#Johnnie Mae Chappell was a 35-year-old wife and mother of 10 children living in Jacksonville, Florida during 1964. On March 23, race riots were occurring in downtown Jacksonville. On this particular day Chappell was no were near downtown; she along with two neighborhood friends were searching for her purse on a roadside near her home in Pickettville. The neighborhood was an all-#black poor area in Jacksonville.
Chappell was busy searching for her purse when a car load of four white men approached her and her neighbors. The men in the car were driving around looking for any blacks to harass. When the men saw Chappell and her neighbors on the road, shots rang out. The white man in the front passenger side shot at the three, hitting Chappell in the stomach. Chappell died on the way to the hospital.
Chappell’s case received very little attention because of the era in which it took place, The Jim Crow era. There was a small mention of her death in newspapers but no major media coverage. The papers and media during this time mainly focused on the white citizens who had been injured during the riots.
According to detectives who eventually investigated and solved Chappell’s murder, nobody within the local police force had ever been assigned to investigate the crime. Instead, detectives Lee Cody and Donald Coleman cracked the case somewhat by accident. A few months after the incident, in August, the detectives were approached on two separate occasions by a young man, Wayne Chessman, who said he wanted to help the detectives. But, the detectives were not sure what Chessman wanted to help them with; there had been no mention to the public that someone was working on Chappell’s case. After seeing Chessman leave their second encounter in a car that matched the one that carried Chappell’s murderer, the detectives decided to question Chessman at the police station. During the interview, Chessman provided a detailed account of Chappell’s murder and implicated 3 other men: Elmer Kato, the driver of the car, James Alex Davis, who sat in the back seat with Chessman that night, and J.W. Rich, the shooter.
After the investigation had been completed, all four men implicated were arrested. The men were all charged with first degree murder. After the arrest, the case began to fall apart. Evidence disappeared, and the detectives claimed that they were harassed and berated by their commanding officer for even investigating the crime. Even though, evidence was lost in the case, the state proceeded with its case, and an all-white jury found Rich guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter. This was a shock most men were not convicted for the crimes they committed against blacks during the era. Rich was sentenced to ten years in prison as a result of his conviction, but he only served three years before being released. All charges against the other three men were dropped.
After the injustice pertaining to the case and the killers getting very little to no time in the murder, Chappell’s family suffered greatly. The family was torn apart; the oldest five daughters by Chappell’s first marriage were sent to live with various relatives on their father’s side of the family. The younger five children who were all boys were taken from their father and put in foster families. On the 32nd anniversary of her death, Chappell’s children finally heard the story of what happened to their mother when Cody approached them at a family reunion. The detectives were demoted on their jobs and ultimately fired. In 2005, the Florida legislature honored Chappell by renaming a section of the highway where she was murdered the “Johnnie Mae Chappell Parkway”