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The Nation

Civil Rights Era Slaying Haunts Family, Detectives

A black woman was shot as she walked along the road in 1964, and her children were scattered. Answers begin to emerge at last.

November 30, 2003|Deborah Hastings | Associated Press Writer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It was dark as pitch along U.S. 1, but Johnnie Mae Chappell kept searching. That wallet held every cent she owned.

Somewhere on this roadside, it had silently dropped from her torn and soggy grocery bag. Now she was retracing her steps, headed back to Moncrief Road where, just like yesterday and the day before that, she had trudged off the evening bus after scrubbing the floors of rich white women.

Her home was in Pickettville, the poor part of town, where everyone was black. The date was March 23, 1964. Race riots raged downtown over segregation laws that decreed that black people weren't good enough to even drink from the same water fountain as white people.

But in mindset and geography, the weary inhabitants of Pickettville were miles from rebellion.

As she walked, Chappell enlisted two sympathetic neighbors. One swept the lonely beam of his flashlight across the weeds and tall grass. A car passed, its headlights flicking over the intent trio.

Then they heard a bang. On the unlit country four-lane leading out of Pickettville, the tail lights of a speeding car faded from view.

Chappell, 35 and the mother of 10, sank to her knees and grabbed her belly. "I've been shot," she said.

The two neighbors got her across the road to the Banner Food Market. Someone called for a "colored" ambulance. Someone ran to get her husband.

Inside the ambulance -- a hearse with no medical equipment -- blood soaked her clothes. A .22-caliber bullet was lodged in her pelvis, fired by a 22-year-old white man she would never meet.

Willie Chappell held his wife's hand on the way to Duval Medical Center.

She bled to death before they arrived.

For nearly 40 years, the death of Johnnie Mae Chappell has tainted everyone associated with it and everyone who loved her: the chief of detectives accused of ignoring her killing, two white investigators who bucked their boss to fight for justice, and the Chappell children forced into foster care.

*

At Mount Ararat Baptist Church, an aging white man eased himself onto a pew, surrounded by more than 100 relatives of Johnnie Mae Chappell. The stranger carried a mighty burden.

This was the church where Johnnie Mae married her second husband, Willie. This was where her children worshipped after she died, until the county sent them to foster homes and they lost touch with each other.

The date was March 23, 1996. The reunited family sang "We Shall Overcome." The white man, whose name was Lee Cody, joined in.

In the morning paper, he had seen a photograph of Shelton Chappell kneeling at his mother's grave. The accompanying article said Shelton hoped to bring his family together on the 32nd anniversary of their mother's death. Her nine remaining children were spread across three states, and none of them knew the whole truth about her killing.

Shelton came into this world four months before his mother left it. He grew into a gentle, guarded man. Life had taught him to be frugal with trust, especially when it came to white people.

He was only 4 or 5 when county welfare workers placed him in a juvenile detention center with his four older brothers. He still doesn't know why.

There, "another little boy kicked me and broke my nose," Shelton remembered. "That was my first encounter with a white person."

Much of Florida had long been more Deep South than Yankee resort.

In Jacksonville, four years before Johnnie Mae Chappell was shot, Klansmen had gathered downtown on a morning remembered as "Ax Handle Saturday." They stood in the back of pickup trucks, in a city that was 45% black, and distributed ax handles and baseball bats to white men angry at the prospect of racial equality.

They swarmed inside Woolworth's, where blacks could shop but not eat, and dragged teenagers from the local NAACP's Youth Council off their lunch-counter stools and beat them in the street.

A month before Chappell's killing, a homemade bomb had exploded in the house of a first-grader whose mother sent him to an all-white school.

Chappell's children have only one photograph of their mother, and it is from a magazine. She is lying on a morgue table, a sheet pulled to her chin. Her husband looks down on her, his face frozen in disbelief.

"She hated having her picture taken," said Alonzo Chappell, Shelton's older brother.

He was 6 when his mother died. "She was like a duck, with all of us trailing behind her," he recalled. He doesn't remember much else.

She had five daughters from her first marriage. They were sent to relatives on their daddy's side after she died. Alonzo doesn't ask them about his mother, although they are older and knew her best. "They took it the worst," he said.

Shelton reckons that he lived with eight or nine foster families. For a little boy, he carried a very big weight.

"I knew that I had a father and brothers who loved me and cared about me, not just these people I didn't know," he said.

The boy made a promise to God.

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