidence bag, to let them examine it, the bullet fired from the gun that disappeared from police custody forever.
“To see this bullet!” Shelton says. “Is this the bullet that killed my mother?” And the message he felt in his very depths: “You’re the last one. It’s up to you to put it all together. You’ve got to bring this whole thing to your family and the rest of the world. And when it happened, I was only four months old.”
2. Thou Shalt Not Kill
This is where they shot her, corner of Flicker Avenue and New Kings Road. Johnny Mae Chappell thought she saw her billfold and bent down to pick it up. She lived right down the street.
When the detectives took Wayne Chessman down to the station, he broke down before they even began to talk. Detective Lee Cody slid a Bible across the table, having underlined Exodus 20:13, the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” and Chessman sobbed, “Oh my god, I didn’t shoot her. I was just in the car.”
New Kings was a narrower road back then and many of these side streets were unpaved. Between the corner where the Chappells lived and the corner where Johnnie Mae died stands the abandoned “bumper joint” called Chuck’s Place with a sidewall memorial dating it from March 28, 1951 to January 21, 2011. You bought moonshine for a quarter a bumper shot at Chuck’s.
Chessman said he was just riding around downtown with friends and drinking beer. Nobody was supposed to die. “We was talking about how the mayor said them niggers wasn’t to be going to the cafes and how they was ruining everything.” Elmer Kato driving the car. Eugene Davis and Wayne Chessman sat in back. It was Chessman’s gun. In the front passenger seat, J.W. Rich fired it.
A small round sign stands right about where they shot her. “Drive Safely In Memory of Johnnie Mae Chappell,” it advises. At its foot, cheap orange and blue plastic flowers fade in the sun.
3. Horrible Ironies
The front page of the April 9, 1964 issue of Jet magazine asked, “What’s Behind Jacksonville’s Race Violence?”
The Jet story begins with Jacksonville police breaking down the office doors of the local NAACP. A photo showed an NAACP door full of bullet holes. “The Southern city reacted violently to the Negro community’s refusal to bow to demands that peaceful demonstrations to desegregate downtown restaurants and hotels be halted immediately by command of Mayor Haydon Burns.” Burns had deputized 500 white firefighters to add to the police force to break up black protests.
A Jet subhead said, “Ambitious Mayor’s Menacing Threats Triggered Riots.” The article continued, “A race riot brought the city, hailed as the gateway to Florida, to its knees for the second time in four years.”
The first time was Ax Handle Saturday—August 27, 1960, when a mob of white men, some wearing Confederate uniforms, assaulted any and all black people around Hemming Park with baseball bats and ax handles in response to black student sit-ins protesting lunch counter segregation.
On Saturday, March 21, 1964, Burns spoke to the city via radio and TV and promised Jacksonville would remain a segregated city. He opposed integration in any form, including that of the Ministerial Alliance asking the mayor to form a “biracial committee” to deal with the city’s toxic race problems, which dated to its very founding.
Two days later, Johnnie Mae Chappell cooked dinner for her husband Willie and their children. She was 35 years old. Before serving her own family, she’d spent the day at a wealthy white family’s house where she worked as their maid. Willie left for his second job at a nearby gas station, having finished his shift as a cement worker earlier in the day, and Johnnie Mae decided, tired as she was, to make her kids some ice cream. So she walked across New Kings to the Banner Food Market for ingredients.
On her way back home, having crossed New Kings again, her paper bag broke. As Susan Clark Armstrong wrote for Folio Weekly on January 2, 2001, “She tried to cradle it in her arms, but just as she stepped into her front yard, the bagged ripped and the groceries tumbled to the ground.”
She picked up the groceries, but her billfold was gone, and with it, all her money. She’d dropped it somewhere along the way. The long day grew longer. Two neighbors, Albert Smith and Tildia Sanders helped Johnnie Mae search, by flashlight, the path she’d trod.
She came to the corner where she thought she spotted the billfold, while from another direction came four young white men, drunk and angry about black responses to segregationist “law and order.”
“Let’s go get a nigger,” J.W. Rich had said.
The next day’s Florida Times-Union headline included a brief mention of the murder in a larger story headlined, “Large Area Is Terrorized by Negroes.”
After she bled to death in the rusted hearse a segregated black funeral home used as an ambulance, somebody found her billfold lying in the front yard. “It’s a horrible irony,” former detective Lee Cody says. “If she’d never walked back up to New Kings, she wouldn’t have died that night.”
4. Sweeping Her Under the Rug
“I was in third grade when this happened,” Ray Coleman says. “My father was fired from the sheriff’s office, it made headlines, and I thought to myself, ‘I need to start watching Perry Mason.’”
The killing of Johnnie Mae Chappell and the wholesale police corruption the coverup revealed are the reasons he and two of his sons are attorneys.
In early August 1964, when Detectives Donald Coleman and Lee Cody were talking at the Freezette Drive-In on the Northside, a young “tush hog” named Wayne Chessman approached them. Cody, now in his 90s and living in Mississippi, says “tush hog” was slang for a “rowdy petty criminal.” In his 2010 book The 14th Denial, Cody defines it as “a bullying redneck white trash boy or man.” Chessman kept talking about how he was going to get his act together and how he’d be glad to help the detectives if they ever needed it. He seemed suspicious.
Later, when Coleman and Cody took Chessman’s statement, Coleman looked unsuccessfully for the file on Chappell’s murder. Until he discovered Chief Homicide Investigator J.C. Patrick’s hidden cache, he could find no evidence there was even a case. The phrase “sweeping it under the rug” was barely figurative.
Coleman and Cody worked night shift and checked Patrick’s office after hours. When Donald Coleman took a closer look at a piece of paper sticking out from under the mat behind Patrick’s desk, he found the police report for Johnnie Mae Chappell’s killing and about 30 other reports Patrick didn’t want pursued.
It wasn’t long before the detectives were reassigned to lesser jobs. “My father went from being a homicide detective to bailiff of a juvenile court,” Ray Coleman says. And then they were fired. “Violation of internal rules and regulations concerning security matter of this office.”
While Coleman doesn’t excuse Sherriff Dale Carson’s notorious reign of corruption, he says everything “revolved around J.C. Patrick.” He notes that Sheriff Rex Sweat, after being in office for 25 years, only left after being “caught with desk drawers full of dirty money.” Between Sweat’s and Carson’s administrations, Patrick was the common denominator.
J.C. Patrick reeked of liquor throughout the day and regularly dosed his interrogations with beatings. He was known to take his son to Ku Klux Klan rallies. When Carson finally placed Patrick on leave for tampering with evidence in 1965, his son came home one day to find Patrick beating the boy’s mother, raised a gun and killed Duval County’s chief homicide investigator.Carson, Coleman says, was corrupt because he looked the other way. “He didn’t rock the boat because the anchor was too big. J.C. Patrick was the anchor.”
Patrick, he says, “was the quintessential old Southern cop. He was a wicked, vicious bigot. His attitude toward Johnnie Mae Chappell was ‘She’s just another “nigger.” Don’t worry about it.’ And Kato, Chessman, Davis and Rich—they didn’t have money. They weren’t connected. They were just white.”
The defense claimed the killing was an innocent mistake. The boys were just out having some fun. They didn’t intend to kill anybody. Surely the all white male jury could understand young men getting a thrill from driving fast cars and shooting guns. The bullet had bounced off the ground and struck Johnnie Mae by accident.
A juror named Bill Loos said he’d examined the bullet in court, though the gun had disappeared from police custody, and from his knowledge of killing hogs, he judged it a ricochet. It was just “a bunch of boys horsing around,” Loos said. It was an accident. The boys were just “out there harassing blacks.”
Rich was given 10 years for manslaughter, but paroled three years later. All charges were dropped for Kato, West and Chessman.
5. Land of Lynchings
On her 2008 Martin Luther King Day episode, Oprah Winfrey focused 10 minutes of her TV talk show on the murder of Johnnie Mae Chappell. It meant a lot to him, Shelton Chappell told The Augusta [Georgia] Chronicle, to see “the nation step up and recognize my mama.”
Shelton remembers his last conversation with his mother’s sister, Essie Mae Dawkins-Sargent, before she died in 2011, 94 years old. “She had invited me over to her house. We sat at the kitchen table and spent hours together and we cried. She said, ‘Shelton, I tried my best to get your mother’s name on the memorial.’” She meant the circular granite table that records the names of Civil Rights “martyrs” in Montgomery, Alabama.
Headlines, year after year, continue. From NBC News: “Seeking Justice for a Racial Killing 40 Years Later.” From The Florida Times-Union: “Son of Johnnie Mae Chappell Still Seeks Justice 50 Years Later.”
In the first half of the 20th century, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress. None passed. The 21st century dawned with no federal law banning lynching. In February of this year, Illinois Representative Bobby Rush’s Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Bill passed the House of Representatives.
Till was the 14 year old black boy falsely accused of whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi in 1955. White men kidnapped Till, stripped him naked, beat him on his back and hips, knocked one eye from its socket, fastened a fan blade around his neck with barbed wire, shot him and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. David Jackson’s photograph of Emmett Till’s bloated body lying in a casket with his mother Mamie looking down at him appeared in Jet Magazine and shocked the nation.
Decades and scores of lynchings later, in Brunswick, Georgia, an hour’s drive north of Jacksonville, on February 23, 2020, two white men, Travis McMichael and his son Gregory McMichael pursued an unarmed 25 year old black man named Ahmaud Arbery in their pickup truck and shot him to death. They later claimed Arbery was responsible for a string of robberies that never took place.
For two months, Brunswick authorities made no arrests, perhaps because Gregory McMichael was a former Brunswick police officer. In fact, Brunswick might never have arrested Arbery’s killers, but when video became public, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found probable cause to arrest the McMichaels within 36 hours.
“How can I put any of this into words?” Shelton Chappell says. “How? How? Have we learned anything at all? I just wish we could all learn. I just wish things wouldn’t be the way they are.”
6. Dreamt I Was With Them
Willie Chappell died in 1995. He never remarried. People asked him sometimes why he didn’t pursue justice after his wife’s killers got off so easily.
He told The Florida Times-Union, “Listen. You ain’t never seen a man hung by his neck in your lifetime. But I have.”
When he was a little boy, he said, his daddy sometimes had to drive his sons near where Edgewood Avenue crosses New Kings Road. His daddy always told his children to put their heads down when they drove through that wooded area.
But Willie Jr. couldn’t help but look. He remembered seeing burnt Ku Klux Klan crosses standing in the woods. He remembered when he was a little boy, crouched with his siblings in his daddy’s old ramshackle truck, peeking over his hand. He remembered that moment, seeing that black body hanging from a tree.
The only photo Willie ever had of his wife is the only photo Shelton had of his mother, the one Jet Magazine published in 1964, of Willie looking down at his murdered wife, “killed during white mob’s bloody rampage.”
And yet, about 10 years ago, people started posting a photo of another black woman, alive, eyes open, a woman who appears to be older than 35, the age of Shelton’s mother at the time of her death, and calling the woman in this photograph Johnnie Mae Chappell.
Shelton Chappell doesn’t know who she is, where the image came from, or how to get people to stop saying she’s his mother. He’s worked so hard to get the world to know what happened, but doesn’t want strangers appropriating her, taking her away from him all over again.
“That’s not my mother,” he says. “There’s not a single picture of my mother, living, of my mother, eyes open. I had no picture but the one of my mother in the morgue, on the slab, my father looking down at her, grieving.”
But there are, he says, two other pictures of Johnnie Mae Chappell. Allison Orr of Dateline NBC sent them to him. They were just like the image in Jet, but from other angles.
“When I got those pictures,” Shelton says, “it took me about a week or more before I could tell anybody. Something very strange happened to me. It was the first time I felt like I was right in that room with my mom and dad. I was right there. I was there. I was there.”
And it was because of seeing those pictures that he finally dreamt he was with his mother and father. “I dreamt I was with them. We were talking. We were together. I don’t know what we said, but we were together.” And in that dream, it wasn’t his mother who had to leave. It was Shelton. “I don’t know why,” he says. “We were together. And then I had to go.”
I stand where the Chappells’ house once stood. In 2002, Oscar Sosa of The Los Angeles Times photographed the boarded up house. I look up at tall cypress trees that take their time to grow to their heights. Up and down these streets, past Chuck’s Place, the bumper joint that outlived Johnnie Mae Chappell, walking-paths survive where houses are gone. The three wooden crosses outside Greater New Hope Missionary Baptist Church supplant the crosses planted by the Klan.
The earth grows up through and over the acts and the records of our despicable crimes. You can’t stand in this field where racists shot Shelton’s mother and feel evil in the ground. Not unless you know. The evil begins and ends with us.
Shelton Chappell has devoted his life to that life other men took from his mother. The son of Johnnie Mae Chappell wants to know if we’ve learned “anything at all.” How will each of us answer him? How will we answer the memory of his mother?