Category: Southern History (Page 1 of 4)

Author Q & A (Telling Our Stories)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (February 11)

The recent opening of two of Mississippi’s premier museums, coinciding with the state’s Bicentennial celebration in December 2017, was a landmark event in the Magnolia State’s recognition of and salute to its history.

Like all states, Mississippi’s past includes not only its memories and accomplishments but its challenges and struggles, as well–along with a bright hope for its future. And, fortunately for those who want to actually bring home an insightful reminder of their experiences while visiting the new Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Right Museum in downtown Jackson–there’s a book for that!

telling our storiesThe University Press of Mississippi, working with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, have published Telling Our Stories, a comprehensive “companion book” that highlights the people, places and dates of events (the good and the bad) that are emphasized in the museums and have shaped our culture today

Three MDAH staff members who are serving in vital roles in the museums and have been instrumental in the publication of Telling Our Stories share their thoughts below on the role that the museums and this book will play in Mississippi’s journey to a vibrant future.

AMANDA LYONS

Amanda Lyons is assistant to the MDAH director and served as managing editor of Telling Our Stories. Originally from Louisiana, she graduated from Belhaven College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and now lives in Jackson.

How did the Telling Our Stories book project come about, and why? What is the overall purpose of this book?

We approached University Press of Mississippi about publishing a companion book to the museums a few years ago. They loved the concept! Telling Our Stories celebrates the opening of the museums on the occasion of our state’s bicentennial. It’s also a beautiful souvenir for our visitors and is available in the Mississippi Museum Store.

In the introduction to the book, civil rights leader Myrlie Evers and former Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter remind us that “No state has more stories to tell than we do.” How does this book, and the museums, reflect that sentiment?

Mississippi is full of storytellers. The book and the museums draw on this rich tradition with quotes, oral histories, and primary sources. As much as possible, we wanted each person to tell their own story, in their own words. We also encourage visitors to record their own story before they leave.

The writers of the book’s foreword, former Gov. Haley Barbour and former attorney and judge Reuben V. Anderson, describe the museums as “the largest classrooms in the state,” and they reflect positively on the statewide impact they will have in Mississippi and beyond. What do you expect that impact to be?    

School buses filled with children pull up at the museums every day! We want every child in Mississippi to visit the museums at least once during their K–12 years, and we are raising funds for an endowment for school visits. People of all ages will learn more about where they come from–and where they are going–at the museums. One man was amazed to see his grandfather, a civil rights activist, featured in the exhibits. Here, we can discover new facets about ourselves and how our stories fit into the complex tapestry that is Mississippi.

Museum of Mississippi History

Museum of Mississippi History

PAMELA JUNIOR

Pamela Junior is director of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. A resident of Jackson, she is a graduate of Jackson State University with a degree in education.

Mississippi’s civil rights story has been long and complicated. While it may have a way to go, much progress has been made. How does the museum reflect that story, and what do you think (or hope) remains to be accomplished in Mississippi on the civil rights front?

The stories of the Civil Rights Era are complex, but Mississippi has done something that people thought couldn’t be done. Mississippi has reconciled its differences by making sure that all content in this museum is truthful!

What I know will happen is conversation–conversation about race relations. What I hope for is that people will be honest enough to share their inner thoughts, to tell the truth and face the problems regarding race so that we can get to the next level of making Mississippi the best it can be. Right now, we have done the spectacular, and that is building the civil rights museum in Mississippi–ground zero during the Movement.

Could you share an overview of the contents of the museum (its layout, major exhibits, etc.)? What have been some of the most popular displays?

The Museum is laid out chronologically and forms a circle that can be approached from either side.

There are eight galleries in total. The first, “Mississippi’s Freedom Struggle,” gives the history of Africans coming here through slavery and includes the Civil War. Gallery two covers Reconstruction and explores the flowering of African American communities and the passage of Jim Crow Laws. This gallery also contains the first of the monoliths that appear throughout the museum and lists the names of all the people known to have been lynched in Mississippi.

“This Little Light of Mine” is a large central space to stop, reflect on what you’ve seen, and to rest as the music of the Civil Rights Movement plays. An interactive sculpture hangs from the ceiling surrounded by pictures of the heroic women and men of the Movement.

The “Closed Society” gallery highlights the return of African American soldiers from World War II, the “separate but equal” doctrine, and the murder of Emmett Till. “A Tremor in the Iceberg” tells of the young people joining the Movement and the assassination of Medgar Evers. The “I Question America” gallery focuses on the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Aaron Henry, Ed King, and others, and contains an original film on the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner.

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

“Black Empowerment” tells the story of the marches, sit-ins, and other protests that were continuing, changes in public education, and the murder of Vernon Dahmer. The final gallery–“Where do We Go from Here?”–examines the election of African Americans to political office across the state and gives visitors a chance to reflect on the courage of the many people who died for a cause greater cause than themselves–and what they might do to make things better today.

Why is this museum and its message so important to Mississippi?

Our message is of hope and racial healing. Out state has some of the greatest people and the greatest minds. We must put our heads together and fight the demon of racism. We have more in common than we have differences.

RACHEL MYERS

Rachel Myers, director of the Museum of Mississippi History, has lived in Jackson for 10 years. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies from Brandeis University and her Master of Arts in museum studies from Johns Hopkins.

The opening of these museums came as Mississippi marked its bicentennial–a history that the Museum of Mississippi History and this book examine through, among other things, our state’s role in conflicts and wars, survival during the Great Depression, its economic swings, racial strife and progress, and its accomplishments in sports, music, storytelling, writing, crafts, and the arts. How does the Museum of Mississippi History play an important role, as historian Dennis Mitchell puts it, in “sharing our stories, clearing away myths, and inspiring and children and grandchildren’?

Our role is to inspire the exploration and appreciation of our state’s history by presenting an honest representation of Mississippi. Visitors will find stories that resonate with their experiences, but we hope they’ll also find new and surprising ways of looking at our state and its many stories.

This museum is a place that elicits stories. I’ve enjoyed watching families reflecting on the history of their communities and sharing stories passed down over generations. The experience of seeing an artifact or a film or standing in a recreated historic site can facilitate conversations that strengthen our identity and challenge perspectives.

Some students find it hard to engage with lessons about history. What would you say are some of the exhibits/displays at the museum that may win them over? Are there some things that patrons may be surprised to see?

With four original films, dozens of digital interactives and immersive scenes, and more than 1,600 artifacts, the museum is designed to capture the attention of a wide range of visitors.

Students have been excited to walk through time and peek into the different living spaces of Mississippians throughout history, investigate their artifacts, and hear their stories. Visitors are often surprised by the size and scale of this museum, the amount of history we are presenting, and the range of voices that are highlighted and uplifted in the exhibits.

The book tells us that Mississippi’s story has evolved as history has recorded the presence of its first native peoples, followed by Europeans, Africans, and later people from Germany, Russia, Poland, Slavonia, Italy, Lebanon, China, and others. How do we see the impact and the accomplishments of such diversity of our people reflected in our state today?

To me, the story of Mississippi is one of the most fascinating in our country. We see here on the local scale our national themes of people from different groups and places coming together to form something greater than themselves.

Our theme of One Mississippi, Many Stories celebrates all those who have shaped and defined our state–and continue to do so today.

The hours and admission for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum can be found here. The hours and admission for the Museum of Mississippi History can be found hereTelling Our Stories can be purchased at the museums’ store, or from Lemuria Books and its online store.

Author Q & A with Karen L. Cox

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 7)

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South (University of North Carolina Press) uncovers the details of what came to be the highly sensationalized case of the 1932 murder of Jennie Merrill, a wealthy white Natchez woman who was killed during an attempted robbery of her antebellum home.

goat castleThe book, which documents the obvious racial injustice with which the case was handled by local officials, gained national attention because of the eccentric lifestyle of initial suspects Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery, who lived in a decaying antebellum home overrun with crumbling furnishings, pervasive filth–and a pen of goats, among many other animals.

Emily Burns, an African-American domestic worker and Natchez resident who unwillingly found herself at the scene of the crime, was unjustly tried and convicted of the murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment at Parchman Penitentiary.

It was award-winning author Karen L. Cox, a history professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who came across the story when she was conducting research for another book at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson.

Karen L. Cox

Karen L. Cox

A native of West Virginia, Cox said her ties to Mississippi go back to when she first arrived in Hattiesburg to pursue her doctorate degree at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1991.

“There’s hardly been a year that I haven’t been back to the state to work on a research project,” she said. “After writing Goat Castle, I fell in love with Natchez and made good friends there.”

Cox, who teaches courses in American history and culture, also authored Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the Southern Association for Women Historians’ Julia Cherry Spruhill Prize; and Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture. She is also editor of Destination Dixie: Tourism and Southern History.

As a distinguished historian widely recognized for her knowledge of the American South, Cox has written op-eds for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, CNN, and The Huffington Post, and she has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other American newspapers, as well as papers in Germany, Denmark, Ireland, and Japan. She has also appeared on numerous television news outlets around the country, as well as the BBC.

How did you learn about this case, and why did you decide to write  this book about it?

I learned about this case while working in the State Archives in Jackson. I was researching a previous book, which included the tourism generated by the Natchez Pilgrimage, when Clinton Bagley–a longtime historian/librarian at the Archives–told me that I should be looking at Goat Castle. As soon as I learned the barest of information on the story, I instinctively knew I’d write this book. It has so many layers to it and the “characters” are real. The truth is really stranger than fiction.

The investigation after the crime revealed that Dana and Dockery, white neighbors of Merrill’s, had plotted with George Pearls, an African-American, to rob Merrill’s home. But things wen terribly wrong, and Merrill was shot during the attempted robbery. After Pears was soon killed by an Arkansas policeman for an unrelated incident, an innocent black woman, Emily Burns, would ultimately be charged with the murder and imprisoned. The book states that the murder had become national news within less than 48 hours. Why was this?

Why it became national headlines so swiftly had to do with Jennie Merrill’s status as a descendant of planter aristocracy and being the daughter of Ayres Merrill, Jr., who was the former Belgian ambassador. Yet, within a week the story became less about her death and more about her eccentric neighbors, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery. They, too, were from elite Southern families, but in 1932 lived in absolute squalor at their home Glenwood, which the press nicknamed “Goat Castle” since the pair kept a pen of goats inside the house.

The news coverage after the murder seems to have focused much more on the strange, eccentric lifestyle of Dockery and Dana than it did on the fact that a murder had been committed and Burns’ future was at stake. Please describe the public’s obsession with “Goat Woman” and “Wild Man,” and the press’s fascination with keeping the story focused on their “Old South” heritage–even as Burns remained in prison.

In addition to the squalor, the press nicknamed Dick Dana the “Wild Man” and, it seems, needed to give one to Octavia Dockery as well. She became the “Goat Woman.” The press was obsessed with what it saw as the decline of the Old South as seen in the lives of Dana and Dockery–the shocking contrast between the grandeur of the Old South and what appeared to be a Gothic novel come to life. This obsession resulted in a tourist trade to go to Natchez to see the house and the odd couple who lived there. It should be no surprise that little attention was paid to Emily Burns, a black domestic. Jim Crow justice meant that she was assumed to be guilty.

This book is well-documented, with 20 pages of notes. It seems that the research must have been painstaking, as you include a great deal of description about the city of Natchez, its crumbling antebellum homes at that time–and, just 70 years after the Civil War had ended, the mindset of the descendants of those who had fought in the Civil War and those who had been enslaved. How did you approach the research for this material, and how long did it take?

The timeline of the research looks like it took me five years (2012-2017), but it’s important to note that as a professor of history, I am also teaching classes, grading papers, going to meetings, etc. So, I’d have to plan research trips to Jackson, Natchez, and even Baton Rouge–a week here and a week there. Fortunately, I had a sabbatical that allowed me to write full time beginning in the fall of 2015. I wrote the book in about seven months. It went through a few months of editing and then was submitted in 2016. It takes about a year after submission for a book to come out.

Please describe the run and filth that Dockery and Dana lived in–along with ducks, geese, chickens, cats, dogs, and of course, the goats–and explain how they actually profited off of their eccentric lifestyle.

I’d rather that people read the book for those descriptions. They profited off of their notoriety by selling tickets to tour the grounds. There was a second charge to enter the house, where Dick Dana played piano. The pair also went on a tour of towns in Mississippi and Louisiana and appeared on stage as the “Wild Man” and “Goat Woman” of Goat Castle.

The city of Natchez was not fond of the publicity brought on by the trial at that time, but it was a boon for tourism.

How did the city deal with this circus of a crime story invading it on a national scale?

It’s not clear how the city of Natchez dealt with it. Certainly, local restaurants benefited. People would also tour other houses while in Natchez. On the one hand, there was profit to be made. On the other, it had become an embarrassment. So, the best way to deal with it was not to talk about it publicly.

What can we learn today from this story of criminal injustice 85 years ago–as a state and as a nation?

What is evident in this story is that the double standard of justice that sent an innocent black woman to prison still exists. Octavia Dockery’s fingerprints were found inside of Merrill’s home, not Burns’. Yet Dockery got to go home. Also, 85 years late, it’s still true that the majority of women sent to prison are women of color, especially African-American and Hispanic women.

Do you have other writing projects in mind that you can share with us?

I’m still trying to figure that out. Goat Castle only came out in October and I’ve still got book events coming up. I’ll be back in Natchez in February for the Literary and Cinema Celebration, which will be focused on Southern Gothic. I’m also going to be in New Orleans in march for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. My guess is that my next project will include Mississippi, as all of my books have done.

Pioneering conservationist Fannye Cook was truly a Mississippi hero

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion Ledger Sunday print edition (November 27)

fannye cookFor many outdoors enthusiasts in Mississippi, Dorothy Shawhan’s book Fannye Cook might be described as one about the most influential person you never met.

The term “hero” is often overused, but in this case, Cook lives up to the label, as Shawan details.

Approximately 150,000 people (mostly children) annually stream through the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, says former director Libby Hartfield, who contributed to the book. And that is directly due to Cook, who founded it and served as its director until her retirement in 1958.

Of import to hunters, fisherfolk, birders, conservationists, and others, however, Cook was instrumental in creating what is now the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

Her impact goes even beyond that.

As Shawhan describes, Cook, a graduate of what is now Mississippi University for Women, began her lifelong study and promotion of Mississippi’s natural resources in 1926. The wildlife population in Mississippi—including its most popular game species—was threatened by lack of habitat, overhunting, and overfishing.

“The forest resources that had covered 95 percent of the state in 1800 were practically gone by 1930,” Shawan reports.

Cook, with the help of the federal Depression-era Works Progress Administration, conducted a comprehensive plant and animal survey in Mississippi that she designed. Traveling across the state speaking to local groups and schools, she spearheaded a successful effort for public education and scientific research of wildlife resources.

The results of her efforts were twofold:

  • After her pushing for seven years, the state Legislature approved creation of a state game and fish commission in 1932 to regulate and conserve natural resources;
  • To house the enormous data she amassed, she was instrumental in opening the state’s first natural science museum in 1939 for the survey’s “28,732 fish, reptiles, birds, plants, amphibians, and mammals collected.”

It was an incredible turnaround in the public’s appreciation and support for habitat that lives on today.

Subtitled “Mississippi’s Pioneering Conservationist,” the book delves into the obstacles that stood in Cook’s path both personal and professional, as a woman in a “man’s” field, as well as her achievements and friendships along the way.

It’s full of recognizable names, including author Eudora Welty, with whom she lived as a boarder in Welty’s Jackson home, and Aldo Leopold, considered by many the father of wildlife ecology in the United States, with whom she collaborated.

Cook serves as a role model not only for women, but for all who have a dream and are willing to work tirelessly to achieve it.

Cook’s work and memory live on with the museum, the state’s largest, that now houses more than 1 million scientific specimens, along with creation of the 2,600-acre Fannye Cook Natural Area in Rankin County soon slated to open to the public. It’s the brainchild of Wildlife Mississippi, which also helped underwrite this book.

Shawhan, a Delta State University professor, died during course of writing the book and the manuscript was completed by Marion Barnwell, professor emerita at Delta State, and Hartfield. It’s a fascinating account of a most extraordinary Mississippian.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at the Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books, and serves or has served on numerous state, regional and national boards involving wildlife conservation, forests, agriculture and food.

Marion Barnwell and Libby Hartfield will be at Lemuria to sign and read from Fanny Cooke on Sunday, December 3, at 11:30 a.m.

Author Q & A with Carter Dalton Lyon (Sanctuaries of Segregation)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 26)

A strategic program that was begun to awaken Jackson’s segregated white churches to the idea of opening their doors to their African-American Christian counterparts in the 1960s will be commemorated with several public events next weekend that will honor that struggle.

More than 50 years later, that effort has been documented in Carter Dalton Lyon’s Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign, published by University Press of Mississippi.

sanctuaries of segregationWhat began for Lyon as a doctoral dissertation while he was a history student at Ole Miss more than a decade ago eventually resulted in his debut book, which unfolds in meticulous detail why activists and students at Tougaloo College acted on what they believed was a necessary element in advancing their goal of racial integration in the capital city.

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Lyon now teaches and chairs the History Department at St. Mary’s Epsicopal School in Memphis. He and wife Sally Cassaday are the parents of two daughters.

Your new book, Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign closely examines a 10-month effort by Tougaloo College students and activists who set out to integrate what you called “the last sanctuaries for segregationists” in the city–white churches. Why was this an important goal of the civil rights movement in Jackson in the early 60s?

One thing that I found early in my research was that segregationists throughout the South had been worrying about the potential desegregation of their churches for many years and that organized groups of students had been testing the attendance policies of white churches as they were challenging other segregated spaces. They would, in effect, conduct a sit-in at lunch counters on Saturday and try to attend white churches on Sunday. This had been done in other cities in 1960, but not in Jackson until 1963.

The idea for these “kneel-ins” was to tug at the conscience of white Christians, especially those moderates who favored a more voluntary approach to desegregation or who didn’t really appreciate the immorality of segregation. Being barred from church would make visible the reality of racial discrimination in the house of God. Activists in Jackson in 1963 had a more specific reason as well: they had tried mass marches and sit-ins, but the local movement had fractured a bit, and there were those, like Rev. Ed King, who wanted to give the Jackson community another chance to shift course–and appealing to white Christians seemed like a logical approach.

Although the participants in this movement faced a great deal of resistance from congregants and church leaders, the effort slowly began to gain some ground with white ministers and members. What was the trigger that finally broke through the resistance?

For the churches that were “open” to black visitors during the campaign, it took a combination of ministerial and lay leadership to sustain that. Even if the minister had ordered the doors to be open or favored open doors, the extent to which they would in fact be open really had to do with logistics–who was at the door and who was organizing them. The minister really needed the backing of a majority of lay leaders to make this work.

For those who began to change or who opened the doors in the years after the campaign ended, it would be nice if I could say that i was because of a change of heart, but there’s really little evidence to that effect. The Jackson church visit campaign forced their regional or national denominational bodies to clarify the open-door policies of the denomination, and so these churches needed to consent to this, especially if they wanted to call a new pastor. Some church members didn’t and formed break-away churches and, in the case of the Methodists, formed a new denomination.

Ultimately, what did this movement accomplish?

The Jackson church visit campaign made the reality of racial discrimination visible in these sacred spaces and forced white church people to confront the essential question of these activists: was racial exclusion following the will of God? These visits sparked internal debates within congregations throughout the city and certainly led to turmoil and division in many churches. But I see the church visitors as exposing a fatal flaw in these churches. They had retreated into these sanctuaries of segregation, but their practices contradicted their faith and were in defiance of the stated beliefs and policies of their own denominations. As a result of this campaign, you see denominations moving to clarify their attendance policies and become more deliberate in examining segregation within their bodies.

You write that many ministers secretly agreed with the students and activists who attempted to join in worship services in their churches, but believed they could not share their feelings with their congregations for fear of losing their jobs and/or causing a split in the church. From your research, how did these ministers ultimately deal with their mixed feelings?

Each minister dealt with it differently and there really isn’t a general way of answering this, but I can say that all of the ministers who fit this description certainly battled with the feeling that they had been called by God to this particular church and they were determined to remain. Some had been at their churches for at least a decade and even when their lay boards voted to bar African-Americans, the real moment of truth came when black visitors were in fact blocked at the church doors. For those who held onto their positions as activists were being rejected outside, I see a real sense of exasperation on the part of these ministers, that their message, and the Gospel’s message of inclusion and brotherhood over the years, had not gotten through to their congregations.

As a Kentucky native, why did you decide to bring this topic to light about Jackson’s past now, and how is it relevant in today’s social, spiritual, and/or political climate?

Carter Dalton Lyon

Carter Dalton Lyon

This book has been germinating for a while, but when I began researching this, I frankly noticed a dearth of analysis on the white church response to the civil rights movement on a local level. In the last decade and a half, historians and theologians have been doing great work filling in that gap, and I hope my book adds to that body of scholarship. The great Mississippian Ida B. Wells once wrote that “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them,” and my hope is that this book helps in some of the truth-telling that is happening in Jackson.

Your research for this book is extensive–with 65 pages of notes and bibliography. How did you go about your research, and how long did it take to put this book together?

This book grew out of my thesis and dissertation work in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, so the bulk of the research was conducted during those six years, and I’ve spent the last six years of so refining and getting it into book form. I should say that it was very important to me to try to capture all sides of this struggle and to track down as many people who were a part of this effort as I could. I realized early on that there were folks who wanted to sweep this story under the rug or deny it outright, so I aimed to be as careful and extensive as I could in documenting this and getting the story right.

Although you mention several Catholic and Protestant houses of worship, much of the book is devoted to how the “closed door” policy was carried out by Methodists. Why was that?

In the early months of the campaign, the visitors cast a pretty wide net and attempted to attend churches from a variety of denominations: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Unitarian, Church of Christ, and Catholic. For those that routinely barred their entry, such as First Presbyterian and the Baptist churches, they reasoned that they would have little hope of cracking open those doors, so they began to focus more on the churches with regional or denominational bodies that they could use as a potential wedge against these churches.

Then about midway through the campaign, the police arrested three students outside the Capitol Street Methodist Church, and made a total of 40 arrests on subsequent Sundays, and that suddenly brought national attention on the problem of segregation within the Methodist Church ahead of the 1964 General Conference. Methodist ministers and, later, two bishops from across the country began joining students on their weekly visits for their own reasons, but certainly to expose a problem that they hoped (the conference) would solve.

Carter Dalton Lyon will appear at Lemuria to sign and read from Sanctuaries of Segregation on Thursday, November 30, at 5:00 p.m.

‘Goat Castle’ revisits Natchez murder

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 12)

In fiction, it’s not uncommon for an author to go back in time to solve a mystery, often with shocking results. Less common is for a nonfiction book to do the same, but with a searingly honest view that’s sadly revealing today.

Karen L. Cox does so with her book Goat Castle (University of North Carolina Press).

LogoAddressing the Aug. 4, 1932, murder of Natchez heiress Jennie Merrill at her antebellum home Glenburnie, Cox peels back the layers of sensationalism surrounding the case to reveal the hard truths of racism and Jim Crow justice of the time.

Subtitling the book “A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South,” Cox details the lurid aspects of the case that transfixed the nation with its depiction of a South in ruins and the remnants of Southern aristocracy in squalor in the decades following the Civil War.

The headlines of the time focused on Merrill, called an aging recluse, allegedly killed by a black man and her black housekeeper, with her white neighbors as possible accomplices.

The neighbors lived in a falling down mansion they shared with goats and other livestock wandering the halls (hence, the name “Goat Castle”).

“Murder, aristocracy, recluses, and goats,” Cox notes, “these were the subjects more likely to be found in a Southern Gothic novel, and in fact journalists immediately drew parallels to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and later, William Faulkner’s novels about the social decay of old Southern families.”

It was the type of news story that kept Depression-era Americans grossly entertained.

But Cox dives deeper than the headlines, through excellent historical and journalistic investigation, to bring to light a horrible injustice.

Whereas, Merrill’s white neighbors, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery (she, the daughter of a Confederate general; he, of a family of a famous authors and journalists) got off scot-free, the two black suspects were either killed or imprisoned.

Cox details the lives of Merrill and her alleged paramour and cousin, Duncan Minor, who discovered her body. And she recounts the often bitter and ongoing disputes of the aristocratic Merrill with Dana, called the “Wild Man” who was known to wear only a burlap sack while living in the trees on his property, and Dockery, called the “Goat Woman,” who was glib, clever, and vengeful, albeit living hand to mouth.

The new knowledge of the case is Cox’s painstaking research into the lives of the two black suspects, Lawrence Williams, the alleged triggerman who was gunned down in Arkansas while making his way home to Chicago, and Emily Burns, who received a life sentence at the notorious Parchman Prison farm at Camp 13–the Women’s Camp.

Burns’ sentence was indefinitely suspended after eight years because even in the Jim Crow South that saw black men imprisoned or killed for allegedly improperly looking at a white woman, Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr. said he was “thoroughly convinced of (her) innocence” and that she was convicted solely upon “circumstantial evidence.”

As Cox details, Burns’ treatment was based on a coerced “confession” and included the belief that unless someone was held accountable for the crime in a court of law, white citizens might have taken matters into their own hands and she might be lynched.

“Emily was presumed guilty because of her race.”

Filled with astonishing photographs and copious notes, Goat Castle is sure to invite attention anew to an old crime in the Bluff City and reinvigorate current debates about racial justice.

Jim Ewing, a former Clarion-Ledger writer and editor, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Karen L. Cox will appear Wednesday, November 15 for the History is Lunch series at the Old Capitol Museum at 12:00 p.m. She will appear at Lemuria at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday to sign and discuss her book, Goat Castle.

Author Q & A with Stanley Nelson

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 23)

As the editor of his hometown’s weekly newspaper–the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La.–Stanley Nelson didn’t set out to become a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting. He didn’t plan on his investigative journalism becoming the basis of a blockbuster fictional trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Greg Iles. And he never dreamed his efforts would build a crusade for justice that would draw dozens of willing supporters from around the country.

devils walkingBut it was Nelson’s tough investigative reporting that led to his book, Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s (LSU Press), in which he describes not only the difficulties of pursuing decades-old cold cases of racial injustice, but the remarkable successes that he and his collaborators were able to achieve–even when the FBI could not.

As a testament to Nelson’s tenacity and courage to take on this topic, Iles dedicated Natchez Burning, the first installment of his fictional trilogy, to the Ferriday reporter who, with the help of a large team, stopped at nothing to find answers to so many questions that had lingered for 50 years. Inspired by Nelson’s work, Iles used pieces of the massive puzzle that was unraveled as a basis for some plot material for his trilogy that included The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood. In fact, it was Iles who wrote the forward to Nelson’s book, offering high praise for the journalist’s accomplishments.

At the heart of Nelson’s book is the story of one man–Frank Morris of Ferriday–whose tragic fiery death at the hands of the notorious Klan cell known as the Silver Dollar Group in 1964 would eventually lead to further investigations, and, in one case, even a grand jury hearing.

From his first awareness of the Morris case in 2007, prompted by the FBI’s initiative to reopen Civil Rights-era cold cases, Nelson would write nearly 200 news stories about the murder, over a seven-year time period. In addition to the Sentinel in Ferriday, his award-winning investigative writing would appear in the New York TimesWashington PostLos Angeles Times, and on CNN and National Public Radio.

A discussion about the events in both Iles’ and Nelson’s books will be led by Clarion-Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell at the Mississippi Book Festival on Aug. 19.  The event will begin at 1:30 p.m. in the Galloway United Methodist Church sanctuary in Jackson.

ms book fest

Devils Walking, a detailed examination of Klan murders committed by the Silver Dollar Group in Mississippi and Louisiana during the 1960s, revolves around the story of the brutal killing of Frank Morris in Ferriday, La. in December 1964. As a reporter for Ferriday’s newspaper, the Concordia Sentinel, what sparked your interest in this case in 2007?

Frank Morris in front of his shoe shop (wearing visor, near center)

Frank Morris in front of his shoe shop (wearing visor, near center)

In late February 2007, the FBI and Justice Department announced they were taking a second look at approximately 100 unsolved civil rights-era murders. Frank Morris’ name was on the list. Morris died from burns he received when Klansmen torched his Ferriday shoe shop and deliberately incinerated him as well.

I initially wrote a couple of stories. Then I got a phone call from Frank Morris’ granddaughter, Rosa Williams. She thanked me for the coverage and said that she had learned more about her grandfather’s death in the first article than she had in the previous decades. Of all of the questions she had about the murder, the biggest was “Why?”

When I was young, I witnessed the aftermath of a horrible traffic accident in which a young family, including a 7-year-old girl, died in flames. Considering that and the murder of Frank Morris, I wondered how someone could purposely set a human being on fire? It was a question that would not go away. I talked to the Sentinel‘s publishers. They agreed that we should try to find out what happened.

Explain how and why this case grew into such a large investigation–with the help of, among others, 25 students at the Syracuse University School of Law–in such a short time.

Race is a polarizing topic. So, could I get readers to open their minds and hearts to the Morris story? I figured that if they got to know Frank Morris, they would care about him. Then justice would seem important. So, week after week we tried to bring Frank Morris back to life so that our readers would see him as a living, breathing human being–not a ghost from the past.

A lot of people lent me a hand–some included Syracuse University College of Law professors Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson; the Center for Investigative Reporting; the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication; Teach for America; and summer interns from universities in the South. Canadian filmmaker David Ridgen was a constant help. But nothing would have happened without the Sentinel’s publishers–Lesley Hanna Capdepon and Sam Hanna Jr.–who supported the work through thick and thin.

By 2007, as the FBI, the Department of Justice and a contingent of government investigators were becoming involved with this case, there was urgency to move the investigation forward. Why was this?

In the 1960s, dangerous Klansmen at the height of their power menaced anyone who questioned the terror they engendered. But by the 2000s, those men were dead or dying. The new enemy to justice became “time.” Witnesses were dying, too. So, urgency was mandated.

Explain the assistance that Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, was able to lend to your own investigation of Klan murders in Mississippi.

Jerry is considered a legend in the world of cold case investigations. I often seek his advice and he always helps.

When did Louisiana State University get on board to join the investigation, and what contributions did they make?

Jay Shelledy of the LSU Manship School invited me to talk to his journalism students. Later, then dean of the Manship School Jack Hamilton asked, “How can we help you?” I answered that I needed FBI Klan files from the National Archives.

Since then, Jay and his students have amassed tens of thousands of pages of FBI documents, approaching 200,000 pages, all now on line on their website (http://lsucoldcaseproject.com/). Their amazing work continues with new students every year and the full support of Dean Jerry Ceppos. Former Interim Dean Ralph Izard was fully behind the project as well.

In the end, you have a theory of who was actually responsible for Frank Morris’s murder–but has it been proven, or can it be proven?

A Concordia Parish deputy, Frank DeLaughter, wanted Morris’ shop burned following a verbal confrontation with him. DeLaughter considered Morris an uppity black man and he wasn’t going to stand for that.

FBI agents in the field were convinced DeLaughter was the mastermind of the arson. A retired agent recently deceased–John Pfeifer–spent 10 years in Concordia Parish back then. Pfeifer said the one thing FBI agents couldn’t do in the 1960s was directly link DeLaughter to the arson. Fortunately, we were able to do that in 2010.

Relatives of admitted Klansman Arthur Leonard Spencer of Rayville, La., including his son, said Spencer had discussed his involvement in the Ferriday arson through the years. They also said a family friend–Coonie Poissot–told them he was involved as well.

Described by the FBI as a drifter, Klansman, thug, and speed addict, Poissot revealed to agents in 1967 that he was with DeLaughter the night before the arson and that as they passed the shoe shop in DeLaughter’s patrol car, the deputy said he planned to teach Morris a lesson. The following night, Morris watched his two attackers as they torched the building. He didn’t know them.

DeLaughter and Poissot died in the 1990s. Following our story on Spencer in January 2011, three separate Concordia Parish grand juries heard from witnesses in the case, but took no action and issued no reports. After Spencer died in 2013, the Justice Department said it didn’t believe Spencer had been involved. Yet the U.S. Attorney’s office in Louisiana considered him a prime suspect.

You have also investigated the cold case deaths of other African Americans at the hands of the Silver Dollar Group, described as the most secretive and dangerous in the nation at the time. What has driven you to pursue these injustices in such depth?  How many stories did you ultimately write?

I’ve written approximately 200 stories. Like Frank Morris, all of these cases are compelling. The victims are ordinary folks who have suffered extraordinary pain.

Additionally, discovering the inner workings of the Silver Dollar Group was a fascinating journey. These men, including Frank DeLaughter, were incredibly successful terrorists for two reasons. One, in small numbers, typically three or four men, they committed these crimes. Two, they kept their mouths shut.

The group’s leader–Red Glover–who may have acted alone in the 1967 bombing of NAACP Treasurer Wharlest Jackson in Natchez, was interviewed several times by FBI agents after Jackson’s murder. On one occasion, Glover told the agents he hoped they caught the murderer because, according to Glover, the killer obviously was “a maniac.”

Natchez author Greg Iles’ blockbuster trilogy of Natchez BurningThe Bone Tree, and Mississippi Blood was based on you and your work to solve these cold cases. Please comment on the significance of that honor.

Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson

In 2013 (Greg) handed me a galley of Natchez Burning. He signed the title page: “To Stanley Nelson: The Real Henry Sexton.” I’ll never forget it. Greg was born with a gift for writing, and he continues to become better at it. But, in my opinion, his genius is his research.

You were named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting in 2011, as a result of your investigation of these cases. How has that impacted you personally and professionally?

It was totally unexpected. I never thought the Sentinel would emerge at the top of the list against stories such as WikiLeaks and the BP Oil Spill. It also means that the stories of Frank Morris and the other victims may live on.

Is there anything else you’d like to include?       

The book covers the emergence of the Silver Dollar Group (SDG) from the three traditional Klans. The SDG’s goal was simple–go underground and fight integration with deadly force. Red Glover hand-picked the members and as a symbol of unity gave many a silver dollar minted in the year of the Klansman’s birth. Southwest Mississippi and Concordia Parish, Louisiana, (across the river from Natchez) had seen at least four SDG murders by July 1964, three occurring before the Neshoba murders and the fourth occurring just days afterward. Eight SDG murders are covered in the book as well as the killing of Johnny Queen in 1965 in Fayette.

Additionally, the book questions the FBI and Justice Department’s new probes into the murders. Since the initiative was announced in February 2007, only one re-opened case moved forward–the grand jury probe into the Frank Morris arson. For the most part, the government’s initiative was a failure and we discuss why.

‘Civil Rights, Culture Wars’ shows how textbook fight mirrors battle of Mississippi legacy

By Jere Nash. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 9).

civil rights culture warsNot until 1980 were Mississippi high schools allowed to use a textbook that accurately and dispassionately covered the entire history of the state, complete with the horrors of slavery, the motives behind the Civil War, the value of Reconstruction, and the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi Textbook (University of North Carolina Press) by University of Mississippi historian Charles Eagles explains how it happened.

Several years ago, the University of North Carolina Press published The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss, the authoritative account by Eagles of the one event in the 1960s that defined Mississippi for the rest of the nation.

The disastrous response of whites in our state to the demand for civil and voting rights was prompted in part by 80 years of school textbooks that marginalized black men and women and distorted black history.

Eagles is unsparing in his descriptions of those earlier textbooks: one explained that “the life of a slave [was] pleasant,” while another textbook defended the role of the Ku Klux Klan, while yet another applauded the 1890 Constitutional Convention in seeking to “insure control of the state by the white man.” After eight decades of indoctrination of generations of white Mississippians with historical myths, it is not hard to see how that helped to fuel the fire of massive resistance.

MississippiConflictandChangeWhich brings us to James Loewen and Charles Sallis. In the 1970s, Loewen, a professor at Tougaloo College, and Sallis, a professor at Millsaps College, began to work together on a new kind of textbook, called Mississippi: Conflict and Change, that, as Eagles writes, “argued that conflict produces change, and [that] embraced controversial subjects related to race and class, examined unpleasant subjects such as economic depressions and violence, and included subjects neglected by other books–blacks, women, workers, and the arts.” Eagles takes us through how the book was researched, written and ultimately published in 1974.

Getting the book published, though, didn’t automatically mean it would show up in high schools. In Mississippi, then as now, a state board approves the textbooks for classroom use. And in November 1974, the board said no to Conflict and Change. With access to rich primary material, Eagles gives us a perceptive behind-the-scenes accounting of why that decision was made.

But the story doesn’t end there. Loewen, Sallis, and Eagles are just getting warmed up. The authors filed a historic lawsuit, asking a federal judge to force the state to accept their textbook, and Eagles delivers this development with backroom negotiations, trial testimony and lucid analysis. The litigation took six long years and was finally resolved on April 2, 1980, when Judge Orman Smith ordered the board to place Conflict and Change on the approved list.

Eagles captures the untenable position of the state in one short exchange between the judge and John Turnipseed, a teacher who rated the book unfavorably. After objecting to a photograph of a lynching because it would cause “harsh feelings in the classroom,” Turnipseed was asked by Judge Smith, “But this happened, didn’t it? Didn’t Mississippians have more lynchings than any other state?” Turnipseed testified, “Well, yes. But that all happened so long ago. Why dwell on it now?” To which the exasperated judge responded: “Well, it is a history book!”

As with his book on Meredith and Ole Miss, Eagles’ writing is marked by three qualities that I like. One, he builds the narrative around primary sources. He interviews people, he digs through old file boxes, and finds the records that tell the truth.

Two, he provides context. He not only sets the state for the story, he give us succinct biographical information on the players. The journey of Conflict and Change involved lawyers, historians, journalists, activists, including Ernst Borinski, Frank Parker, Mel Leventhal, Margaret Walker Alexander, Fred Banks, Clarice Campbell, Duncan Gray Jr., Jeanne Middleton, David Sansing, and John Bettersworth.

Third, Eagles doesn’t hesitate to give his opinion. I agreed with some, other I didn’t, but I like authors with opinions; it makes me stop and think.

I’ll close this review with an observation on the import of Conflict and Change by the incomparable Frank Parker, one of the lawyers for Loewen and Sallis: “Desegregation of the public schools in the South is now protected even more by a constitutional prohibition against maintaining racial segregation in the curriculum and in textbooks.”

Jere Nash is the co-author of Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008, Mississippi Fried Politics, Tall Tales from the Backroom, and America’s Great Storm: Leading Through Hurricane Katrina.

Endurance in the Delta: ‘Trials of the Earth’ by Mary Mann Hamilton

unnamed-6Mary Mann Hamilton was a remarkable women who was encouraged to write down her life as a female pioneer. Hamilton was born in 1866 and passed away in 1936. It was later in her life that she began to write down her experiences of “taming the American South”– she writes about living through floods, fires, tornadoes, and her husband’s drinking. An early draft of Trials of the Earth was submitted to a writers’ competition sponsored by Little, Brown in 1933, but, unfortunately, it was not chosen at the time. Now, eighty-three years later, Mary Mann Hamilton’s book is the only known first-hand account of a woman pioneering her way through the South.

Hamilton is a fierce woman that I found absolutely fascinating.
She starts her book off with the marriage to her husband, Frank, whom she only marries because he has promised to care for her younger siblings. She doesn’t know much about Frank, a mysterious Englishman, which is shown throughout the book, but they seem to get along well. Together, they start to run a logging camp where Hamilton alone cooks, morning and night, for an average of 70 men working for her husband. She does this while also raising her children, some of whom do not make it through the perils of pioneer life.

Hamilton at the logging camp

Hamilton at the logging camp

Hamilton spends the majority of her book writing about her time in the Mississippi Delta’s woods and marshlands, as well as the role she plays in clearing a path for future cotton farmers. Throughout this time in her life, she encounters a flood that completely washes away her home and the family’s logging camp, buries children, and deals with her husband’s secretive life and drinking problem.

Hamilton in her later years

Hamilton in her later years

As it says on the dust jacket: “The extreme hard work and tragedy Hamilton faced are eclipsed only by her emotional and physical strength; her unwavering faith in her husband… and her tenacious sense of adventure.”

For what small amount of education Hamilton had during her life, she has created a beautifully written book. I sat down to read ten pages before bed one night and ended up reading seventy. I couldn’t put it down.

Nonfiction paperback picks for summer 2016

It’s that time of year. Spring is giving way to summer, school is letting out, and people are hitting the highway for vacations. It’s a perfect time to squeeze in some time for the reading that you’ve been meaning to do. I would like to recommend some nonfiction books, all out in paperback, that I think will be just the thing. They’re lightweight for packing, affordable, and hold up a lot better than your average e-reader when exposed to sand and water. So, with that in mind, let’s get to the recommendations…

CATEGORY 1: NEW IN PAPERBACK, BREEZY READING

[Both of these books were released in hardcover just last year, and they are both easy to read (and finish) books about cultural phenomena.]

Jacket (5)So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Ronson is the fey-voiced Welshman you might have heard on This American Life. He is also the author of The Pyschopath Test, among other books. Here he examines the concept of public shaming, specifically in the form of mass Twitter vigilantism. Whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” probably wasn’t anticipating the mass-volume payload delivery system that social media provides. Ronson thoughtfully examines the implications of a justice system that started with good intentions but is often used mercilessly against private citizens with momentary lapses of good judgment. Just keep reading past the section about Jonah Lehrer, his first case study (and not his most sympathetic).

Jacket (6)The Great Beanie Baby Bubble by Zac Bissonnette

Man, the 90s were a weird time, filled with unwarranted optimism and unchecked consumerism. The story revolves on its axis of Ty Warner, the founder and CEO of the company that produced the Beanie Babies, a pretty great toy maligned in our memory by the mania that accompanied our desire to “collect them all.” The whole tale is outrageous and engaging from start to finish and a valuable reminder of the foibles of human nature.

CATEGORY 2: PAST YEAR GEMS, CRASH COURSES

[Both of these books are not quite new in paperback and are a little longer (in part because they are augmented by fascinating footnotes), but they are absorbing narrative reads to keep your mind sharp over the summer.]

Jacket (7)Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist

I must admit, I have always been in love with New Orleans. And what a fantastic subtitle this book has—if that doesn’t get you interested in history, what will? This account of New Orleans from the 1890s to 1920 weaves together the narratives of red-light district “mayor” Tom Anderson, conflicted brothel madam Josie Arlington, coronet player and jazz progenitor Buddy Bolden, a mysterious ax murderer, and many more. It explains how myth and reality, culture and class divide, hospitality and violence, have always existed in the city that care ostensibly forgot. It was only by coincidence that the beating heart of this tale, the red-light district Storyville, got its name from one subsequently-embarrassed city councilman (named Sidney Story) who was just trying to segregate sin from the more respectable parts of the city. But, trust me, after reading this whole book, you could wonder how the whole city isn’t called that.

Jacket (8)The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean

I’m not sure where you have to be in your chemistry education to be in the proper range between being able to understand it and also learning new things, but if you remember chemistry okay from high school, you should be fine. From his charming first anecdote about his mother spearing mercury droplets from broken thermometers to blowing my mind with how elements are made by stars in a process called stellar nucleosynthesis, this is a clear, exciting, and engaging look at the fundamental stuff the universe is made of that doesn’t forget to give things a human touch. Ask for a second bookmark to keep a place for the many wonderful footnotes you’ll be referring to constantly.

CATEGORY 3: THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION

Jacket (9)Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant

If you are reading a book blog from an independent book store in Jackson, Mississippi, I can only imagine that you might have heard of this book already. If you haven’t investigated this local literary phenomenon for yourself, I highly recommend that you do. Grant takes a probing, often hilarious, always empathetic, occasionally baffled look at life in the Mississippi delta. It’s got hunting, blues, and blood feuds mixed in with serious examinations of race, class, prisons, and education. It’s not so much that Grant discovers what native Mississippians don’t already know about our state; it’s how he elucidates the problems with a critical eye while still finding plenty of causes for celebration. It’s bound to be a Southern classic for a long time to come, and now is as good a time as any to read all about it for yourself.

“The Outlaw Years” by Robert M. Coates

According to Welty’s biographer Suzanne Marrs, it was a member of the Night-Blooming Cereus Club –Welty’s close group of friends who gathered to witness the night-blooming flower and enjoy one another’s company—who suggested that Welty read “The Outlaw Years” by Robert M. Coates. Welty was so affected by Coates’s harrowing stories of the Natchez Trace that she was inspired to write “The Wide Net” and “The Robber Bridegroom.”

outlaw years BKCL FE 11.15“The Outlaw Years” is a riveting read, the story of the murderous land pirates of the Natchez Trace. Originally a maze of animal migration routes later adapted for use by Native Americans, the Trace was eventually adopted by white traders and settlers migrating South. Thieves and murderers saw this population as an easy target.

Even today, Coates brings the history of the Natchez Trace land prates to life. While “Outlaw Years” may not be the most accurate history of the Trace, Coates reveals the mood and atmosphere of the 1800s. Many versions of the blood-thirsty Harpe brothers existed and Coates simply chose descriptions which made sense to him. In his defense, Coates rescued many old histories and travelogues from complete obscurity by retelling the stories of the Natchez Trace land pirates.

outlaw years FE woodcutCoates’ list of sources are as equally intriguing as the entire book: Fulkerson’s “Early Days in Mississippi” (1885) is cited as an “excellent book of gossip”; “Ashe’s Travels in America” (1808) is noted as a “very interesting chronicle of an astonished Englishman, on a trip down to the Mississippi”; and Rothert’s “The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock” (1924) is credited as a major source for the book.

outlaw years FE 11.15Any Mississippi bookcase would not be complete without “The Outlaw Years.” First editions are embellished with illustrations and beautiful maps on the end papers. For collectors, note that there is a book club edition also published in 1930 through the Literary Guild of America. The true first edition is published in 1930 by the Macaulay Company. However, both of these editions are desirable as “The Outlaw Years” is out of print today.

Written by Lisa Newman, Original to The Clarion-Ledger. 

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