By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Mark Potok, spokesman for the center in Montgomery, says that determining how many blacks were murdered by whites over the years is impossible because nobody talked. But, he says, no one denies the number of murders is high.
"I've heard it said that down South, when Gideon returns and blows his trumpet, so many bodies will rise from the rivers of the South that you'll be able to walk from one side to the other," Potok says. "That may be slightly overstating the case, but there is no question that there are many, many, many black people who were murdered in the South and whose stories will never be known."
That's what's so unusual about Harrison Ocie Jones, Potok says. It isn't that he may have been murdered by whites who never faced charges or were even questioned. That happened all the time. What's far less common is that anyone has taken an interest in his story. Jones was just a sharecropper who could no more afford "a loaf of bread for his family" than his family could afford a tombstone, one Ladonia resident says. He wasn't part of the kind of high-profile incident that would generate wide interest such as the deaths depicted in the film Mississippi Burning. No one in his family even has a photograph of Jones.
Nor is Jones' death the kind of thing that typically would have fueled one of the very few modern-day investigations of white crimes against blacks in the South's recent past. Victims' families generally just put it behind them and try to forget, and any perpetrators left alive aren't likely to come forward and face jail.
"My guess is that for many of the families, this is far enough in the past that they don't particularly see any utility in pursuing it or have much hope that anything would happen anyway," Potok says. "And, to count on people with some sort of conscience pangs coming forward is a little bit utopian. Obviously, it happens from time to time, but I think most people would rather not tell and avoid jail than ease their conscience and spend the rest of their life behind prison walls."
Parsons waits in the hallway inside the Fannin County Courthouse in Bonham, a place so outdated it would be in black and white if it were televised. It's taken Parsons 50 years to get this far. In all that time, he's not talked to the younger Jones or any other member of the Jones family, and they are not what drew him here, at least not directly. Standing in the hall with a manila folder containing copies of his 4-year-old newspaper commentary in one hand, the fit but graying Parsons is driven by guilt, he says. Guilt and a yearning for closure. Parsons contacted the FBI but couldn't get them interested. So he wrote letters to Myles Porter, Fannin County's district attorney. On this day, Parsons expects to get bureaucratic double talk. He says Porter's secretary made it difficult to set up an appointment because she could never seem to say for sure when Porter would be available. Now, the long wait in the hall seems to confirm his suspicions that he'll be put off again.
After Parsons paces the hall for about 20 minutes, the elusive, boyish 32-year-old district attorney finally appears. Porter is busy--he's working on three capital murder cases, an anomaly in this rural county--but he's not disagreeable. He escorts Parsons into a modest, worn office just beyond the front counter and the ancient-looking wooden mailbox cubbies.
Porter knows about the story from Parsons' letter. He doesn't put Parsons off at all. Porter says in an enthusiastic and sincere way that he's quite interested in the case and that he's already talked to the sheriff about it. Ladonia, he explains, is "kind of off the beaten path" and has no police force. A sheriff's deputy will need to be assigned to the case to find out if anyone in the area has any recollection. With the family's permission, Jones' remains need to be exhumed and inspected, he says.
"We need his body dug up first," he says. "It might not prove anything...There might not be much left, but if we can find him and the family consents to digging him up, that's where we start."
Even if the pauper's grave can be located, the remains may not show anything. But, Porter agrees, broken bones or a cracked skull would certainly lend credence to the story that everyone seems to tell. The meeting doesn't last long. Parsons has what he came for, and his spirits are lifted. The truth may not be far away.
A Fannin County sheriff's deputy is assigned to the case, but nobody from Fannin County has contacted Harrison Wendell Jones yet.
Jones' remains lie in Pleasant Grove Cemetery, a couple of miles outside Ladonia. It's cold at the cemetery on this early morning, when Charles Doyle, an ancient, lanky caretaker, ambles among markers in the cemetery's "colored" section. The white dead are buried on the other side of a chainlink fence a dozen yards away. If embalmed properly by the funeral home and if the 50-year-old corpse can be found, it should be in pretty good shape, one archaeologist says. The caretaker also knows about Jones and, when asked, immediately relates the same story about the killing. But with white clouds of breath, he says he's not sure he can find the grave so fast. A wooden marker would have long rotted away. There's a "Howard Jones," and Harrison is probably buried nearby, but Doyle says he'll need to talk to some real old-timers to be sure.